Hot Discussions on Selling Great Art in Museums

Museums, universities, churches, hospitals, and corporations are selling some or all of their art collections to bring in much-needed cash to make up for dramatic losses in their investment portfolios, declining sales of consumer goods, rising costs, and decreased contributions. In recent weeks, Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, announced it would close the Rose Art Museum and sell the museum’s art collection; and the National Academy Museum sold several major 19th-century paintings as an alternative to selling its building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. As a result of taking actions it knew would provoke museum professionals, the National Academy resigned its membership in the Association of Art Museum Directors. The Academy was later censured by the American Association of Museums.

The debate about whether non-profit institutions should “deaccession” artwork from their collections has been going on for decades. For example, years ago the National Academy sold a painting to the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA), in Ohio, that Thomas Eakins had given the Academy to fulfill his obligation for membership. The CMA subsequently sold the painting, titled The Wrestlers, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Questions were raised about the National Academy’s right to require a donation from an artist and then sell that painting, but the two sales of The Wrestlers were acceptable to museum professionals because the profits were used to either maintain or refine public art collections, not to raise money for operations.

As the current recession deepens, more and more institutions are questioning whether the art on their walls is more important to their core mission than providing education, religious services, or health care and salaries for their employees. Like most artists, my initial reaction to this latest round of discussions was to point out that great art should be respected for its potential to educate, heal, inspire, and enlighten; and that art shouldn’t be thought of as just a financial asset to be bought and sold like stocks and real estate. Furthermore, I wondered if the institutions selling their treasures had a moral obligation to respect the artists and collectors who donated the artwork for the express purpose of enriching the lives of students, patients, parishioners, or visitors.

However, as a citizen and taxpayer, I have to ask myself what decision I would make if faced with a choice between selling a painting or closing a school. One would like to think there are reasonable alternatives, but in these tough times it’s increasingly difficult to find them.

I’d like to know how you might respond if faced with these tough choices, either as an artist who donated artwork for public education, enjoyment, and preservation; or as a board member faced with rising costs and dwindling resources.

M. Stephen Doherty

PS: The responses to my recent blog about artists’ studios have been very helpful in planning our special issue, so I taped the following short video.


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Steven Doherty Blog
M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

5 thoughts on “Hot Discussions on Selling Great Art in Museums

  1. I must say, I am so proud to be an artist, especially in this day and time. I feel so honored to be in a profession where the works of the greatest artists are so appreciated that monitarily their value greatly increases as time passes. Look what’s happening. In a time where our economy is crumbling around us, the greatest of art is a strong hold, literally saving valuable establishments.

    By all means, if by selling a work that I have donated, helps to save something as great as a church, school, museum or hosptial, I must say, what could give me greater satisifaction than to know that I contributed to saving that establishment.

    Yes, I feel very saddened and am deeply concerned that the world ecomony has come to this, but if I can help save the situation with my work, that would be one of the best feelings ever for me to know I could make a difference.

  2. As a parent of three children that have attended public school. Also having been an art teacher in the school district. I am quite perplexed as to the waste in our state educational system.

    We have come to a point where tightening our belts is important all the way around. Would one week less of the school year matter in the long run? Would one year of no testing really cause a traumatic dent in our students lives? Would turning off the air conditioning or heat when the doors are left wide open cause such discomfort. Let’s also ask parents to provide supplies for a change, instead of the latest Happy Meal. We are a nation of riches, and there is no need to be moaning about losing instruction, when there are perfectly good ways to cut expenses.

    We have become a lazy society and our forefathers would be extremely sad to see the hands out for freebies.

  3. Whether we like it or not, art is seen by many as a commodity in our society. My main grievance is that once sold to a private collector, future generations may be denied the benefits derived from viewing the original. Unlike other art forms (music, literature) only the original painting relays the mood of the artist in it’s pure form.

    Selling off collections is still another sad by-product of our economic times.

  4. Do not most non-profit organizations have “deaccession” guidelines in place?

    It seems unrealistic and an unreasonable requirement for a non-profit to be obligated to keep forever any piece of art.

    In life we all face problems and have to make unpopular decisions.

    Survivability is paramount.

    One can always try to rebuild an art collection.
    And one could choose to move a built art collection to a more economical building.

    Dolly Madison could have tried to save the White House by throwing water on the fire, instead she made the choice to save the painting of President George Washington.

    Maybe in this tough time a review of
    Rudyard Kipling’s “IF” is in order.