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March 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1416

Drawing the line

Although the immediate impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the world’s museums and art galleries is obvious – lockdown closures, the collapse of revenue streams and large-scale redundancies, especially among commercial and other support staff – the strategies that institutions will have to develop to deal with the longterm consequences of these events remain to be worked out in detail. At the moment, although vaccination programmes are now well under way in many countries, it is not known when the pandemic will be over, and many institutions have been given breathing space by one-off grants or other forms of government support for the arts, including such initiatives as the $75 million supplemental funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States in 2020 and the mixture of loans and grants that makes up the United Kingdom’s £1.57 billion recovery package for the arts, announced in July last year. In addition, museums and galleries have benefited from job retention and wage subsidy schemes. Those instituted as a result of the pandemic have time limits – the United Kingdom’s furlough scheme is currently scheduled to end in April this year. Not until the summer will it be possible to begin to assess what normality is going to look like for museums and galleries over the next few years. However, recent events in both the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that changes that go beyond adaptation to new circumstances by seeking to make major changes in the way a museum operates are likely to meet with strong opposition.

In the United States the focus of controversy has been the thorny issue of deaccessioning. Most institutions accept the policy governing the sale of works of art from permanent collections set out by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD): deaccessioning is permissible but only if it is done ‘to refine and improve the quality and appropriateness of the collections, the better to serve the museum’s mission’. In April last year, in response to the pandemic, the AAMD announced that it would countenance a temporary relaxation of this rule to allow institutions to use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art ‘to support the direct care of the museum’s collection’.(1) It added firmly that ‘this temporary approach is not intended to incentivize deaccessioning or the sale of art, only to provide additional flexibility on the use of the proceeds from art that may be sold. AAMD’s long-standing principle that the proceeds from deaccessioned art may not be used for general operating expenses remains in place’. It may be evidence of impatience with the established guidelines that so many museums seem to have paused only to read the first part of the statement before speedily consigning works to the salerooms.

In October last year the Brooklyn Museum sold nine old-master paintings at Christie’s for a total of $5.4 million, which included $4.2 million for Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder. They were followed almost immediately by a group of Impressionist and Modern works, including Claude Monet’s Les îles à Port-Villez (1897) and Joan Miró’s Couple amoureux dans la nuit (1966), which achieved $20 million at Sotheby’s. The museum took advantage of the relaxed AAMD guidelines to invest part of the proceeds in care for the collection, including new storage facilities. At almost exactly the same time, however, the Baltimore Museum of Art was forced to back down from a sale of three paintings from its collection, by Andy Warhol, Brice Marden and Clyfford Still, expected to yield $65 million. It had been announced that the sale was intended in part to provide an endowment for collection care that would permit increased wages for staff. At Baltimore opposition to the sale – which included public criticism by a former director and the resignation of a former chair of trustees from his honorary trusteeship – was motivated by a number of reasons: the high profile of the works nominated for sale, opposition in some quarters to the museum’s existing policy of deacessioning to provide funds for the acquisition of works by female and Black artists and most of all by the feeling that given that the museum is in a healthy financial,position – it has made no layoffs and furloughed no staff – it was exploiting the AAMD’s temporary position to make a major deaccession that was not primarily motivated by ‘the direct care of the museum’s collection’. Despite Baltimore’s defeat, last month it was revealed that the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, had begun discussions about the possibility of deacessioning that would take advantage of the revised AAMD guidelines, news that received a withering reception on Instagram from a former director of the museum, Thomas P. Campbell: ‘the danger is that deaccessioning for operating costs will become the norm, especially if leading museums like the Met follow suit. Deaccessioning will be like crack cocaine to the addict – a rapid hit, that becomes a dependency’.

In the United Kingdom, by contrast, there has always been a strong prejudice against deaccessioning. This attitude has so far not been affected by the pandemic, with the exception of a suggestion floated last autumn, apparently by some Royal Academicians, that the Royal Academy of Arts might sell Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo to fund salaries, given that it was making substantial redundancies – an idea that was immediately quashed by the Academy’s President, Rebecca Salter. The most controversial response to the pandemic yet made by any museum in the United Kingdom was the startling news in January that the Wallace Collection, London, had initiated consultation about the permanent closure of its library and archive. According to internal sources, the move was designed not just to save costs – two permanent posts would have been abolished – but also to free up the space occupied by the library, potentially for conversion into a café. Nobody doubts that the Wallace, in common with most museums, is facing severe financial difficulties that necessitate both cuts and a focus on increasing revenue, but the loss of a major research library and an archive that is of great importance to the study of art and collecting in many specialist areas would have been far too high a price to pay. The consultation generated overwhelming opposition both inside and outside the museum – including a petition signed by 28,500 people – and so it was not greatly surprising that the director and trustees announced in February that they would not be going ahead with the closure. The moral of these stories appears to be be that despite the devastating impact of the pandemic on museums, a response that threatens fundamental aspects of their purpose, such as the maintenance of collections or commitment to scholarship, will not be tolerated.

1. Press release, Association of Art Museum Directors, ‘AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis’,15th April 2020,, accessed 16th February 2021.