Deaccessioning Controversies: Professional Standards

Delaware Art Museum

Maier Museum of Art

Detroit Institute of Arts

National Academy Museum

Rose Art Museum


Deaccessioning has become a buzz word across America, but is it a dirty word?

NPR seems to think so given their recent news feature “As Museums Try to Make Ends Meet, ‘Deaccession’ is the Art World’s Dirty Word,” but I could not say that I agree. Deaccession is a common enough term in the museum profession’s lexicon, and while not practiced everyday it is nonetheless part of the profession’s toolbox so to speak. Deaccession becomes ‘dirty’ only when it violates certain professional standards regulating the process i.e. as in the cases above when museum objects are viewed as financial collateral and used to fund operating expenses, etc. and not to improve or refine the collection itself.

Let us first be clear about what deaccession means. Deaccessioning is defined as the process by which a museum object (artwork or other historical artifact) is permanently removed from a museum’s collection. According to the 2010 American Art Museum Directors’ Policy:

Application Section I. A:

Deaccessioning is a legitimate part of the formation and care of collections and, if practiced, should be done in order to refine and improve the quality and appropriateness of the collections, the better to serve the museum’s mission.

Application Section I.B:

Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses.

Deaccessions that violate Section I.B are unethical and detrimental for several reasons:

  1. Museum collections should not be viewed as ATMs full of cash to be withdrawn at will. To view a collection this way devalues the objects, because they are so much more than financial assets. When an artwork or artifact becomes part of a museum’s collection that museum is in effect saying it is important enough to be publicly displayed, to be studied, and to be preserved for generations to come. Acquirement by a museum denotes significant cultural value, and yes, very often, monetary value. Museum’s are arbiters of canons and creators of historical narratives; their accessioning and deaccessioning has meaning.
  1. It is a potential violation of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) conditions of reporting non-capitalized collections. The FASB and the GASB require non-capitalized collections to be subject to an organizational policy that requires the proceeds from sales of collection items to be used to acquire other items for collections. If selling off portions of collections to fund operations becomes a major trend, then the FASB and the GASB could reconsider the rules regarding museum collections, and propose as they did in 1990 that museums include the appraised value of their collections as capital assets.
  1. ‘Dirty Deaccessions’ can cause bad donor relations. Many donors look at these sales and fear that their donations could be next on the auction block. This in turns leads to questions like why give to this organization when my money is needed elsewhere? What will they do with my donation? Should I put restrictions on my gift? In general, trust erodes between an institution and its potential patrons.
  1. As Dan Monroe stated when he was president of the American Art Museum Directors (AAMD), “Selling art to support operations is not viable as a long-term financial strategy; it is the equivalent of spending down endowment principal.” Treating a museum collection as a fungible asset does not ultimately address underlying causes of financial distress and may be just a band aid solution.
  1. ‘Dirty Deaccessions’ can cause bad community relations. We, as a society, believe in the purpose and usefulness of museums because they care for and preserve objects we by and large consider cultural treasures. The mission of all museums involves a public service element — they hold these cultural treasures in trust. To this end, non-profit museums receive tax exemption and funding from city, state, and federal government. Consequently, non-profit museums are accountable to the people they serve.

This fifth item as a reason why deaccessions in this manner are detrimental is subject to some dispute, especially from art lawyer Donn Zaretsky, who appears to find no fault in deaccessioning to pay operating costs and frequently calls into question the validity of the ‘public trust’ argument since deaccessioning in other circumstances is accepted. The accepted reasons as laid out by the AAMD for deaccessions include:

  • The artwork is no longer consistent with the mission or goals of the museum
  • The physical condition of the work is so poor that restoration is not practicable
  • The authenticity or attribution of the artwork is found to be false or fraudulent
  • The museum’s possession of the artwork is not consistent with applicable law
  • The work is a duplicate
  • The work is being sold to refine and improve the museum’s collection

The final point here is essential to the museum’s role as arbiter. As museums become more selective, establishing criterion and goals for acquisition, collections cannot remain static. As Malaro and DeAngelis make clear in A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, collecting “is a combination of intelligent selection and thoughtful pruning. Periodic reevaluation is as important as acquisition, and deaccessioning, if properly used, can be a means toward true growth.” Zaretsky’s disabuse of the ‘pubic trust’ reasoning fails to consider this all important role of the museum.

This is not to say that there are not complicated moral maneuvers involved here. On the one hand when an object is accessioned the intent is to preserve it forever, but on the other hand the significance of this object may change over time for a variety of reasons: it may fall outside of the museum’s newly devised mission or it may be determined fraudulent. You also cannot ignore the history of museums in America where in the early years many grew unchecked acquiring anything that was offered. As the museum field professionalized and established standards, procedures, and more defined missions these collections have become unwieldy and many artifacts within them obsolete. Deaccessioning may be the more responsible option for good stewardship.


