Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849), oil on canvas, 44 x 36 inches. The Hudson River School masterwork was deaccessioned by the New York Public Library for $35 million.

August 2008

Off The Walls
by James Panero

By selling art from their collections, some museums are stirring up controversy and making donors nervous.

“You’re hitting me where it hurt,” says Tom Freudenheim, former assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution. The Buffalo, N.Y., native still smarts over what went down at his hometown museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. In November 2006, the Albright- Knox, a small institution in a cash-strapped city with a noted modernist collection, issued an excited press release. It announced that the museum was about to “deaccession”—or sell off from its permanent collection—“antiquities and other historical works.”

The statement included extensive quotes from agents of Sotheby’s, who would be acting on the museum’s behalf by auctioning off more than 200 lots in public sales over the following year. One expert praised an Indian figure of the dancing god, Shiva, as “arguably the best example of its kind.” A set of Chinese ceramics was “certain to spark competitive bidding, particularly from Asian collectors and mainland Chinese institutions.” Then there was the bronze Roman statue “Artemis and the Stag,” the highest-profile lot of all. Richard Keresey, worldwide head of antiquities at Sotheby’s, called it “among the very finest large classical bronze sculptures in America and the most splendid to appear on the market in memory. It would be a star in any of the great collections of the world, whether in a museum or private hands.”

A star, that is, except at the Albright- Knox. Half a century after acquiring “Artemis and the Stag,” the museum had decided to sell the masterpiece, along with dozens of other exceptional works, in order to raise money for its acquisition fund for modern and contemporary art— “a tradition that has been in place since the museum’s inception in 1862,” according to the press release. “I went ballistic,” Freudenheim recalls, “so I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal.”

He took the Albright-Knox to task for “devoting more and more resources to acquiring large amounts of contemporary art, work about which the judgment of history—supposedly what museums are all about—is far from settled. Such acquisition policies may be acceptable, but not when done by getting rid of masterpieces whose importance has been validated by time and critical opinion and that provide a context for work in the present.” The article fired the first salvo in what turned out to be a losing battle to stop the Albright-Knox sales.

In the end, the criticism may have helped the auctions, which saw windfall profits. These days, Louis Grachos, the director of the Albright-Knox who oversaw the deaccessioning, chuckles when asked about the irony of the situation, though he declines to comment on it. The final take for the auctions came to $68 million, more than four times the $15 million estimate. The Artemis alone went for $28 million to an anonymous European collector, who has now temporarily loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “I took my son to see it there last week,” Grachos says. His acquisition endowment has swelled to $91 million, drawing $4 million annually, up from $1.1 million annually. He says he has already used some of the money to purchase work by Fred Sandback and Olafur Eliasson. He has previously said that he would like to use the funds to acquire works by Felix Gonzales-Torres, Bruce Nauman, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

“I was surprised by the intensity of the response,” Grachos says of the vocal criticism from Freudenheim and others. “What was interesting is that so many people did not comprehend what the true mission of the gallery was. This was an institution to support and collect living artists.” As for the long-term effect of the public debate over the auctions, he says, “Our membership was in decline before the deaccessioning; now we’re on the way up.” However, he adds, such controversies “are not healthy for museums.”

Just how unhealthy they are is up for debate. Robert Flynn Johnson, the former curator-in-charge at the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in San Francisco, maintains that the Albright-Knox “traded old lamps for new, but they have also caused a sense of distress amongst potential donors, who don’t even tell the museum, ‘We were going to give our paintings to you, and now we’re not.’ They don’t know what they lost, because nobody informed them.”

With the art economy booming, it is very tempting for institutions to sell off parts of their permanent collections to fund acquisitions or to cover expenses. In 2005, the New York Public Library sold “Kindred Spirits” (1849), a Hudson River School masterpiece by Asher B. Durand, for $35 million to Wal- Mart heiress Alice Walton, who acquired it for her forthcoming Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Ark. The revenue went to the library’s operating expenses.

Two years later, in order to fund a campus expansion, Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia, announced plans to sell one of the most recognizable paintings in the United States, Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” (1875), for $68 million, again to Walton, unless a local institution could match the price within 45 days. (Like the New York Public Library, the college justified its decision on the grounds that it is not an art museum.) The Philadelphia Museum of Art, with help from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and a bank loan, came up with the funds, but only though deaccessioning an Eakins painting and two oil sketches from its own collection. A public explanation for the sales quoted the instructions of Susan Macdowell Eakins, the artist’s widow and the donor of the works in 1929, who gave the go-ahead for the museum to exchange certain works for others so long as it was “favorable to the memory and reputation of Thomas Eakins.”

Lee Rosenbaum, a blogger and journalist who frequently writes for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, nevertheless questions the ethics of such a deal. “Trading up is not an appropriate collections management strategy,” she writes. “In my view, the ‘permanent collection’ is called that for a reason: Past acquisitions of museum-quality works should not be exploited as assets to bankroll high stakes plays by today’s curators who want a piece of the market action.”

Of course, museums have always quietly disposed of lesser pieces from their collections. By selling work otherwise halfforgotten down in storage rooms, they return art to the public and private domains. “This is a healthy process for the community at large,” says Marco Grassi, an Old Master restorer and dealer based in New York, who sees an upside to public work returning to private hands. “It keeps the juices flowing. Museums are far too acquisitive and retentive. I feel very strongly that works of art need to have a life outside of museums. When the stuff is in a vitrine it no longer has a life of its own.”

Among the earliest uses of the term “deaccession” in regard to museums was in 1972, when the New York Times art critic John Canaday wrote that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then under the direction of Thomas Hoving, “recently deaccessioned (the polite term for ‘sold’) one of its only four Redons.” Hoving was the first museum custodian to conceive of his permanent collection as a source of capital. In 1970, he purchased a Velazquez portrait for $5.5 million but lacked the funds to cover it. He began looking for works to sell, and the bequest of the late Adelaide de Groot was his principal target. Against the heiress’s wishes that her collection remains in a public institution, Hoving sold off masterpieces from her donation—most notably “The Tropics” by Henri Rousseau— through Marlborough Gallery. The sale was so controversial at the time that the Met’s curator of European painting refused to sign the deaccession form. Hoving signed it for him.

Today’s museum directors have followed in Hoving's footsteps. “They have Champagne taste and a beer budget,” says Johnson, “and one of the ways they bring up the difference is to cannibalize the collection they are responsible for. They sell works of art that do not seem valuable or fashionable at the time. In my mind that is the worst thing a trustee or curator could do.” But don’t expect a change anytime soon. There will be an outcry whenever a non-profit, tax-exempt institution sells off work. It will remain controversial when trustees and directors raid collections for funds rather than rely on patrons. But so long as the art market stays bullish, deaccessioning shows no sign of letting up.

Donors of art to museums, meanwhile, are quietly taking note. While major collectors recognize deaccession as an important topic, they are reluctant to discuss the particular practices of museums, in which they often have an interest. One donor, off the record, says she only gives work to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which never deaccessions. Johnson says that if he were a collector making a donation to a museum, he would stipulate that “you cannot go and sell my Chinese porcelain to buy a Jeff Koons.” But such stipulations are notoriously easy to overrule in the courts, especially after a donor has died. Freudenheim’s advice to his collector friends is, “If you really care about it, sell it while you are alive. If you think it will stay in the museum forever, then you are fooling yourself.”