In April 2020, just weeks after the global Covid-19 shutdowns began, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced it was relaxing rules on how museums use proceeds from sales. of art, or alienation, for two years. He said museums could direct funds towards “direct maintenance of collections”, rather than limiting them to other art acquisitions. Intended to mitigate the disastrous financial consequences of the pandemic, these resolutions expired on April 12. Did this brief change have a lasting impact on the activities of American museums? The answer is complicated.
Despite the AAMD’s relaxed policies, several museums were still under public scrutiny over their disposal sales. The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) faced particularly fierce condemnation in October 2020, when it announced plans to sell three works from its collection. The sales were intended to fund a $65 million endowment supporting initiatives such as staff salary increases, diversity programs and free admission to special exhibits. While the plan was supposed to align with AAMD guidelines, the BMA faced an outcry, including resignations from the board and a terse letter from a group of US museum executives. Sales were canceled at the last hour, leaving the planned endowment with significantly reduced funds.
Look beyond the pandemic
Christopher Bedford, the outgoing BMA director, said in a statement to The arts journal that diversity and inclusion “should be a central part of the ongoing conversation about alienation”, adding that he hopes there will continue to be a “vigorous discussion” about the practice “well beyond of the needs and contexts of the pandemic”.
write for ART news, art lawyer Donn Zaretsky also argued that looser restrictions should apply permanently, giving museums more freedom to weigh the costs and benefits of art sales themselves. For its proponents, alienation represents another tool in a museum’s arsenal for overcoming financial setbacks. For critics, valuing a museum’s collection in economic terms is an untenable prospect.
“The definition of ‘direct care’ is notoriously vague, and many museums may be tempted to monetize collections to meet budget shortfalls in the future if this option is deemed acceptable by the profession,” warns Martin Gammon, l author of Alienation and its Discontents: A Critical History. He points out that few of the recent disposal sales have been driven by financial desperation.
For some museums, selling works from the collection to increase staff compensation amounts to “direct care”. For others, ensuring that an early Impressionist masterpiece remains in the public’s trust is a priority. The looser policies of the past two years have done little to clarify these divergent interpretations.
Nevertheless, a conservative approach to alienation still seems to prevail. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art says the $48.4 million (with fees) fetched by its bronze Picasso at Christie’s on May 12 will be reserved for acquisitions. The same applies to the sale by the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston of two paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, although one of them (A sunflower from Maggie, 1937, is $6-8 million) was repurchased at the same May 12 sale. “We don’t take disposal decisions lightly,” says museum director Matthew Teitelbaum. “Our commitment has been, and under the current circumstances, will continue to be to use funds [from] alienation for purchases of works of art.
From this point of view, it seems that the alienation debate is practically settled. The AAMD reverted to its pre-pandemic regulations, and museums followed suit. The idea of selling works to guarantee the functioning of museums has become a pipe dream for some, a nightmare for others.