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Can Museums Cash In On Art?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time” (1875)

Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time” (1875) is a masterpiece of American genre painting. It’s a quietly intense farm scene in which a mother and son turn away and gaze over a wooden fence that seems to say something about held-back emotions.

The painting is owned by the Delaware Art Museum, but it will be offered at a Sotheby’s auction this fall, unless a buyer turns up beforehand. It will be the second painting sold by the museum in a practice known as deaccessioning — when museums sell artwork to fund operations.

Art critic Deborah Solomon thinks the practice is very troubling. “Trustees who sell paintings are cannibalizing their own collections,” she said. “The gesture is seen as self-defeating. It’s a little bit like burning your roof to heat your kitchen.”

The museum says it needs to sell the works to help settle a $19.8 million expansion debt. Solomon says this is a cautionary tale about the perils of over-expansion, something that several New York museums are embarking into — The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and probably also the Frick Collection. “Everybody wants to put new wings, assuming that architecture draw viewers, every museum wants to be a destination,” she said. “But sometimes expansions do send museums into debt that they cannot get out of.”

One famous example, Solomon said, is the American Folk Art Museum, which built a new building on 53rd Street and got into so much debt that it moved back to its original small space at 2 Lincoln Square in 2011.

Solomon also believes deaccessioning is often only a short-term solution. She mentions the example of the National Academy Museum, which, in 2008, sold two Hudson River paintings from its collection — one by Frederic Edwin Church and another by Sanford Robinson Gifford — to help defray operating expenses. The sale brought in $13.5 million. Six years later, the museum is mired in financial problems and laying off staff. “At best, selling a painting is a temporary fix. It gets you out of the hole right now but it doesn’t save you in the long-term, because in the long-term, you need to have a collection for people to come see.”

What do you think? Is it okay for museums to sell their artwork to raise money to pay their bills? Why or why not? Join the conversation.

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Comments [4]

Chris Rose

"the museum is mired in financial problems and laying off staff." This statement about the National Academy is absolutely untrue. The financial structure of the National Academy Museum has improved steadily each year since the deaccessioning.
There were recent layoffs related to a restructuring and were not financially motivated. Ms. Solomon has not done her homework in this case and is simply repeating the uninformed opinions of art world gossip blogs.

Aug. 09 2014 11:31 AM
Kat from Brooklyn

All museums "deaccession" art. That does not necessarily mean selling it for the the sole reason of getting $ for it. Most of the time it is because of space--that is most museums have many more objects than are actually on view. Museums deaccession objects that take up space unnecessarily; not all objects are created equal and many museums end up with big lots of objects when they are interested in a single object as many collectors wish for their collections to maintained as the whole they envisioned. Museums more often deaccession to make room for new and better quality objects more often than they sell masterpieces to stay afloat. While the author is clearly passionate and has an interesting point on the museum expansion front, the intentional or unintentional slim view on how museums operate and why they deaccession is not accurate in many cases. Additionally it unnecessarily demonizes the institutions who have no other choice but to sell their art, their heart and soul, to stay open to the public and provide the multifaceted safe-space educational symposium that museums make it their mission to be.

Aug. 08 2014 12:31 PM
Bill from Nyc

This listener thinks that museums would see a more stable long term rise in attendance through investing in art education in middle schools and high schools around the country than from tapping all resources for architectural expansions. I grew up in an area where there were no art museums and adults knew little or nothing about art history from any time or culture. My experience is more similar to a vast majority of Americans than to the lucky few that grow up a walk or subway ride away from world class art collections. The opportunity to expand attendance through education is a long game that will require museum boards knowledgable in art history and education, and willing to invest in ways that may not result in having buildings and rooms named after them.

Aug. 08 2014 08:56 AM
Harriet from New York

Deborah Solomon is absolutely correct. Museums are depositories, living libraries where the public can learn, enjoy and inspiration grows while your inner soul "rejuvs". It is never about the building- it's about "what's inside the box"! I spent so much of my childhood popping in and out of museums in NYC and knowing that special pieces were there for my enjoyment and inspiration, and taught my children the same. And so it should be for everyone. It actually is a problem that because of the entrance fees being so high that a lot of the public would make a decision between a movie or a museum; this should not be. Museums are our emotional and visual histories and stories of our cultural souls.

Aug. 08 2014 06:53 AM

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