Cash-Strapped Museums are Selling Their Art

Faced with budget cuts and debt, museums turn to “deaccessioning”

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Fueled by deep pockets and hungry collectors, the art world is hitting record sales. But behind the scenes, there’s a dirty little secret—some of the art is coming from cash-strapped museums that are selling their art rather than saving it.

This problem has been percolating for several years. In 2014, the Delaware Art Museum raised eyebrows when it decided to sell some of its art to make a dent in its $19.8 million debt. That decision led to sanctions from the Association of Art Museum Directors, which slapped the museum’s hand for “treating works from its collections as disposable assets.”

The practice is called deaccessioning, and though it’s not against the law, it’s frowned upon. Elizabeth Blair reported on the sale for NPR, noting that while most museums will deaccession art if it’s a forgery, ethical guidelines forbid museums from unloading their collections whenever times get tight.

But times are ever tighter in the art world—and, as the New York Times’ Doreen Carvajal reports, that’s leading to museum collection as “cash cows.” Carvajal reports that museums all over the world are selling masterpieces despite fears that they’ll never be seen in public again:

“They treat it like some gold reserve,” said Eckart Köhne, the president of the German Museum Association, a trade group for more than 800 museums. “In the past there was general consensus that once objects belonged to the state, that it was absolute, with rare exceptions. Now they are using art to save banks or build new casinos.”

Though some argue that it’s costly for museums to store works (since most don’t have the space to display all of their art), others feel that’s within the obligations of institutions that have committed to preserving art. But as museums face down debt, budget cuts and fears for the future, they’re increasingly looking to their valuable collections as a potential means of survival.

Ironically, some museums find that once they announce their intention of selling works, attendance increases. Carvajal reports that visitors are “flocking” to say goodbye to works of art at the Westphalia State Museum for Art in Germany, which could lose much of its art this year. But not every museum is cutting back. In Canada, a museum is acquiring art for the first time in six years…and the Denver Art Museum is contemplating how it might be able to swing free admission for all.

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