Collections and Deaccessioning in a Post-Pandemic World vol. 2: Towards a New Reality
(Museums Etc., 2021)
Along with the other contributors to this volume, I have been asked to respond to the question: What is the role of deaccessioning in a post-pandemic world? I admit I approach this question from a sidelong perspective, and I am not an expert. I am a former employee of a museum that operates more along the kunsthalle model, without much of a permanent collection. The New Museum in New York, where I used to work as an editor before I was laid off in a series of job cuts prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, is often described as a non-collecting institution, though it depends who and when you ask. I helped form a union at the New Museum in early 2019, in the face of significant opposition and outright hostility from the ostensibly progressive museum’s management. In our contract negotiations, it seemed that the museum had no collection and few resources when we proposed fair pay and benefits on a par with collecting institutions like MoMA (whose workers are also part of UAW-Local 2110), but did have a collection of sorts when that was convenient.
My experience at the New Museum has fundamentally shaped my understanding of museums as spaces of display, nexuses of social and political relationships, and workplaces. This last is an often-elided lens through which to analyze museums and their practices, but it is of immense importance: a museum does not function—indeed, cannot exist—without the labor of countless installers, custodians, registrars, visitors services associates, curatorial staff, IT technicians, designers, fundraisers, and so on. Many of these workers have lost their jobs, which is to say their livelihoods and likely also their health insurance, as a result of cuts made in response to the pandemic. At the New Museum and elsewhere, these cuts primarily targeted union members and low-wage workers overall; meanwhile, directors are praised for shaving negligible percentages off their salaries that approach and sometimes exceed one million dollars per year.
The COVID-19 crisis has permanently reshaped our social, political, and economic landscape. In the museum world, this has meant a slowing of certain neoliberal practices—namely the model of perpetual growth that prioritizes expansion and new construction—but the intensification of many others, chief among them that already-overworked museum employees have been hit with layoffs and furloughs, resulting in a bare-bones staff that remains, particularly in entry-level and front-facing positions, deeply underpaid. Deaccessioning objects from a collection for non-collecting purposes is understood as an ethical violation; why, then, are museums not similarly held to account for exploiting their workers? I argue that as we consider the changes facing museums today, we cannot think about deaccessioning apart from labor issues in museums.
1. There is no museum community.
We are meant to consider the role and effects of deaccessioning on the “museum community.” I want to push back on this: the museum community does not exist, since community implies a set of interests and sense of common purpose or belonging shared among members of a group, whereas those who work at and attend museums represent a variety of different backgrounds, perspectives, class positions, and so on. The overuse of the term “community” is certainly not limited to the cultural sector, but pervades the marketing output of all sorts of institutions and corporations as a means of overlaying relationships of exploitation with a veneer of friendliness or mutuality. What we think of as the museum community, or perhaps the museum world or art world, is actually a network of financial and sociocultural power relations with a variety of functions: to entrench the cultural capital of the rich while art-washing their hoarded wealth and providing them tax breaks; to contribute to global financial circulation through tourism and in many cases gentrification; and to solidify state power and enforce its cultural and social norms.
To explicate this claim, it’s helpful to look back at the history of the museum and the practice of collecting. Art historians Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, whose work on the origins of museums has been integral to my thinking, compare “today’s universal survey museum … to Roman displays of war trophies. The loot that was paraded through Rome in triumphal procession was often donated to the Roman public by wealthy benefactors and placed on public exhibition.” When the Louvre was built in the late eighteenth century, the museum exhibited “captured enemy arms” alongside “works of art, and cartloads of art pillaged from conquered nations arrived at the Louvre in triumphal processions designed to recall those of ancient Rome” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 449). The development of the museum thus relies, in part, on the looting of external communities and cultures, not least through Europe’s colonization of much of the rest of the world. One could argue, following this logic, that the European culture from which museums emerge—with its brutal efforts to “civilize” the other—is itself fundamentally exploitative.
