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11 December 2020

Selling for Survival – Part 1

By Amalyah Keshet, Senior Consultant

The closure – and re-opening and re-closing – of cultural institutions has been severely financially damaging in a number of ways, affecting income, staff, mission, and the visiting public.  While many museums have moved online with a remarkable outpouring of creativity, the bottom line has been badly damaged for heritage institutions everywhere. Selling off assets would be a normal response in other industries, but museum collections are not similarly liquid assets.  The Museums Association’s (MA) Code of Ethics, part of Arts Council England’s (ACE) Accreditation Standard for museums, says collections “should not normally be regarded as financially negotiable assets”.

Rethinking deaccessioning policies predates COVID-19, but museum ethics are suddenly headline news, and the subject of multiple webinars.  Deaccessioning may not be a copyright issue per se – although copyright protected works are involved, but I am curious about how the Artists’ Resale Right might be involved.  It’s a copyright-related issue that doesn’t get top billing, nor does it usually directly affect museums.  But it invites a closer look.

In April, the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) stated that in light of the COVID-19 financial crisis, for two years it would not sanction museums that use deaccessioning proceeds for direct collections care, or use income from the proceeds of deaccessioning for operating expenses. A significant exception to existing standards, this inevitably became an interpretation issue:   “…the professional principle that prohibited those actions is not the impenetrable rampart it seemed to be. It’s more like a Jenga tower. And the AAMD has just pulled out the first block.”[i]

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Deaccession Task Force followed up the same month with its own statement:

“…With an eye toward the future of museum policy and potential changes to our field, the mission of the Deaccession Task Force has been to promote sustainable institutional practices and promote ethical and well-considered deaccession activities. The Task Force has created a toolbox to…help institutions find pathways to sustainability. It is not a how-to guide or blueprint for deaccessions, but rather a collection of resources …  I hope these tools can be of use to you and your institution as the landscape of museum practice continues to shift.”   [emphasis mine].[ii]

Another warning statement from the AAMD followed, “telegraphing concern about the growing number of museums moving to sell off important works of art.”[iii] 

Syracuse New York’s Everson Museum sold Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) ‘Red Composition’ for US$13 million (£10.1 million) with fees at Christie’s[iv], and the Brooklyn Museum deaccessioned Lucas Cranach the Elder’s (c.1472-1553) ‘Lucretia’, which had been displayed in the museum since 1921, achieving US$5.1 million (£3.9 million) with fees at Christie’s.[v]

In October the Baltimore Museum of Art had planned to raise US$65 million (£50.4 million) by deaccessioning works by Bryce Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol. The funds were meant for collection care, as well as “raising staff salaries, collecting works by women and BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] artists, inclusion plans, and making admission free for special exhibitions.”

“Art critics and former AAMD trustees felt the museum’s plan manipulated the new AAMD guidelines and represented a conflict of interest. This halted the anticipated sale at Sotheby’s just hours before it began on 28 October 2020 … As we have said consistently, our April 2020 resolutions were not intended to address needs beyond current, pandemic-related financial challenges.” [vi]

Meanwhile in the UK, some members of the Royal Academy of Art suggested selling its Michelangelo sculpture (the Taddei Tondo) to address financial losses of some £8m due to the pandemic and to save 150 jobs.  This prompted an interesting debate about nothing less than the nature of collections and who they should be for. A debate to be explored at depth another time, perhaps.[vii]

The Tate Gallery announced a voluntary redundancy scheme that aims to save £4.8m by eliminating 120 jobs. As a result of the pandemic, the Tate will lose an estimated £56m in income from ticket sales, retail and catering.[viii]

David Hockney’s Portrait of Sir David Webster (1971), the former general administrator of the Royal Opera House (ROH), was sold for £12.8m in October.[ix] According to the ROH, proceeds from the sale of the painting will be used to protect the future of the venue, which has been struggling since it was forced to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic on 16 March 2020.[x]

Following on that news, the Royal College of Physicians was reported to be “working with auction house Bonhams to understand the practicalities around making a sale” of rare books from its library, “which it says could raise £6m and help it avoid… redundancies” The College may lose 31% of its income (£14m) this year because of COVID-19 and predicts a further £9m loss next year.[xi] 

Each of these stories is fascinating in itself. But the overall outlook for museums, in the US at least, is dismal: about one-third have closed temporarily, from the Smithsonian Museums to the KBG Museum in Manhattan, and some may never reopen. American museums receive much smaller government subsidies (if any) unlike those in Europe or the UK, depending on earned income like ticket and giftshop sales, and generous donors. By re-opening with reduced visitor capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, and no educational or public events, they cannot make ends meet. “The financial state of U.S. museums is moving from bad to worse” was the conclusion of yet another AAM statement in November.[xii]

More on the subject next month.


[i] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/why-the-aamd-s-move-on-deaccessioning-matters-so-much

[ii]  https://www.collectionsstewardship.org/deaccession-toolbox

[iii] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/aamd-sends-a-warning-note-to-museum-directors-on-deaccessioning

[iv] https://www.christies.com/about-us/press-archive/details?PressReleaseID=9764&lid=1

[v] https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/lucas-cranach-i-kronach-1472-1553-weimar-lucretia-6281980-details.aspx

[vi] https://artlawandmore.com/2020/11/04/deaccessioning-in-the-age-of-covid-us-museums-face-new-criticism/

[vii] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/09/royal-academy-has-no-intention-of-selling-michelangelo-sculpture-to-save-jobs/

[viii] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/12/tate-to-cut-120-jobs-to-survive-crisis/

[ix]  https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/christie-s-hockney-sale-roh

[x] https://www.roh.org.uk/about/cancellations

[xi]  https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/11/royal-college-of-physicians-mulls-sale-of-rare-books-despite-protest/

[xii] https://www.aam-us.org/2020/11/17/museums-losing-millions-job-losses-mount-as-covid-19-cases-surge/


© Naomi Korn Associates, 2020. Some Rights Reserved. The text is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)

Disclaimer: The material in this blog post is for general information only and is not legal advice. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.