Thursday, November 22, 2012

Family jewels or excess baggage?

Should art museums sell off works in their collections to streamline their collecting efforts or, even more controversially, to raise funds? All art museums have works (often gifted) that sit in their store rooms like bumps on a log with no real ties to anything else, but it's rare that they're subjected to the D word. That’s de-accessioning (the wonderfully distancing name museums give to flogging off works from the collection).
In fact high value works are sold out of public collections every year all around the world. In the US, for instance four high-end works have recently being talked up and sold at auction. The Cleveland Museum of Art has just let go Monet’s Cornfield which was gifted to them just after the Second World War (they got just shy of $15 million for it), the Virginia Museum of Art put Renoir’s Vase of Roses and Dahlias on the block ($1.2 million) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington decided to sell a 1967 Picasso Musketeer With a Hat ($5.2 million at auction earlier this week). So together the four lots accrued around $21.5 million.
Announcing that works are to be removed from an art museum's collection often results in an explosion of public indignation. Ironically this reaction often mirrors the indignation expressed when public money was used to get the item into the collection in the first place. For this reason museums here often border on the furtive about any sales although the Govett-Brewster ran a model process we’ve mentioned before that involved getting past directors together to discuss each item proposed.
In a previous post we pointed to Te Papa's works by Natalia Goncherova as prospects for sale. These stand outside the rest of the collection but have an extraordinarily high value in the market. Dunedin’s Monet is another example. Is local pride a good enough reason to hold onto them? As the collections of public art museums in NZ grow year by year and demand more resources to care for them, you can bet deaccessioning will be a conversation that funders will want to have with our museums before too long. Maybe the museums should start it themselves and head them off at the pass.