From its origins, the museum has served to reify the power of the state through the violence of both outright expropriation and cultural hegemony. Early museums brought together pillaged art and objects in dedicated spaces to illustrate the wealth, might, and knowledge of those in power. Before the eighteenth century, that meant the king: visitors to regal art collections were effectively entering “royal reception halls,” in which they encountered the bounty of the king’s realm, his concerns and conquests, but also the presence—whether real or metaphorical—of the king himself (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 453). With the Enlightenment-era shift from monarchic rule to increasingly democratic approaches to governance in Western Europe, the princely art gallery evolved into the public art museum. Whereas “the royal gallery identifies the nation as the king’s realm,” Duncan and Wallach write, “the public art museum identifies the nation as the state—an abstract entity in theory belonging to the people. For this reason, public art museums could serve the needs of enlightened or modernizing monarchs as well as the new republican state” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 454–55). In both instances, the museum functions “as a symbol of the state, and those who pass through its doors enact a ritual that equates state authority with the idea of civilization.” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 450)
Thus there is no preexisting “public” for whom the museum is ostensibly designed; instead, the museum creates that public in the service of state power. It does so through conventions of architecture and display intended to make financial, spiritual or cultural, and political power manifest. In universal survey museums, “the visitor moves through a programmed experience that casts him in the role of an ideal citizen—a member of an idealized ‘public’ and heir to an ideal, civilized past.” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 451–52) The museum produces its public, which comprises those members of society considered empowered and deserving; in this, it (re)produces hierarchies of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Duncan and Wallach note that “the museum prompts the visitor to identify with an elite culture at the same time it spells out his place in the social hierarchy.” They cite sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel, who write, “Even in their smallest details … museums reveal their real function, which is to reinforce among some people the feeling of belonging and among others the feeling of exclusion” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 457). In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, new art museums appeared across Europe, where they reinforced the “growing social and political power” of the bourgeoisie—those intended to experience a feeling of national or cultural belonging (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 455). Today, art museums serve both the ultra-rich, who accrete power through boards and donations; the somewhat-less-wealthy creative class; and other internationally mobile individuals—in short, they serve and reflect the power of a global upper class.
Museums produce not only the museum-going subject—the bourgeois citizen, the creative-class globetrotter—but in effect produce the meanings of artworks as well. Influenced by Enlightenment ideals, museums in the mid- to late 1700s began installing collection items according to an art historical program, in which each artwork “represented a moment of art history [and] exemplified a particular category within the new system of art-historical classification” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 456). Artworks become exemplary of a particular artist or style within a particular conception of history: white, Western, patriarchal, linear, characterized by significant events and singular geniuses. The museum becomes responsible for elucidating that history for a larger audience. In one sense, Duncan and Wallach contend, the art historical approach served to democratize somewhat the experience of art, since it provided a classificatory system through which to appreciate art works and artists—for those with the time and resources to learn, of course. As a result, the space of the museum expanded to include not only royals and elites but the bourgeoisie; the ideological ground of the museum transformed accordingly. “For the middle class,” Duncan and Wallach write, “cultural achievement and individual genius were the essence of human history. The history of art—primarily understood as the history of artists—not only made this claim visible, it also enforced it as a universal truth” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 456).