With these weighty moral dilemmas attached to ‘dirty deaccessioning,’ why then are art museums across the country violating AAMD Policy and selling artworks in such a flagrantly defiant manner?

First up – the economic recession: hitting endowments, calling in loans, and decreasing donor gifts everywhere. Other causes could be laid at the feet of poor management, overly ambitious expansions, and failure to evolve and stay relevant to constituents. There also seems to be some undercurrents of rebellion here with Michael Miller, chief executive and director of the Delaware Art Museum, declaring in regards to the AAMD sanctions that “It’s a club that I don’t need to belong to,” and that “people who support us don’t really care about what they say.”

There also exists some dissension within the museum field regarding use of funds from deaccessioned objects. For instance the “National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums,” written by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), states that “proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistently within the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.” This then implies that funds can be used for conservation and possibly collections management.

Others argue that in cases where the options are turn off the lights and close the doors or deaccession to pay operating expenses, the public good is better served by the museum remaining open. This argument not only seems sound, but it pulls on many a heart string, including mine. Take the case of the recently proposed sale of the world-class art collection of The Detroit Institute of Arts, which was targeted (and may still be) as a potential source of revenue to bail Detroit out of federal bankruptcy. Ridding Detroit of this art would damage the city and state’s cultural commonwealth as well as hurt the future potential growth of the arts economy.

William Holman Hunt "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" 1868

William Holman Hunt Isabella and the Pot of Basil 1868

Then there is the Delaware Art Museum which claimed in its press releases and Q&A regarding the deaccessions of three (this number may rise to four) artworks from its collections that these were the only two options available to them. As they put it, “the only other alternative— closing the doors to a 12,500-object collection with a century-long cultural heritage.” But what proof have they offered that this is the case?

Over the past five years, the Trustees have taken copious steps to reduce costs, primarily via reduction of Museum staff. In addition, funds for exhibitions and related programs have been significantly reduced. The Trustees also pursued alternatives they believed might have a reasonable probability of helping to deal with the Museum’s financial —these included various refinancing options, an alliance/merger and the restructuring of the Museum’s operating model. The Trustees also sought the guidance of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). ~Delaware Art Museum Q&A

Apparently, none of these alternatives, nebulously described at best, were sufficient to pull the Delaware Art Museum out of its bond debt. This may well be true; I will leave that investigation to other greater minds.


For me these deaccessioning controversies, particularly in the cases of Delaware and the Maier Museum of Art, are more disturbing for the manner in which they were conducted.

Not only is the use of deaccessioning funds problematic, but the complete disregard for the professional principles governing public trust, accountability, and the deaccession process laid out by AAM and AAMD is abhorrent. Some of those standards include:

  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.
  • Process of deaccessioning must be initiated by the appropriate professional staff with through review of records, donor intent, and title.
  • Third-party review and appraisal may be necessary.
  • The donor or donor’s heirs should be notified.
  • The timing and method should be consistent with the museum’s collection policy and attention given to transparency.
  • The deaccession process should be well documented.
  • No member or a museum’s board, staff, or anyone associated with museum is permitted to acquire directly or indirectly the deaccessioned work or benefit from the sale.
  • Preferred methods of disposal are sale or transfer to, or exchange with another public institution, sale through publicly advertised auction, and sale or exchange to or through a reputable, established dealer.
  • Museums should give consideration to keeping a deaccessioned work in the public domain.
  • Wherein the museum is part of another legal entity, deaccessioning and disposal from the art museum’s collection must never be for the purpose of providing financial support or benefit for other goals of the university or college or its foundation.
Winslow Homer Milking Time 1875

Winslow Homer Milking Time 1875

In the case of the Delaware Art Museum, minimal attention seems to have been given to these standards:

  1. By their own admittance and other news reports, they gave little consideration to keeping the three works (Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt, Milking Time by Winslow Homer, The Black Crescent by Alexander Calder) in the public domain. Ultimately, seeking to generate the largest profit, even willing to forsake planned sale schedules and a public auction “if we find a private buyer, it [the Homer] will go sooner,” said Gerret Copeland, the chairman of the Delaware Art Museum board.
  2. The museum selected these three artworks (possibly four) with no curatorial involvement and minimal attention to overall effect on the collection more-or-less basing the decision on price tag alone: “They [the curators] didn’t want to have anything to do with this,” Miller said. “And we didn’t want to bring them into this.” Instead art appraisers from Sotheby’s, Christies, and Bonhams valued a short list of works largely selected because they were purchased by the museum and would, thus, reduce the potential of lawsuits by donors and their heirs.
  3. The leadership and administration of the Delaware Art Museum does not value its own collections management policy nor is it bound by it. The museum declared in their Q&A: “The recent decision to deaccession and sell up to four works of art was made by the Board of Trustees acting in its fiduciary role. This supersedes the deaccessioning policy described in the Museum’s Collections Policy.”
  4. Finally, the Delaware Art Museum failed to be transparent about its fiscal troubles and at first withheld information about what would be deaccessioned.
George Bellows Men of the Docks 1912

