Arts Seattle Art Museum to Publish a List of The Art It Sloughs Off
A few weeks back I wrote a column urging the Seattle Art Museum to reconsider its policy against publishing a list of its deaccessions. (“Deaccessions” is a big word referring to artworks that the museum gets rid of because they are in poor condition or otherwise deemed unfit for the permanent collection.)
It sounds counterintuitive that a museum would want to give up art, but there are often good reasons for doing so. Still, I wrote, the process should be public because the collection is essentially a public trust.
Yesterday, SAM director Mimi Gates told me that SAM has decided to change its policy, and to start publishing a list of deaccessions in its annual report every year. “It’s never come up as an issue before,” she said. “We want to be open and perfectly honest, and we try to be transparent as times change. I had to think it through, but it makes perfect sense.” (Who says journalism can’t change the world?)
Do other museums publish deaccessions lists? I didn’t know where to go to ask, so I checked in with Culturegrrl blogger Lee Rosenbaum, a veteran in the field of art reporting and writing. She responded:
I know of only one that does so, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it does so under an agreement forged with the NY State Attorney General’s office, after the AG investigated some famously problematic Met deaccessions back in the 1970s. The Met only reports the sales of art over a certain dollar value, and that threshold has risen over the years to $50,000. … There may be others who do this, but I don’t know of them. None that I know of publish advance lists of works that they propose to sell from their collections, although auction catalogues obviously provide an advance heads-up on works that aren’t sold privately. I understand why museums don’t want to publish such lists: The sale of anything important is sure to provoke controversy. To which I respond: If there are good arguments against selling a work, then let them be heard before the loss to the public patrimony is irrevocable.
If SAM were the first art museum in the country to voluntarily publish its deaccessions list in its annual report, that would really be something to applaud. Anybody know any other museums that do this?
Still, Culturegrrl’s point is important: it’s healthier, and more important, to announce intentions instead of past deeds. Will SAM consider this? If not, why not? That’s a question I’ve put to Gates just a few minutes ago via email.