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When tough love does more harm than good

The Delaware Art Museum is taking a lot of flak for wanting to sell off four as yet unidentified works from its 12,500-item collection. It was either de-accession or die, said the museum.

La Bella ManoDate: 1875Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, British Pre-Raphaelite painter, 1828-1882
Delaware Art Museum

That’s no excuse, says the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), faulting the museum for pairing art with assets. (Yeah, like who ever heard of such a thing). If the sale goes through, the AAMD will instruct its 250 member museums to stop all art loans, in effect robbing the Delaware treasure house of national exposure.

This wouldn’t be the first time that sanctions were imposed on a museum for defying AAMD standards to stay solvent. Six years ago, New York’s National Academy Museum was disallowed from borrowing works for two years plus a five-year probation period because it sold two Hudson River School paintings.

Such sanctions are no small thing. National Academy director Carmine Branagan told the press: "You're completely incapable of designing exhibition programming going forward because you can't loan and you can't get loans, and sanctions also affect funding."

The AAMD sledge hammer came down again as recently as a couple of months ago when the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. sold a $25.5 million George Bellows painting "Men of the Docks" to the National Gallery of Art in London to beef up its college's endowment. The punishment? No American museum is allowed to collaborate with the Maier Museum.

Shouldn’t it be obvious to the AAMD by now that museums are in trouble and have been for a very long time owing to the rising costs of climate control, security and insurance? Isn’t this why we need to pay entry fees.

Once upon a time, museum entry was free. In the mid-19th century, American art collector James Jackson Jarvis urged his countrymen to found free museums: “To stimulate the art-feeling, it is requisite that our public should have free access to museums in which shall be exhibits in chronological series, specimens of the art of all nations and schools, including ours.”

The result, Jarvis said, would be a “perpetual feast” for all to feed on. When he wrote this, Americans were busy with the Civil War and there weren’t any art museums. But by 1888, his Art-Idea took off and half-dozen art museums opened to the public and were free of charge. Few museums are now.

Now may also be the time for museums to sell off parts of their collection to stay afloat. Even diminished, keeping museums going is better than losing them. Otherwise, private collectors will have the “perpetual feast” to themselves.

Note: A guess about which paintings Delaware will sell. Because the museum holds several paintings by British Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, maybe it’s four of these that will go on the auction block. See slide show of some the museum’s Rossetti holdings.

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