April 29, 2004

Deaccessioning update

A highly-placed art world source points me to this piece in the Art Newspaper on MoMA's deaccessioning. Apparently MoMA is a particularly active deaccessioner: "few other museums are disposing of so many works of such high quality, so regularly," says the newspaper.

Cronaca, last month, made a compelling defense of the practice in theory, but failed to address MoMA specifically. I think it's well worth drawing attention to the Pollock sale, particularly: this is a major work by one of the greatest American artists of all time, and it's hard (although, admittedly, not impossible) to imagine something more important which could replace it.

My suspicion is that the Pollock is being sold because of its size: it's not a crowd-pleaser in the way that so many of the artist's more famous works are. But more generally, selling $28 million of art at auction without any indication of what you're going to spend it on seems reckless to me, especially when the works you're selling are of significant historical importance. I would feel much more comfortable if MoMA's deaccessioning policy was much more transparent, with the museum making public a list of where it thinks its collection is overstuffed, and where it thinks it has major gaps.

Posted by Felix at 03:16 PM GMT

"selling $28 million of art at auction without any indication of what you're going to spend it on seems reckless to me"

Did you ask? Or does, "without any indication" mean, "without having said anything in public that would pop up in the Google search I did in a simulacrum of reporting." Reckless indeed.

Posted by: Matthew on April 29, 2004 04:03 PM

I don't know, Matthew, I think you're trying to impose a code of ethics on blogging. Never been clear to me why the parameters for a disccussion are different for blogs than they are, say, for newspapers and magazines. if you buy the socialist worker, you pretty much know what you're getting, as would be the case with the speccie or weekly standard. or the sun, vs. the nyt. the products serve different purposes and different audiences and hold dear to their own moral codes. what's different here?

Posted by: charles on April 29, 2004 04:20 PM

One assumes that if John Elderfield had anything specific to point to, he would have pointed to it, rather than speaking generally about "works of greater importance". Moreover, if I was running a museum and was in delicate negotiations to purchase a major work or collection, then I wouldn't identify the art in question until everything had been finalised. That makes perfect sense. My point here is that (a) we don't know if MoMA is in any such negotiations; and that (b) MoMA can, either way, make a public statement of which works it considers "less essential to the collection" and which areas it's looking to strengthen. That's what I'm looking for in terms of an indication of what it's going to spend the $28 million on, and that's something it's never provided.

Posted by: Felix on April 29, 2004 04:23 PM

Don't they have bills to pay for a major renovation? How much would that cost? Sometimes you have to spend money to buy a wallet.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on April 29, 2004 05:26 PM


I'm not sure, but I would assume that the MOMA's curator's have reviewed their objectives with the Board. The MOMA truly does have an extensive collection and much of it simply can't fit, hence their expansion and sojourn in Long Island City.

The Pollock isn't being destroyed, it might move, but why should New York be the only institution to have examples of his work? How many Pollocks does one need to understand the work? If "all of them" is the answer then perhaps someone will curate a retrospective.

Anyway, the secondary sales of art are a curious and rarified atmosphere. Many times these purchases are more about "cultural capital" and society. The collectors are more than happy to allow curators to exhibit these works. Furthermore, once you've spent 5 million on a painting do you just put it on your wall? I've seen rooms decorated with Picasso's, Johns' and even an Eva Hesse, but there aren't too many people who buy these works just to put in the living room.

What would MOMA do with 26 million dollars? Well for one it might go to fund PS1 and help purchase art from current artists who will be the future Picasso's, Matisses and Pollocks.


Posted by: Gherimiah on April 29, 2004 05:57 PM

That, Stefan, would be a blatant violation of the American Association of Museums code of ethics, which says that "in no event shall [deaccessioning proceeds] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

Posted by: Felix on April 29, 2004 06:00 PM

Good points all, Gherm. But you can't simply assume that the Pollock is going to go either to another museum or to a collector who will lend it out to one. If you wanted to ensure that, you could do so by organising a private sale, or a mutually-beneficient swap of some kind with another museum.

I'm sure the board is involved, but if they know what the museum wants to buy, why shouldn't the rest of us? Is there any reason to keep such ambitions a secret?

As for contemporary art, MoMA has not proved itself particularly good on that front. And I would be overjoyed if the board allowed proceeds from MoMA sales to go to PS1, but I doubt that will ever happen.

Posted by: Felix on April 29, 2004 06:05 PM

It's not a code of ethics, Charlie, it's simple common sense. Either the museum has or has not said why it's selling. I'd be interested to know. But the fact that there's no public record of any comment matters not one jot.