Just as the museum makes particular sense of artworks, the artworks in its collection produce the meaning of the museum. Architecturally, most museums “sanction the idea that works of art should, above all, be viewed one-by-one in an apparently ahistorical environment”: white or neutral walls, paintings hung in a single line at eye level. “According to prevailing beliefs,” Duncan and Wallach argue, “the museum space, apart from the objects it shelters, is empty”—that is to say, neutral, free of ideology, a blank slate against which culture can appear (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 451). This presumption of neutrality, of course, has long been contested by thinkers and artists such as Brian O’Doherty, whose Inside the White Cube (1986) takes on the contemporary exhibition space. But by rendering invisible the ideological apparatus of the museum, “art history could justify in the name of humanity the appropriation and exhibition of art by the state: since art appeared as art history only in the museum, and since only art history made visible the spiritual truths of art, the museum was its only proper repository” (Duncan and Wallach, 1980: 456). The museum thus reifies its own significance. Yet if we recognize the history of the museum and of collecting as an extractive practice intended to entrench and enshrine white supremacy and class stratification, what does it mean for those with power—the primarily white and wealthy directors, trustees, and other figures that serve as leadership within the museum field—to establish and enforce rules about what can and cannot be done with those collections? What do such rules preserve and whom do they (dis)empower?
2. There is no work of art that is worth more than a person’s survival.
What is the role of the museum? Of the collection? According to their mission statements, many institutions exist to serve not only or even primarily the historical record, but the public. The Association of Art Museum Directors states that “the mission of all art museums is to serve the public through art and education” (Association of Art Museum Directors, 2011). The founding mission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 1870, as an example, tasks the institution with “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020). The brief text affirms the historical role of museums in providing art historical education and, through it, instruction in norms of comportment, class, and reverence toward the state.
But who is this public? As Bourdieu and Darbel have suggested, museums maintain various exclusionary mechanisms to foster or disallow a sense of belonging within them. Today, these include expensive ticket prices, locations in wealthy and established or rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, barriers of language, culture, and class that continue to shut some people out—and that, as we have seen, are not one-off issues for certain institutions but systemic problems inherent to the structure of the museum itself. Yet if we accept the claim of engagement with a broad public that most museums today espouse, why shouldn’t we consider those who work in museums as part of their public? What consideration are employees of a museum owed as regards that museum’s mission, focus, and administration? To be clear: Are museum workers better served by the museum retaining artworks it doesn’t have the space to exhibit or by being paid a living wage, fair benefits, retaining their jobs in times of acute crisis?
Guidelines set forth by the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, and the International Council of Museums prohibit deaccessioning objects for any reason other than to acquire new artworks for the collection—and, in the case of the latter two, for direct care. “By no means,” the ICOM guidelines insist, should funds raised from the deaccessioning of collection items “be used for the costs of regular museum administration or maintenance” (International Council of Museums, 2017). Museum director John Wetenhall explicates the rationale for this in a piece for the American Alliance of Museums’ website:
Using the proceeds from collection sales to fund operations or capital projects is prohibited in the museum field, a necessity whose urgency comes from the forbidden fruit of fiscal convenience: the temptation that museums hold objects in their collections of such monetary value that they could address almost any financial challenge. Sell collections, solve crises. Easy, except it is not, as the sale of collection objects—especially the most valuable—depletes the museum of its very reason for existence and violates the fundamental fiduciary responsibility of the museum’s governing body to preserve its treasures for future generations. (Wetenhall, 2020)
Wetenhall assumes, as many do, that the “very reason for [museums’] existence” is to house and showcase works of art. Yet the AAMD’s statement clearly indicates that museums exist foremost to serve the public. How do we reconcile these aims when the imperative to continue housing an entire collection of art during a pandemic and resultant economic crisis forecloses the possibility of meeting the survival needs of a critical segment of the museum’s public, that is to say, its workers.
One could argue, then, that museums should deaccession parts of their collection to reflect changing understandings of cultural value and the exclusionary violence upon which museums were founded. (The imperative of restitution is relevant here, though I have neither the space nor the expertise to discuss it here.) Consider the Baltimore Museum of Art, which in 2018 chose to deaccession seven artworks by white male artists from its collection (among them Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg) in order to raise funds to acquire contemporary works by women and artists of color. The museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, described the decision as stemming from a “commitment to rewrite the postwar canon.” This “unusual and radical act,” in his words,” offers a recognition of the ways in which institutional collections shape hegemonic cultural narratives—and how they might reshape them (Halperin, 2018). The money, however, remains within the collection; as far as deaccessioning goes, this is liberal, not radical. The BMA’s deaccessioning practice constitutes an important art historical intervention, but one that offers more symbolic than material transformation.
