Home Museum institution The time has come to relax the rules for American museums wishing to sell their works. Did this brief change have a lasting impact?

The time has come to relax the rules for American museums wishing to sell their works. Did this brief change have a lasting impact?


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 a two-year window. He said museums could direct funds to “direct collection care” – rather than restricting them to other art acquisitions. Intended to mitigate the dire financial consequences of the pandemic, these resolutions expired on April 12 this year, ending an era of expanded alienation. Did this brief change have a lasting impact on the leadership of American museums as a whole? The answer is complicated.

For some museum professionals, the past two years could be described as a frustrating experience. 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: Andy Warhol’s monumental The last supper (1986) and paintings by Brice Marden and Clyfford Still. The sales were intended to fund a $65 million endowment supporting various equity 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 multiple board resignations 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.

Critical questions

Christopher Bedford, the outgoing BMA director, said in a statement to The arts journal that he remains committed to “ask critical questions about the systems that underpin our institutions and take concrete action to change, improve and reinvent these structures to meet the demands and needs of our communities.” Diversity and inclusion “should be a central part of the ongoing conversation about alienation,” he says, adding that he hopes there will continue to be “an in-depth discussion” about the practice “well beyond the needs and contexts of the pandemic”.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has consigned Picasso’s work Head of a Woman (Fernande1909) at Christie’s this month © Picasso Estate 2022; courtesy of Christie’s

write for ARTnews, art lawyer Donn Zaretsky also argued that the relaxed restrictions should apply permanently, giving individual 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, the financialization of a museum’s collection is an untenable prospect.

“The definition of ‘direct care’ is notoriously vague, and many museums could be tempted to monetize collections to meet budget shortfalls in the future if this option is deemed acceptable by the profession,” warns Martin Gammon, adviser in art and author of Alienation and its Discontents: A Critical History. Although AAMD guidelines have been updated so cash-strapped museums can survive the pandemic, Gammon points out that few of the recent disposal sales were driven by financial desperation. Like many critics of the practice, he argues that it should always prioritize curatorial intent over financial planning.

The alienation debate is one that thrives in the troubled waters of the American museum model. Many American museums are built on an unstable confluence of the public and the private, and many conflicts arise from trying to balance the interests of donors, visitors, and the institution itself. For some museums, selling works from the collection to increase staff salaries amounts to “direct care”; for others, ensuring that an early Impressionist masterpiece remains in the public’s trust is a priority. The more flexible policies of the past two years have done little to clarify these nuances, leaving museums to their own interpretation.

Nevertheless, a conservative approach to alienation still seems to dominate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year sold about $1 million worth of alienated prints and photographs to make up for lost revenue during the pandemic, but the works were all duplicates in the museum’s collection and the product was significantly lower than that of BMA. Goal of $65 million. “The relaxed guidelines were a temporary measure at a time of enormous challenges, but we are beyond that now,” says Andrea Bayer, the Met’s deputy director for collections and administration. “Museums are funded by philanthropy and revenue, not by the sale of art.”

According to museum spokespersons, funds from the upcoming auction of Picasso’s Met Cubist bronze sculpture, estimated at $30 million at Christie’s New York on May 12, will be reserved for acquisition. The same goes for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) sale of two paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, valued at $9 million together at Christie’s this month. “At MFA, we don’t take disposal decisions lightly,” says museum director Matthew Teitelbaum. “Our commitment has been, and in the current circumstances will continue to be, to use funds [from] alienation for purchases of works of art.

From this point of view, it appears that the debate on alienation is practically settled. The AAMD reverted to its pre-pandemic regulations, and museum officials followed suit. The idea of ​​selling works to guarantee the functioning of museums has again become a chimera for some, a nightmare for others.