Posted by: Matthew on April 29, 2004 06:38 PM

No, Matthew, you don't get it. The museum HAS said why it's selling. The quote in full: �MoMA regularly deaccessions works that are less essential to the collection to make possible the acquisition of works of greater importance. This has been part of the ongoing process of shaping and refining the collection since the museum�s inception.� Surely you, of all people, can recognise a fuck-off-you're-not-getting-any-more-than-this statement when you see one.

Posted by: Felix on April 29, 2004 07:13 PM

Sounds pretty straightforward to me. What's so reckless?

Posted by: Matthew on April 29, 2004 07:16 PM

"American Association of Museums code of ethics." That's quaint. I'm sure there is a code of ethics for pornographers and pipe metal fitters out there somewhere. But I missed the part where MoMA is a public institution, and therefore, bearing any duty to respond to anyone who ain't ponying up big donor dollars. I know we can get a room full of fusty elbow-patch-wearing curator types to huff about ethics, but aren't we being a wee bit naive about how a place like MoMA operates and what it represents? I'm all for the government funding for the arts; I also recognize that participating in a discussion about the merits (or lack therof) of anything MoMA does only serves to reinforce the myth that they have any 'public' duty.

Posted by: miss representation on April 29, 2004 07:19 PM

I was just quoting you for the pure consistency of the bad joke of it Matthew, I'm sure your right...

Posted by: Charles on April 29, 2004 08:06 PM

Felix, so the money for renovations doesn't come from deaccessioning (can't we just call it cessioning?). Instead it comes from ticket sales, which would otherwise have been used for new art purchases. But now we have money for that. Who's keeping track? Is it even possible?

Posted by: Stefan Geens on April 29, 2004 08:26 PM

Oh, those are my words? It was such a pile of meaningless crap I assumed you'd written it.

Posted by: Matthew on April 29, 2004 08:27 PM

Max Andersen (former curator of the Whitney) claimed at a recent panel ('If You Build It, Will They Come?' at the Ctr for Arch) that admissions revenues comprise 12%-15% of operating income. He did not specific if acquisitions were part of operating costs or a seperate capital campaign. Given the slim numbers quoted for ticket sales, it seems unlikely any portion are assigned elsewhere.

Posted by: miss representation on April 29, 2004 08:34 PM

M.R. is quite right. Ticket sales don't even cover basic operating costs -- insurance, security guards, etc. Rebuildings like the one MOMA's currently involved in generally need their own dedicated fundraising campaign. Acquisitions, too, come from dedicated funds, with the occasional help of deaccessions. Except MoMA seems to have put all of its fundraising efforts into financing the new building, leaving nothing left over for acquisitions, which means the deaccession rate has increased.

Posted by: Felix on April 29, 2004 08:59 PM

F: that's the upshot of what Max said (I know he got a lot of flack at the Whitney, but you know, he went from there to the Capitoline): museums overspend on phyiscal plants since it's easier to extract donor dollars for edgy architecture than to focus on curatorial duties. More traffic is the ostensible egalitarian goal (though some do try and get away with the argument that musuems can become self funding through creative program management, which ends up being deaccessioning and lending your collection to casinos), but it's really a circle jerk where museum staff get to rub elbows with the real power, and slather themselves with the lubricant of shiny new galleries. Everyone goes home spent and giddy, and the hangover comes in the form of quiet (or not so) auctions like this. Again, fuck 'em, since it's their party. I'll go to the Cooper-Hewitt in the meantime.

Posted by: miss representation on April 29, 2004 09:13 PM

Exactly. Why is it that art museums spend orders of magnitude more money on architecture than they do on art? For the cost of one Getty Museum or Guggenheim Bilbao or Tate Modern -- or even Dia:Beacon, for that matter -- you could easily fund all of Roden Crater ten times over.

Posted by: Felix on April 29, 2004 10:56 PM

I like the name Roden Crater. I'm going to repeat it aloud all day. Roden Crater. Roden Cater. Roden Crater.

Posted by: Jame on April 30, 2004 02:10 AM

So, Matthew, by this logic, it appears you think both of us write the same? Maybe I could get a job at the WSJ?

Posted by: charles on April 30, 2004 05:14 PM

No. You think too much.

Posted by: Matthew on April 30, 2004 06:26 PM

Damn, and I really thought I could make a hack of it. I was going to be the art critic who makes moey off mass re-producing critiques of popular artists, nom de plume Rodin Crater.

Posted by: charles on May 1, 2004 06:44 PM

...with help from yout loving parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sovthemoon.

Posted by: Matthew on May 1, 2004 11:04 PM