There are other benefits to deaccessioning. Wetenhall concedes that “it takes time and labor to prepare objects for deaccessioning. Every proposed object must be researched for legal ownership, to determine whether donor intent even allows for dispersal, and to make informed judgements on whether each object really should be disposed,” a process that requires various form of labor to complete (Wetenhall, 2020). Funds from the sale of deaccessioned works, moreover, would provide for the creation of new jobs at the museum, as Wetenhall acknowledges—at a time when nearly eighteen thousand museum workers have been laid off or furloughed (Moon, 2020). Even before the pandemic, conditions for many museum workers, particularly at the lower end, were dire. Most art museums are run unsustainably, on the underpaid (or unpaid) labor of overworked employees. Many museum workers can’t survive on their salaries—especially in departments such as visitor services, maintenance, and security, where the largest numbers of nonwhite workers are employed. The unlivable pay and unsustainable working conditions have spurred a recent movement of museum unionizations, initiated by the formation of the New Museum Union.
Current deaccessioning policies imply—when they don’t state it outright—that a museum that cannot financially sustain its operations should close rather than sell works from its collection to fund them. I offer an alternative proposition: a museums should close if it cannot or, more likely, will not pay all its staff a living wage, as determined by the workers. Of course, we might lose many museums this way. But it’s worth considering what we’re so intent on preserving, and at what cost. Ruth Taylor, executive director of the Newport Historical Society, asks, in an email to colleagues shared with Hyperallergic: “Do museums exist to protect and preserve collections for an unknowable future, or are they here to serve their communities here and now? It is way too easy to just say ‘both,’ but … sometimes these ideas will create conflict” (Beatty, 2018). Taylor’s invocation of an “unknowable future” seems particularly salient here, at a moment in which we face a global pandemic and its attendant economic devastation, unabated anti-Black police violence, encroaching fascism, unprecedented wildfires ravaging the west coast of the US, and more. What future are we in for? Can we survive it?
3. Everything has to change.
One of the concerns with more permissive deaccessioning policies is that it becomes a form of financial investment or speculation for museums. With the increasing corporatization of museums—which manifests in workplace practices and trustees borrowed from the corporate world as well as the emphasis on expansions and blockbuster exhibitions—deaccessioning risks becoming a form of asset management. The Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts was harshly censured by the Association of Art Museum Directors for its plan to deaccession many of its most valuable artworks via Sotheby’s auction. Aiming to cover an annual deficit of $1.15 million, build their endowment, and transition toward a focus on science and history rather than art, the Berkshire Museum deployed deaccessioning as a financial too, effectively an extension of profit interests (Sutton, 2018). In 2014, the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, sold a George Bellows painting from their collection to raise funds for the college’s endowment. For this, the museum received a sanction from the AAMD, which urged other institutions not to lend works to or otherwise collaborate with the Maier (Kennedy, 2014). AAMD contended that the museum’s decision to deaccession artwork to fund operations enacted what has been described as a “semantic transformation from art as ‘education’ to art as commodity” (Simmons, 2015). But an artwork, whatever else it may be, is always also a commodity under capitalism. Its display in the “neutral” space of the museum is intended to conceal the artwork’s commodity status, to erase the labor that went into its production and display.