George Bellows Men of the Docks 1912

The manner in which Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, R-MWC) officials ‘deaccessioned’ artworks from the Maier Museum of Art is perhaps more outrageous and disdainful of museum standards:

  1. In October of 2007, college president John Klein armed with an attorney, movers, and police swept into the Maier Museum and removed four artworks, Men of the Docks by George Bellows, Through the Arroyo by Ernest Hennings, Troubador by Rufino Tamayo, and A Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, from the gallery walls and the building unbeknownst to students, faculty, staff and even museum personnel. The removal was hasty, clandestine, and violated art handling and packing standards: “It felt like a mugging,” said the then museum director Karol Lawson to Newsweek. Lawson refused to assist with the removal and soon after resigned, making her the third college employee to resign over the handling of the art collection.
  2. A total lack of transparency and commitment to public accountability marred the process. Barely any notice was given to students of the decision to sell artworks before they were removed. The heirs of donors who gave two of the paintings directly to the college were not notified. As spokeswoman Brenda Edson stated in an article for The News & Advance: “I don’t think there’s anything we could (do to) make this easier for some.” But the point is they did not even try.
  3. Minimal consideration was given to donor intent. Louise Jordan Smith, the school’s first art professor, spearheaded the establishment of a first rate art collection, using Men of the Docks as the foundation. This painting and the Through the Arroyo were directly funded by students, faculty and Lynchburg community members who made up the Randolph-Macon Art Association because they in concert with Smith believed the college needed an art collection to fulfill its educational mission and these artworks in particular.
  4. With the removal and sale of Men of the Docks the Maier lost a cornerstone of its collection; in fact, the first piece purchased by the Randolph-Macon Art Association in 1920. The painting occupied a prominent place in the permanent collection exhibition. Faculty frequently used it for instructional purposes, especially in history and art classes due to the historical significance of the work, which seems to have garnered renewed acclaim now that the National Gallery, London has bought it. So regardless of the board of trustee’s assertions that they were “focused on trying to maintain the coherence of the collection,” their motivations for selecting these four works seem to have been based on price tag.
  5. Finally, Randolph College board of trustees and administration believed they were above the Maier Museum’s ethics and collections management policies, which prohibited deaccessioning in this manner. In part, their justification for this stems from new claims that the Maier Museum is not in fact a museum: “We are not a museum. We have other purposes,” said President Bateman at the time of the Bellows sale, echoing earlier claims by President Klein.

This proclamation is groundbreaking news to everyone in the Randolph College community, including alumnae of R-MWC and Maier staff who thought they worked at a museum, attended exhibitions at a museum, and interned at a museum. The college has claimed it operated a museum and promoted the art collection both to recruit students and to foster community and donor relations for years. The college developed a comprehensive museum studies program in conjunction with art history to train future museum professionals. Now that it is inconvenient to be classified as a museum, Randolph College wants to shed this asset too. But this argument is at best laughable in its absurdity and at worst untenable. Be sure to see Bateman’s latest philosophical attempts at defining an art museum.

I should admit here that I am an alumna of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and that I was a student when these artworks were sold. I was part of the museum studies program and a Maier Museum student docent. I was and still am opposed to both the decision to go coed and to sell artwork, so undoubtedly my opinion is prejudiced. But that does not negate my experience as part of the college and Maier community – an experience which personifies the bad community relations that can result from ‘dirty deaccessioning.’

Wow! After reviewing the details of these two deaccession controversies, it is easy to see how deaccessioning can become a dirty word. But using collection objects to fund operating expenses is not the only way deaccessioning can become dirty. As a museum professional, I know deaccessioning is at times necessary, and I wonder if there are times when using this tool to fund a museum is truly the only alternative to ‘turning off the lights.’

Are there methods to make deaccessioning for this purpose more palatable?

Could the museum profession regulate it?

Is the profession doing enough to support those institutions who find themselves in this impossible position?

Is the profession doing enough to discourage the bad behavior explored above?



Stay tuned for Part II Deaccessioning Controversies: Solutions



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