Should Art Museums be Allowed to Sell Art to Pay the Bills?

Photo: GV
Photo: GV

Judith H. Dobrzynski, a former Times art writer, had an interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times the other day (1/2) called “The Art of the Deal.” She lays out the financially troubled state of America’s fine arts museums – a condition known by now to all who follow this industry – and then advocates for a revisit of the self-imposed rule that museums cannot sell art to balance their operating budgets. After all, what museum doesn’t have store rooms stocked with secondary works?

Dobrzynski calls for the creation a system monitored by an informed but “neutral” third party that would help decide whether the sale of works of art from a museum’s permanent collection is warranted by extreme and unusual circumstance effectively beyond the control of the museum. Is the alternative – presumably, the financial collapse or near collapse of the museum – so dire that a temporary bending of the no-sell rule is allowable?

She concludes: “until [museums’ money troubles go away] , de-accessioning shouldn’t be imposssible – just nearly so.”

Whether her point of view gets any traction remains to be seen. But one distinction she failed to draw might be worthy of exploration: namely, the distinction between art that is part of a donor bequest (or purchased with donor-restricted funds) and art that is purchased by the museum’s trustees with funds they have themselves raised.

It is a distinction much like that between “permanent endowment” funds, that are held in the public trust and are untouchable, and “quasi-endowment” funds,  that have been assigned by the museum’s trustees to long-term investments but which, at their discretion, can be unassigned.

In other words: what trustees choose to do they can choose to undo, with cash and, presumably, with art.

I have no idea what proportion of our nation’s public art assets have been assembled in this way; at the Walters, it is a very tiny portion of our collections, most of which (and the best of which) were part of the Henry Walters bequest of 1931.

But for other museums – and specifically, the ones whose very survival is risk – it may be worth looking into.