First things first.
This story is about a concept that is a true tongue twister to anyone encountering the word for the first time:
Deaccession. It is pronounced dee-AK-session — except everyone seems to say it a different way.
In simple terms, it’s the museum equivalent of cleaning out the attic and holding a garage sale.
It’s a common practice, but in the context of the dark financial shadow hanging over the Detroit Institute of Art, the public perception could be that there is more at stake when Toledo art aficionados see works from the beloved Toledo Museum of Art going on the auction block.
So TMA leaders are getting out in front of the issue and making it clear that the latest round of deaccession is business as usual and is in no way a harbinger of troubled times at the venerable Monroe Street institution.
The problem is that as the museum’s neighbor to the north is threatened by Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings and ominous comments are made about selling the DIA collection to pay municipal bills, it creates a climate of crisis.
“It’s a really important distinction because we are financially solvent and we are a private museum,” said Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art. “The Detroit situation is very confusing. People don’t know why it’s happening and why it would involve the art museum.”
When the museum began its latest round of deaccession earlier this year, a conscious decision was made to bring attention to it, said Kelly Garrow, the TMA director of communication.
“We’ve been extraordinarily transparent about this process because in the big scheme of things it’s a relatively modest deaccession and [that would generate] relatively modest proceeds that would go back in our art fund. We wanted to be especially cautious about being transparent because of what’s going on in Detroit.”
Selling, loaning, or giving away art that museums acquire over the years is the result of the natural process of acquiring works that for various reasons no longer fit the artistic mission. It costs money and takes up space to store works that are never going to be displayed, so why not find a different home for them on the open market?
Like most museums, the Toledo Museum of Art has an official deaccession policy. Similar sales occurred in 2002 (modern contemporary works), 2006 (Old Masters), and 2008 (Asian art). This round is designed to clear out works that don’t fit the museum’s principle of focusing on works that represent the best an artist or style has to offer.
“When you have a gallery and it has works of a very high quality and you insert in the hangings a work that is of a lower quality... the room will sag at that point and all the works will be pulled down by it rather than raised up,” Kennedy said.
When deaccession begins, the museum’s six curators make suggestions of works that are duplicates, no longer relevant to the collection, or that are lower-quality pieces by an artist whom the museum already represents with an exceptional work.
The suggestions are taken to a committee that considers the recommendation and determines what is put up for sale or loaned to another institution.
Kennedy smiled wryly when he relayed that the TMA has been surreptitiously giving marginal works a try-out by hanging them for test periods to gauge reaction.
“More scrupulous and regular visitors to the museum will notice something coming into the hang and say, ‘I haven’t seen that before,’” he said. “What we’re doing is testing it and we have left works in the galleries for two or three months to allow all of our staff and visitors and art experts scrutinize it for that period.”
All of the works are sold on the open market through auctions and anyone associated with the museum is not allowed to bid on them. Big houses such as Christies or Swann make their sales pitch to auction the works and earn a commission.
Kennedy said that now is a good time to be selling art because prices are strong.
“In the modern contemporary market, the prices are incredible right now. So you might have a work that is a good work by artist X that might fetch $30 million because a great work by artist X might fetch $80 million,” he said.
The prices TMA has received for the pieces it has sold so far are not close to that rarefied atmosphere.
More than 200 works pieces of export China, Old Masters prints, American prints, and 19th century European art have been sold so far, bringing more than $950,000 into the museum’s budget that is earmarked to purchase new works. Another 50 works are scheduled to be auctioned in January.
The Toledo museum takes a fairly conservative approach to deaccession, Kennedy said. The goal isn’t to simply unload things for the sake of it, and the process has to be carefully executed to avoid making a mistake.
“I don’t want to say we’re risk averse, but we’re charged with the public trust and nobody wants to be the person who sold the thing they shouldn’t have sold,” he said.
At the same time, the museum and its curators need to be clear-eyed about what serves the institutional mission.
“If we haven’t shown them for decades and aren’t likely to show them then they don’t have a practical function in our display,” he said. “They could have a practical function even if they’re not displayed in consultation by scholars in education, but generally speaking the model of this museum is that we want active use.”
A mature museum like Toledo’s can afford to be discerning both in what it acquires and what it keeps, he noted.
“When you’ve gotten to a stage where you have 10s of thousands of works of art, well you can be much more particular because storage is an issue, conservation is an issue... so you expect that kind of refinement to occur as you get bigger.”
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.
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