Art Museums Should Be Allowed to Participate in Both Sides of the Free Market


New York City’s Metropolitan Museum recently announced that it was running deficits and needed to restructure its operations—most likely including layoffs. Michael O’Hare is agog:

The Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be….Selling just two percent (off the bottom by quality or importance, of course, and much more than two percent of it by object count), for example, could endow free admission forever. Selling .3 percent would cover that pesky deficit, also forever. And the smaller museums and collectors who would buy works freed from the catacombs would show it.

Nothing in the Met’s mission statement suggests its purpose is to accumulate as much art as possible where no-one sees it. But the Met and all the other big art museums have insulated themselves from this sort of awkward question by writing a code of ethics that forbids any museum from selling anything except to buy more art.

Rich art lovers….Do not give a penny or so much as a tiny watercolor to any museum that doesn’t recuse itself from this provision of the AAMD rules. When a couple of big ones like the Met show some leadership, things will change, and our engagement with art will improve in many ways.

Selling off artwork is called deaccessioning, and it’s become increasingly common—and controversial—in recent years. The AAMD does indeed forbid it, unless the proceeds are used to buy other art, but during the Great Recession several small museums sold off parts of their collection in order to cover operating costs anyway. The AAMD was not amused. When the Delaware Art Museum sold off a William Holman Hunt painting a couple of years ago, the AAMD asked its members to basically suspend any collaboration with the museum.

The art world generally believes that deaccessioning is a horror because art is a public trust blah blah blah. This is little more than meaningless word salad. However, on a more prosaic level, it’s probably true that a strong taboo against deaccessioning prevents art museums from using their collections as an ATM machine whenever they run into a patch of trouble. That said, it’s hard to understand why art museums, alone among all the institutions of mankind, should be required to never sell anything they own. Perhaps this statement from the AAMD about the Delaware Art Museum’s auction tells the real story: “It is also sending a clear signal to its audiences that private support is unnecessary, since it can always sell additional items from its collection to cover its costs.”

We can’t have that, can we? That would prevent museums from raising money with scary campaigns about shutting down or firing half their staff or cutting hours to the bone.

But what if rules about deaccessioning were abandoned? What would happen? My guess is: nothing much. Museums that gained a reputation for doing it routinely would indeed suffer a drop in private donations, and that would act as a natural brake on the practice. Other museums would benefit, as they were freed to occasionally sell off less important parts of their collection in order to pay bills or undertake other worthy endeavors. And huge museums like the Met, with caverns full of artwork that’s never shown and has limited scholarly use, could not only shore up their finances but improve the world by selling pieces to smaller, more specialized museums that would show it. In the end, a free market in art would most likely produce a net increase in public welfare, just as free markets do in nearly every other area.

I’m with O’Hare: the taboo against deaccessioning is way overdone. We should give it a rest.