Readers will no doubt be puzzled by the news this week that the Detroit Institute of Arts—fresh off of the Grand Bargain, in which an infusion of donations and fundraising led to the transfer of the collection’s ownership back to the museum and off the table in the context of the Detroit Bankruptcy—is moving ahead with plans to deaccession works of art in its collection, a Van Gogh in particular. There are a number of things going on in this latest development, which need to be distinguished.
First, DIA has made explicit that its intended deaccessioning will be used to acquire more art. Whether under the guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), or the New York regulations (which have no application in Michigan, but are the only legislative or regulatory enforcement of deaccessioning concepts), this decision would pass muster. In each of those perspectives, the sine qua non of deaccessioning is that the proceeds be used only for the care and acquisition of art, not other operating expenses.
This approach has sharp critics, however, and it will be interesting to see whether others join the fray with respect to Detroit specifically. After all, in staving off calls to monetize the collection or even sell it off, DIA drew a fairly categorical line, not that it could only deaccession pursuant to AAMD/AAM guidelines, but that it could not deaccession at all. As Donn Zaretsky (who continues to be the most eloquent critic of the current deaccessioning consensus) pointed out in response to the news:
Wait a minute. Didn’t the Michigan Attorney General tell us the works in the museum’s collection were held in charitable trust for the people of Michigan? I believe that he did.
And didn’t Graham Beal, the director of the museum, say that that “any sale of art will most likely lead to the museum’s dissolution”? Any sale of art. I believe that he did.
Behind all this, is the uncomfortable question of the logical extension of these principles. Museums like the Delaware Museum of Art have been heavily sanctioned by associations of which they are not even a member—but the museums are still there. And the frequent contention that deaccessioning puts public access to art at risk is simply wrong. DIA could sell the Van Gogh it is marketing to a private collector, buy art with the proceeds, and be within the AAM/AAMD guidelines while the art would be lost to the public. So that can’t be it.
My sharpest objection to the deaccessioning debate remains how obvious many commentators claim the right answer is. It doesn’t seem so obvious from here.