Yesterday, the New York State Board of Regents approved new rules for deaccessioning artworks from museums and historical societies chartered by the state. The amendment takes effect on June 8. In essence, the rules clarify the existing standards for deaccessions, i.e., they should be made only to fund acquisitions. (Institutions created before 1890, such as the Metropolitan Museum, are chartered by the state legislature, which is considering a similar bill.)
According to the new rules, institutions seeking to unload work must meet at least one of ten criteria, such as an object being inconsistent with its mission, a redundancy in its collection, a fake or stolen. They must provide a list of deaccessioned items to the state board every year.
The Association of Art Museum Directors and American Association of Museums have historically taken a firm stance against deaccessioning, with the exception of selling works for the purpose of making new acquisitions. In 2008, the AAMD admonished the National Academy Museum in New York for selling two Hudson River School paintings—Frederic Edwin Church’s Scene on the Magdalene (1854) and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Mount Mansfield, Vermont (1859)—in order to pay its bills. It raised $13.5 million from the sale and has gotten its house in order. Sanctions against the National Academy were lifted last October.
In 2008, the New York regents put into place emergency regulations that prohibited museums from selling artwork to fund operating costs, just as the economic recession was bearing down on nonprofits. It allowed those regulations to expire last September, setting off alarm bells for deaccession watchdogs. Brandeis University, which in 2009 attempted to sell off the collection and shutter its Rose Art Museum, and Fisk University in Nashville, which since 2007 has sought court permission to sell works from its Stieglitz Collection to fund university operations, are two prominent cases of institutions seeking to bypass deaccessioning standards in order to stay afloat.
In 2009, New York State assemblyman Richard Brodsky proposed a bill, and also included libraries and zoos, which would have made it illegal for institutions to sell works for any other reason than acquisitions. It also required all institutions to catalogue their entire collections, at their expense. In a May 2009 interview with Art in America, Brodsky expressed the hope that the strict New York bill, which met with some opposition from major New York institutions, would set a precedent for museums nationwide.
Above: Frederic Edwin Church’s Scene on the Magdalene (1854)