New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has chosen to sell off sixteen Old Masters paintings from its permanent collection – including Peter Paul Rubens’ “Portrait of a Young Girl,” believed to be his daughter Clara Serena Rubens, who died at the age of 12.
So much for the term “permanent collection.” The purpose of the sale is to pay for more art for who knows how long.
Art that you donate to your favorite museum, then, can be deaccessed—sold off to the highest bidder to make room for, and fund the purchase of, new works. In practice, it means that some works transcend a curator’s personal taste and others simply don’t. .
In 2001, 350 photographs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) did not suit curator Peter Galassi’s taste. He reevaluated the photography collection and pruned. Among the pruned were photos by lens luminaries Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray. Galassi said at the time that he considered it his duty to sell:
“Museums are based on the principle of attempting to separate the great from the very good. It’s not proper for current custodians to saddle future custodians with obligations that may keep them from doing their job.”
It goes without saying that “great” and “very good” are subjective terms.
How do you tell the difference between great and very good? “There’s no such thing as absolute unassailable judgment about the quality of a work,” Galassi said. “It’s a collective process that goes on forever. You can make a mistake. There’s no guarantee.” In other words, curators may sell a diamond to buy a dog.
MoMA’s founding director, Alfred Barr, deaccessed a Picasso painting, “La Statuaire,” nearly 40 years ago, believing it “too beautiful to be important.” Today it is considered one of the most complex and masterful studies of Picasso’s studio. A private collector paid $11.8 million for it at auction in 1999.
BTW, the auction was karmic payback: Some of the photographs that Galassi sold had been donated by Barr.
Thomas Hoving, www.examiner.com/article/making-the-mummies-dance-and-other-no-no-s former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, once told me that top museums have a strong motive to accept less than the best. “Every fund-raiser knows that wealthy art lovers are far more likely to give the endowment fund money if the museum will accept any art they want to give.”
As for donated works, MoMA is not obliged to keep it or display forever; although the museum does credit donors on exhibit labels of art purchased with proceeds from sales of works they gave. For example, the label for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, bought with money from the sale of a Degas donated by Lillie P. Bliss, reads: “Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.”
As for daccessioning, it has its own life. Three years ago, New York lifted its ban against the sale of museum. And even that wasn’t big news. Five years ago New York's National Academy Museum deaccessioned two works of art from its collection not to buy more art, mind you, but to cover operating costs!
So, if you like to see your name associated with art, but without the art, sally forth.