The Agony of Deaccessioning

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Paintings line the basement storage space at The Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has graded its entire collection to help determine what art it may want to sell or transfer to another institution. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields; Lyndon French for The New York Times.

This article has useful and graphic information about how and why so many art museums display so little of their collections. At first blush there is ample fodder for irony for persons possessed of the notion that art’s first purpose is to be looked at. There are,
however, extenuating circumstances and complicating factors in the dilemmas that museums face.

First, the problem: “Most museums display only a fraction of the works they own… There are thousands, if not millions, of works that are languishing in storage.” Museums are confronting “a history of voracious stockpiling and the pressure to acquire still more.”

Wealthy people bestow much swag other than pictures and sculpture on museums: doilies, clothing and costumes, accessories, home furnishings, textiles, etc. All these treasures compete for scarce exhibition space as well as ballooning resource requirements for proper preservation when not on display.

In museums’ defense, however, “… many [undisplayed works] are prints and drawings that can only sparingly be shown because of light sensitivity.” There is, too, the argument that “… preserving the best of the past [even in storage] — no matter how unpopular it may temporarily become — is the purpose of museums.” Also, — surprise! — a percentage of donated works are mediocre, “not even worth showing,” according to one museum veteran.

So, while philanthropists aren’t always experts in picking masterpieces, neither are they always modest or humble people. Many donors dictate the terms of their gifts, effectively bossing from beyond the grave in many cases. Donors of art works valued at $400 million to the Art Institute stipulated that the donation has to be on display for the next fifty years. “I got the deal of a lifetime,” one of them said.

(Robin Pogrebin, “Clean House to Survive? Museums Confront Their Crowded Basements,” NY Times, 3-10-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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