To avoid sanctioning deaccessioning as further financialization of the museum, it is imperative to consider who decides what should be deaccessioned. While public input is prioritized in official guidelines (Association of Art Museum Directors, 2011), the involvement of a broader public is often inadequate. In the case of the Berkshire Museum, a group called Save the Art—Save the Museum formed to contest management’s decision to deaccession, specifically condemning what they saw as the exclusion of public feedback from the process: “The Museum created extreme divisiveness in the community by not engaging its constituents—even its members and donors—in its intention to sell the art” (Sutton, 2018). Yet Berkshire Museum leadership contend that they “consulted hundreds of people in [the] community,” and Save the Art’s interest in preserving “the most important of the remaining art” at the expense of the museum’s continued existence suggests that the community they represent is both necessarily partial and invested in maintaining hierarchies of taste and class (Parnass, 2018). The public, as we have seen and as the Berkshire Museum debacle makes clear, is an expansive and contested sphere that shapes and is shaped by sociocultural and political norms. As Carol Duncan writes, “To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths. It is also the power to define the relative standing of individuals within that community. Those who are best prepared to perform its ritual—those who are most able to respond to its various cues—are also those whose identities (social, sexual, racial, etc.) the museum ritual most fully confirms” (Duncan, 1995: 8).
With the coronavirus crisis, more and more people have come to recognize that the museum field as a whole requires real transformation—and not simply because it is no longer safe for people to gather in indoor spaces. At its core, the museum is an exploitative and expropriative institution; I don’t believe it can be reformed through minor policy changes and task forces and open letters to uninterested directors. In advocating for museum workers’ right to earn enough to survive during a pandemic, I advocate for unionization, the dissolution of the board structure, and ultimately collective stewardship. If that means I advocate for deaccessioning, so be it. But I want a world in which museum workers don’t have to fight for their survival, a world in which deaccessioning isn’t a question because ownership no longer exists. To twist a popular phrase, there are no ethical museums under capitalism. And if this seems like too much to demand, so be it. As the Situationists would say, Be realistic: Demand the impossible!
Association of Art Museum Directors. (2011). Art Museums and the Practice of Deaccessioning. https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/PositionPaperDeaccessioning%2011.07.pdf
Beatty, B. (2018, August 2). The Deaccessioning Debate in Museums. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/453416/the-deaccessioning-debate-in-museums/
Duncan, C. (1995) Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge.
Duncan, C., & Wallach, A. (1980). The Universal Survey Museum. Art History, 3(4), 448–469.
Halperin, J. (2018, April 30). “It Is an Unusual and Radical Act”: Why the Baltimore Museum Is Selling Blue-Chip Art to Buy Work by Underrepresented Artists. Artnet News. https://news.artnet.com/market/baltimore-museum-deaccession-1274996
International Council of Museums. (2017) Guidelines on Deaccessioning of the International Council of Museums. https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/20170503_ICOM_standards_deaccessioning_final_EN-v2.pdf
Kennedy, R. (2014, March 13). College Art Museum Hit With Sanction After Sale of Bellows Work. New York Times. https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/college-art-museum-hit-with-sanction-after-sale-of-bellows-work/
Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2020). https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met
Moon, M. (2020). _Museum Staff Impact of COVID19 - Week of 07/31/20. Google Sheet. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1acEaRssONaAlFjThEFybfhBBIb3OIuOne-NHsghOMxg/edit#gid=0
Parnass, L. (2018, July 2). Foes of continued Berkshire Museum art sales ramp up message. Berkshire Eagle. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/foes-of-continued-berkshire-museum-art-sales-ramp-up-message,543779
Simmons, J. (2015). The Deaccession Dilemma: Laws, Ethics, and Actions. http://www.connectingtocollections.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/The-Deaccession-Dilemma-Powerpoint-2.pdf
Sutton, B. (2018, February 20). Berkshire Museum Resolves Dispute with Norman Rockwell’s Sons, But Legal Battle Rages On. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/427692/berkshire-museum-deaccession-dispute-norman-rockwell/
Wetenhall, J. (2020, January 8). A Modest Proposal for Museum Collections: Apply the principle of direct costs for deaccessioning. American Alliance of Museums. https://www.aam-us.org/2020/01/08/a-modest-proposal-for-museum-collections-apply-the-principle-of-direct-costs-for-deaccessioning/