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Montclair Museum Deaccession Sparks Debate

The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey recently announced cutbacks in its budget, hours and staff as it grapples with the effects of the economic crisis.

NEW YORK—The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey recently announced cutbacks in its budget, hours and staff as it grapples with the effects of the economic crisis. Under a long-term “financial security plan,” the museum cut staff hours, launched a major capital campaign, and announced it would deaccession a number of pieces from its collection. Fifty-one works of Postwar, contemporary and American art will be sold at Christie’s in New York in several auctions in the coming months. According to a statement issued by the museum, since last July its endowment has declined by 25 percent, to $6 million from $8 million. Under the recently announced financial plan, the museum aims to have an endowment of at least $15 million by the end of fiscal year 2015.

Museum officials expect the works to fetch about $3 million/5 million. The items to be deaccessioned include an untitled 1951 enamel on paper by Jackson Pollock, which is to be included in Christie’s evening sale of Postwar and contemporary art on May 13 with an estimate of $400,000/600,000. Robert Motherwell’s White Music, 1983 (estimate: $80,000/120,000), and Ad Reinhardt’s #13–1953, 1952–53 (estimate: $20,000/30,000), are to be included in the house’s contemporary day sale on May 14. The bulk of the art to be sold is American paintings, including works by Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis and John Marin, which are to be included in Christie’s sales of American art on May 20; two oils by Gilbert Stuart are to be sold in Christie’s sale of Old Master and 19th-century art on June 4, and a number of American paintings will be included in the “Christie’s Interiors” sale on June 16. A museum statement described the works as rarely displayed or “no longer consistent with the mission of the museum.”

Under the guidelines issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums, museums are permitted to use deaccessioning only to acquire other works of art. According to the museum statement, the proceeds of the sales “will be placed in a fund used solely to purchase works of art.”

“We feel very sure in the way we made our decision,” museum director Lora Urbanelli told ARTnewsletter. “We did it in consultation with the president of the AAMD.” Urbanelli also stressed that the deaccessioning was part of “a six-year process” that Patterson Sims, her predecessor, initiated before she joined the museum last January. For example, she added, the museum has many works by Stuart. “Some of these pieces we don’t ever show. Some of them will make someone very happy. We’re putting the funds towards acquisitions and will buy something wonderful.”

Some observers who are critical of the museum’s decision say that the museum is deaccessioning to boost its endowment in order to ensure that the terms of its bond obligations are satisfied, and point out that the institution does not yet have specific acquisition plans. Montclair, they say, is exploiting a loophole in museum governance guidelines to effectively leverage its art collection. In an April 15 opinion column in The Wall Street Journal, James Panero, managing editor of The New Criterion, wrote, “AAMD may never have anticipated this particular case of cash for art, but Montclair is nevertheless overstepping a more basic tenet of ethical conduct. . . . If allowed to proceed, a museum will have found another way to monetize its collection without consequence.”

According to Urbanelli, the museum “floated a small, tax-exempt bond after 2001, like many institutions in the midst of a campaign, for $5 million. We have no problem paying it and have been doing so religiously and have no problem continuing to do so.” Last year, however, the endowment dipped below a certain level, and the museum was forced to pay a higher interest rate as a result.

Urbanelli told ARTnewsletter, “AAMD certainly has questions about this—linking finances and deaccessions. I’ve talked to the president and yes, he understands that this will also help our endowment. It’s dishonest if I don’t say to you that this will probably increase our endowment in a way that makes the subtlest difference.” Calls to AAMD president Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., were referred to the AAMD’s public-relations agency, Resnicow Schroeder Associates. In an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, AAMD executive director Janet Landay wrote, “Montclair has been open about its plans before and after its official announcement. On the basis of several conversations, AAMD believes that the museum’s deaccessions conform to the professional practice guidelines of the AAMD.”

Ford Bell, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums, wrote in an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, “We cannot speak to any particular museum’s actions, but the AAM Guidelines are very clear. Proceeds from deaccessioning must be used for new acquisitions or the care of existing collections. While AAM is not a regulatory agency, we do expect museums to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of our standards and ethical guidelines.”

Last December, the National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, New York, withdrew from the AAMD and was censured by the association after the Academy’s board of directors announced it would sell two paintings from its collection and put the proceeds toward operating costs. The AAMD also prohibited its members from loaning works to or collaborating on exhibitions with the Academy.

Last month, representatives of the Academy met with AAMD representatives to discuss how the Academy could achieve financial stability and institute policies to preclude deaccessions for operating funds. According to Landay, “AAMD members are working with the NAD to help it reorganize its governance and professional practices.”

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