Detroit’s Art Might Be Safe, But Delaware’s Isn’t

Detroit (for now) has prevented a massive sale of artwork, but Delaware’s art museum hasn’t been so lucky

Artwork At Delaware Art Muesum
Artwork At Delaware Art Muesum A. Currell

In Detroit, generous donors have prevented—for now—a massive sale of artwork, but Delaware’s art museum hasn’t been so lucky. With the museum mired in debt, the board of trustees voted to sell up to four works of art from the collection in order to keep the museum open. They hope the sale will raise $30 million. 

Selling artwork from a museum collection ("deaccessioning") isn’t an unusual move. But selling artwork to pay for museum expenses is considered extremely taboo in the art world, so much so that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has a detailed policy expressly stating that “Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses.” 

From the New York Times

“After detailed analysis, heavy scrutiny and the exhaustion of every reasonable alternative to relieve our bond debt, the trustees had two agonizing choices in front of them—to either sell works of art, or to close our doors,” said Mike Miller, the museum’s chief executive, in a statement. “While today’s decision is certainly hard to bear, the closure of this 100-year-old museum would be, by comparison, unbearable.”

In a statement put out to the public the museum said, “We do not support and cannot imagine any circumstance that would again justify the sale of art. This is a singular event.” Even so, this move is likely to have repercussions, especially as the museum looks for a new director. 

Delaware newspaper the News Journal reported that the museum’s CEO fully expected that, in addition to facing sanctions from the AAMD, the museum would be shunned by the museum community for a period of time, making it difficult to fill the director’s role. The sale may also make it difficult for the museum to expand its collection. Although the artworks intended for sale will reportedly not be selected from works donated to the museum, donors are (understandably) wary of giving to institutions where artworks are being sold just to keep the doors open.

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