- James Bristol
OPINION | THERE'S NO DOWNSIDE TO DEACCESSION
The art world let out a collective gasp at the news that the MET was considering deaccession in early Feb 2021. The institution had originally hoped to re-open in July, but the pandemic has forced its predicted shortfall to increase by 50%, resulting in an eye-watering 150 million dollar loss. The floated proposal comes months after the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced that funds gained from sold works could now be put towards caring for their already obtained pieces, and not simply on acquiring new ones. Reactions were swift and generally negative: Thomas Campbell said he was "disconcerted" at the news and previous MET curator George Goldner called the proposal "shameful and misguided".
Outrage at deaccession is nothing new; there were cries of treason when Charles I's masterworks were sold after his execution. But reprisals against deaccession have become more far more frequent in recent years and have achieved far more significant results. Walmart heiress Alice Walton's acquisition of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849) for a private collection through a sealed auction in 2004 drew in huge criticism of both Sotheby's, who enabled the sale, and Walton's own museum. In October of last year, another auction of some 200 artifacts from the Jerusalem Museum for Islamic Art was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to public and government pressure. The same month, the Baltimore Museum of Art withdrew artworks by Clyfford Still, Brice Marden and Andy Warhol from private sale three hours before the auction as due to backlash. However, in the age of COVID, deaccession is not just the only choice - it's also the best.
Art is a business. We forget this reality in the fuzz surrounding tax write-offs and corrupt controlling elite, which in themselves oversaturate conversation so heavily that any mention of the financial is now seen as sacrilege. However, in order for art to thrive, it is important to remember that it is only available and accessible through institutions like the MET. It is even more important to remember that institutions like the MET are businesses. In order for art to function, it must follow the same basic economic rules as everybody else. The knee-jerk reaction exhibited by critics reflect the art worlds inability to understand this: reactions to deaccession usually revolve around a tired and shallow narrative that touts dishonest curators encouraging the sale of objects only because they would "benefit directly from the plan" (although how is never quite made clear) or that the money would become a "funding stream at a director’s whim" rather than a genuine fulfilment of any restorative promises (once again, how the director in question would access such funds is not explained). This stubborn refusal to accept that money can be used for good (and that in most cases it is) is not only boring but also restricts and rejects the things that it can enable.
Critics of deaccession often revert to the idea that the museums job is "to protect art" and that somehow deaccession violates this principle. To take such a view diminishes the role of art and reduces its existence to that of a possession rather than of an experience. Obviously, it serves little to view artworks as static creatures "belonging" to only one space or environment; if anything, this view reenforces the position of apparently detestable gallery owners and fraudulent traders as the sole gatekeepers of art. It is simply unsustainable and unrealistic to argue that deaccession is not the correct choice when it comes to paying for the price of stockpiling art during a pandemic.
The cultural aspect of deaccession also presents a net positive. This is especially true in an age where museums are more aware that ever of the power they hold over art and the access they provide. There is a heightening acknowledgment of diversity and its importance in collection across the Western world, as well as a new-found desire to support and fund initiatives and sponsorships. These have the dual purpose of both presenting modern audiences with diverse and dynamic collections and of encouraging the creation of new, manifold ones. In a post-BLM and MeToo age, museums are eager to prioritise both the acquisition and recognition of minority-created artworks, especially when (re)designing or updating spaces that overlooked such work before. The decolonisation of the modern artworld, whether this be through the purchase of more contemporary, diverse pieces or through the return of stolen historical artefacts, cannot be achieve without change, space and money. Space and money is exactly what deaccession provides.
Pretending that deaccession is a bad thing is damaging to its very premise. If we shake our heads and grasp at our pearls at the idea of art changing hands for something as un-artistic as money, we lose touch with the reality of how art is made accessible in the first place. It is damaging and restrictive to revert to tired stereotypes about money within the art world, especially when this is achieved by encouraging the reverence of static collections and the purity of stewardship. By discouraging museums and institutions from partaking in financial progress, critics are effectively hindering that of culture.