Sell a Work of Art, Create a Scandal: The Ongoing Battle Over "Deaccessioning"

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Edward Hopper
Heres how seriously SFMOMA takes Intermission (1963) -- we bet you won't read it all:

Collection SFMOMA, purchase in memory of Elaine McKeon, chair, SFMOMA Board of Trustees (1995-2004), with funds provided in part by the Fisher and Schwab Families; © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art; photo courtesy Fraenkel Gallery
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Next Thursday (May 17), moneyed admirers of American artist Edward Hopper can bid on the painting Bridle Path (1939) at Sotheby's for an estimated $5 million to $7 million. SFMOMA described the work as being "of interest to Hopper scholars as an atypical work by the artist." In the very same press release, the museum announced the acquisition of Intermission (1963), which is "recognized as one of his best works."

But this is not an article about SFMOMA's recent acquisition, or even its "deaccession" of Bridle Path, which might confuse regular readers of this series. Recent Acquisitions has reported on additions to Bay Area cultural institutions, whether esoteric pieces or adorable fuzzy animals. It is important to understand, however, that acquisitions have a necessary accomplice within the world of collections strategy: the deacqusition, better known as the deaccession.

Institutions are rarely as forthcoming as SFMOMA, and with good reason: Certain news organizations have treated the process as scandal. When mistakes were made, they made headlines. Any sale, trade, or donation might ignite a firestorm of controversy, creating a false sense of urgency.

This unwanted attention has put cultural institutions on the defensive. Indeed, it was challenging to find arts employees willing to discuss the subject on record, if at all, but transparency is imperative - particularly when the process of deaccessioning is not only crucial, but necessary.

According to the Association of Art Museums, "deaccessioning is practiced to refine and enhance the quality, use, and character of an institution's holdings." When deaccessioning, institutions should be guided by two concerns: the mission of the institution, and the appropriateness of the collection.

Collections reflect the priorities of the institution, which strives to remain relevant.

"What might have seemed like a good acquisition 30 years ago may no longer be the case," says professor Edward Luby, director of SF State's museum studies program.

Objects were acquired with the best of intentions, but perhaps they now stand in stark contrast with the rest of the collection.

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Edward Hopper
Bridle Path (1939) is not like other Hoppers.
SFMOMA has continuously reviewed its collections for several years. This involves curators, researchers, and conservators as well as an accessions committee and a full board of trustees. Chief curator Gary Garrels believes Hopper's Intermission "better compliments the museum's postwar collection," and "will instantly take its place among the most important works." The sale of Bridle Path will be used to partially offset the purchase of Intermission.

Similiarly, SFMOMA deaccessioned Joan Miró's La Meneuse de lune (1975) in 2010. The lithograph appeared out of place in a collection that does not focus on prints. Garrels considered the Miró "a late work of lesser quality and not significant within the artist's printmaking practice."

SF State Professor Linda Ellis, senior curator of the University Museum, can think of many circumstances that can lead to a deaccession, including duplicate holdings, space limitations, hazardous materials, and deterioration of objects. Ellis sees no reason for a museum to keep hazardous materials - including radioactive minerals, sulfur-based minerals, arsenic minerals - when "the museum does not have the resources to store or exhibit them safely," particularly when "these collections may be deaccssioned to other museums with the appropriate conditions."

What about crumbling old newspapers, moth-ravaged clothing, or collections damaged by flood or fire? Ellis believes "these objects can be ethically deaccessioned by destroying them and documenting the reasons and process."

Duplicates proved to be a recurring theme. The Center for Sex and Culture's recent "Smut Sale" consisted of many redundant materials. Head librarian Anissa Malady believed it was also an issue of content and context. Deaccessioning can be emotional, so Malady researches "the provenance and relevance of the works in relation to our collection and its future -- and try not be subjective -- but open and rely on the date, the values, and demand for the items we hold."

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Giving rare frogs to other institutions builds goodwill.
Not all deaccessioned items are sold or traded. Helen Taylor, the communications manager at the California Academy of Sciences, is proud of the academy's participation in numerous captive breeding programs, which reduces pressure on wild populations. Last year, the academy donated more than 50 green mantilla frogs to the Oakland Zoo.

"Green mantellas are an endangered species from Madagascar," Taylor explains, "that few institutions have had success breeding."

The academy has enjoyed great success and can provide other institutions with a sustainable population for educational exhibits. Such cooperation between institutions is important to everyone involved, because it enhances the collective ability to educate visitors and garner support for wider conservation efforts.

If institutions and their collections seem to largely benefit from deaccessioning, why all the fuss? Egregious errors have been made, resulting in cultural tragedies. In February, UC Berkeley, made headlines when it misplaced a carved redwood relief by celebrated African-American artist Sargent Johnson and later sold it for $150 - when it is valued at more than $1 million. (For the record, the relief was not a part of BAM/PFA, who had nothing to do with the sale, nor was the institution consulted.)

To be clear, this act was in opposition to ethical guidelines and standards for museum professionals in general. Art should not be viewed as an investment to be sold when favorable market conditions exist, as one would do with stocks and other securities. According to the Association of Art Museums, the revenue from deaccessioning should always go to new acquisitions.

Mistakes, however, are rare, but the news media and cultural institutions seem to be stuck in a destructive cycle, one that means we read about the scandals while the institutions remain guarded. Luby believes museums should take a more active role in transparency and community engagement.

"All in all, the museum community needs to enhance its efforts to have the public understand the need for, the value of, and the professional approaches in place for deaccessioning," Luby says.

Most cultural institutions do deaccession responsibly, an act that is beneficial to the object, collections as whole, the institutions involved, and the community members who enjoys them.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

151 3rd St., San Francisco, CA

Category: General

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