When Bad Things Happen To Good Museums

from the Pre-Raphelite collection at the Delaware Museum of Art

What does it say about our supposedly great and civilized society that in the midst of economic recession, the government bails out mega-banks (and their CEOs and shareholders reap the rewards) while our venerable cultural institutions—public art museums— are forced to consider selling off chunks of their collections in order to keep the doors open?

The Association of Art Museum Directors is an international professional organization that governs the field of art museums in North America, along with the American Alliance of Museums. These are the organizations that set standards and practices for most art museums, including when and why it is acceptable for a museum to sell works of art from its collection. Their policies on deaccessions1 are similar, and they amount to this: in order to avoid a betrayal of trust in the public and the donors upon whose gifts museum collections are built, artwork and objects in the collection can only be deaccessioned for the purpose of improving the collection, never for the purpose of raising capital for operating expenses.

In other words, a museum can’t sell artwork in order to raise funds to repay debt. A museum can only sell artwork if the funds will be used to purchase other artwork (presumably making the collection a stronger one).

"Portrait of Postman Roulin" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888. Detroit Institute of Arts

“Portrait of Postman Roulin” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888. Detroit Institute of Arts


Last fall, the Detroit Institute of Arts narrowly escaped having some of its collection sold in order to provide much-needed funds to the bankrupt city2, 3. Unlike most public museums (which exist as their own non-profit entity), the City of Detroit owns the collection and the building that houses the DIA. Facing bankruptcy, the city’s state appointed “emergency manager” raised the idea of selling off works of art to help cover the city’s $18 billion debt.

Fortunately, a group of nine local and National foundations stepped up and committed $330 million in a deal that saved the DIA and its collection. Had the sale occurred, it would’ve been the largest deaccession from any public institution, and would have effectively ended the Detroit Institute of Arts4. The loss of such a venerable institution, and the damage done to museum’s reputations worldwide would have been irreparable. Public museums rely on wealthy collector’s bequests and donations of artwork (which are often accompanied by stipulations that the work never be sold or deaccessioned.) Why would any collector leave their “priceless” works of art to any museum if they might later be sold to raise a few shekels to pay the rent, despite stipulations to the contrary?

But it is still too early for museum lovers to breathe a sigh of relief: two new examples are now in the news.

"Woman and Birds" by Joan Miro

“Woman and Birds” by Joan Miro, is one of the paintings being sold by the Portugese government.


Obsessed with downsizing the government in light of the European economic crisis, officials in Portugal announced that the government would auction off works by the artist Joan Miró at Christie’s in London. Although the auction house cancelled the sale in February amidst the outcry, it recently announced that the sale would go ahead in June5.

Gabriela Canavilhas, a Socialist lawmaker who is against the sale and also happens to be Portugal’s former culture minister even cited the Detroit case by saying “even in Detroit, which was declared bankrupt, their final decision was not to sell any art.”


Closer to home, trustees of the Delaware Art Museum announced a unanimous decision to sell up to four works from the permanent collection in order to retire debt incurred from municipal bonds used to pay for an expansion in 20056. The museum was originally to have until 2037 to pay back the loan, but a series of setbacks triggered by the economic crisis have effectively accelerated the loan repayment schedule.

Delaware Art Museum... Art Is Community

Art is Community… except when we need to betray the Public Trust by selling art we promised not to.

According to the DAM’s press release7 , the trustees analyzed other options before resorting to deaccessioning, including refinancing the debt, fundraising from public and private sources, and forming alliances with other institutions. The museum had already sustained budget cuts and staff layoffs. But whether these other options were fully explored, or merely entertained for the sake of being able to say “we tried everything we could to save it” is not clear from the release. Try harder, DAM!

The sale is expected to raise $30 million, of which nearly $20 million will be used to retire the debt. The remaining $10 million will go towards strengthening the Museum’s endowment. In other words, exactly the thing the American Association of Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums says it can’t do. (The AAMD has not remained silent on the issue, having urged the trustees not to allow the sale. It remains to be seen what, if any, sanctions the museum could receive from the AAMD.)

And the Delaware Art Museum trustees aren’t announcing which of the four artworks could be sold, which would certainly be a rallying cry for lovers of those particular pieces. The trustees only said that none of the artworks were acquired through bequest or donation. Hmmmm, I wonder why?

At least the DAM tried to maintain the appearance of transparency, by releasing the aforementioned press statement and a cute “frequently asked questions”-style document about the sale which is obviously meant for the public8 (and for its staffers who will have to answer questions from the public, to whom my heart goes out.) This Q & A document glosses over some important issues, however. In the answer to “Does the Museum have a deaccessioning policy? Did the Trustees follow it?” the document simply states that the board of trustees’ decision supersedes the deaccession policy. In other words, yes they have one, and no they didn’t follow it.

Elsewhere in the Q & A, the DAM trustees promise that this is a singular, one-time-only event, never to be repeated. Really? Cross your hearts and hope to die? Unless the trustees of this museum can look into the future with their powers of prescience, how can they make such a promise? Deaccessioning once sets a precedence forever more. (And if the trustees are prescient, why didn’t they use those superpowers back in 2003 when they made those bad bond deals?)

In a post dated March 28th, the NonProfit Quarterly reports that the “Delaware Art Museum expects to be shunned for a period of years” over the decision9. The story also includes what appears to be the full text of the censure from the American Association of Museum Directors. In it, the AAMD says it reached out to the DAM’s leadership multiple times over a period of months with offers of help to find other solutions, to no avail.

Put away your checkbooks future donors! And you’d better reconsider that bequest of art in your will, too! The trustees at this institution feel they can disregard professional standards and practices, as well as their own governing policies at will, simply because raising money is, you know, hard.

A list of the current Delaware Art Museum Board of Trustees is available here, should you wish to contact them.


The AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning (PDF, Association of Art Museum Directors, June 9, 2013)

2 In Detroit, A Case of Selling Art and Selling Out (New York Times, Sept. 11, 2013)

3 Fate of Detroit’s Art Hangs in the Balance (New York Times, December 3, 2013.)

4 Foundations Aim to Save Pensions in Detroit Crisis (New York Times, Jan. 13, 2014)

5 Most Anything Is Fair Game in Portugal’s Quest for Cash, Including the Mirós (New York Times, March 26, 2014)

6 Delaware Art Museum Will Sell Works to Pay Off Debt (New York Times’ Arts Beat Blog, March 26, 2014)

7 Delaware Art Museum Board of Trustees Vote to Retire Debt (PDF, Press release from the Delaware Art Museum, March 26, 2014)

8 Q & A (PDF, Delaware Art Museum, March 26, 2014)

9 Delaware Museum Expects “Shunning” as it Prepares to Sell Art (NonProfit Quarterly, March 28, 2014)

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