Why ‘deaccessioning’ is an art museum controversy

There are rules for museums that want to sell valuable art. And they’re controversial.

Most of us will never have to worry about what to do with that Picasso we don’t want anymore, but for museums, it’s complicated.

art musuem

In May, Sotheby’s will auction eight pieces from the Whitney Museum of American Art, including Edward Hopper’s “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro,” worth an estimated $8m-$12m, per ArtNews.

It’s a process known as “deaccessioning,” and it’s a long-running controversy in the art world.


… is when a museum permanently removes something from its collection.

This can happen with poor quality, fake, or illegally obtained items; many museums have repatriated looted artifacts to their home nations.

The controversy here surrounds the sale of valuable art. It removes art from the public trust. Plus, if museums can sell their art, why give them donations?

But, as with most things, covid changed deaccessioning and deepened the divide.

For years…

… the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) ruled that museums could only use such funds to acquire new art, else face sanctions that cut them off from other member institutions. This allowed museums to evolve and diversify their collections:

  • In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold seven pieces for $16.2m to acquire works from women and Black artists.

But when the pandemic shut museums down, AAMD decided they could sell art to provide “direct care” to their collections. This led to renewed criticism as museums navigated looser rules.

  • BMA tried to sell three works in 2020, including a Warhol, to increase wages amid criticism that museums exploited lower-income workers of color, but bailed after backlash.
  • AAMD later defined “direct care” as storage and preservation — but not salaries.

The Whitney’s plans adhere to AAMD rules, but could still receive flak. And we’re just thirsty for art drama not involving AI for once.

Fun fact: Former President Barack Obama once borrowed “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro” to hang in the Oval Office.

Topics: Museums Startup

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