Nonprofit Newswire | Museums Free to Sell Off Works of Art to Remain Solvent

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August 10, 2010; Source: New York Times | It’ll be interesting to see if there is an uptick in sales now that the New York State Legislature is not likely to ban all museums from selling pieces of their collections to cover their operating costs. While some institutions are already prohibited from converting their precious treasures to cash to help cover day-to-day expenses, the proposed legislation, which appears to have died in the face of strong opposition, would have stopped the practice outright.

According to the New York Times, museums routinely sell artworks, but most of the time they use the funds to buy more art. The Times says when museums sell art—a process called deaccessioning—and use the money for operating cash instead of acquisitions, that’s something that many consider “a misuse of funds that jeopardizes preserving cultural heritage as a public trust.”

Still, even those who don’t support selling art for operating funds objected to the proposed legislation because they fear that it was both too broad and too restrictive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, said in an e-mail, “While we respect efforts to bring clarity to the deaccessioning process, we believe the Metropolitan Museum has maintained a scrupulously transparent process for more than three decades—tightly governed by its trustees, subject to review by the State Attorney General, and requiring that funds from deaccessioning be used only for the purpose of acquiring other works of art.”

Calls for a ban have been sparked by controversial sales in recent years. The National Academy Museum sold Hudson River School paintings to cover operating costs and last year Brandeis University decided to close its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection. After criticism to that plan, the university in May said it was exploring options, including possibly raising money by lending works from the collection, forming partnerships with other institutions.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, was obviously not happy with its failure and worries what might happen next. Brodsky, who is running for New York Attorney General, said, “If we don’t act here, the bean counters will triumph,” he said, “and we’ll see huge amounts of public art privatized.”—Bruce Trachtenberg