Detroit, Deaccession and the Cultural Role of Museums


Back when the Barnes Collection found itself financially desperate, before various foundations stepped in to rescue the institution, strong-arming a move from Albert Barnes’ purpose-built, purposely suburban museum to The Parkway in Center City Philadelphia, I used to joke about the Barnes deaccessioning a few redundant Renoir bathers to help pull that institution out of its financial morass. However: 1) I was joking; 2) the Barnes board is sadly uninterested in my suggestions in any case; and 3) it is totally out of bounds-rightly so-for an institution like the Barnes, in stewardship of a public collection, to treat that collection as an asset. Period.

Dollar Signs - WolfIn May, we first heard ominous whispers of a scheme by Detroit’s “Emergency Manager” Kevyn Orr to liquidate the city-owned world-class collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to help pay off municipal debts. This was, of course, even before Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July. Reactions have heated up considerably over the past month with the news of the shady bankruptcy filing and the revelation that Orr had already invited Christie’s to appraise the DIA collection.

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For the record: it’s a shocking, absurd and patently stupid idea, supported by no one with good intentions, with the since-retracted exception of The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl. More on that below.

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First reactions have died down, but, alas, this disaster plot remains far from over; the fate of the DIA is still a vital cultural and political issue for the arts in the US. Many supporters have mobilized to keep the threat to the DIA active in the media. Last Wednesday, for example, art critic Tyler Green organized “A Day for Detroit,” for which a group of art blogs and museums posted or otherwise promoted works from the DIA collection. It was a great show of support that got picked up by major newspapers and cable news, helping to make news of the threat to the DIA more mainstream.

The continuing DIA episode has brought the issue of deaccession-the process museums follow to officially remove an object from the collection-out into the open. Deaccessioning isn’t a mainstream concept, but it gets at what’s important about the sum of a museum’s collection and why circumspection and judiciousness are the better parts of valor when it comes to altering that collection. That, in part, is why Orr’s fire sale mentality is so troubling.

Last month, in his essay calling for the selling of the DIA collection (which he took back two days later, after an uproar), Schjeldahl mocked the word, even as he misrepresented the process and intent of deaccession:

I demur from the hysterical piety, among many of my fellow art folk, that regularly greets news of museum deaccessions-though I do wish museums would have the guts to abjure that weasel word for selling things off. (Paging George Orwell.)

Certainly, museums have been known to use weasel words and doublespeak, but “deaccession” is not an example. There’s more to deaccession than just “selling things off”-as Schjeldahl ought to be well aware. (Note, too, his weaselly straw-man argument about “art folk” purportedly always opposing deaccession.) There isn’t too much left to say about Schjeldahl’s original take, since Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic dispensed with it handily and definitively. However, I use the essay as an example of general ignorance about the deaccession process.

Deaccession is by design a slow and deliberative process. The general guidelines are governed by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), both of which accredit museums and determine binding ethical standards. (The International Council of Museums serves a similar role outside the US, and has essentially identical deaccession ethics standards.) The AAMD released a statement about the DIA collection available here.

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The principle of deaccession most relevant to Orr’s plan for the DIA concerns the money raised through the sale of artwork removed from a collection. Funds raised from deaccessioned artwork can be used to acquire other artwork for the collection. Full stop. This idea is fundamental to the AAMD policy on deaccessioning (PDF available here) and reiterated by that organization in an open letter to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed Orr as “Emergency Manager.”

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The Met can’t rummage through its vault and sell an Ingres drawing to pay its electric bill. Money raised from artwork deaccessioned from a museum collection cannot be used for an endowment or for operating expenses or for any other purpose. Museums are not allowed to consider their collections capital; collections are not financial assets. Which means that it’s particularly awkward, museologically, that both Governor Snyder and “Manager” Orr have publically referred to the collection of the DIA as among Detroit’s “assets.” Snyder and Orr, of course, aren’t subject to AAMD oversight, but this would not only be catastrophic for Detroit and the DIA, but would set a catastrophic precedent for the security and stability of museums, as well as likely chill potential future donors of artwork.

A Museum Collection Is a Curatorial Argument

So, there are strict rules governing deaccession and the politicians in charge of Detroit are beginning to take action in contravention of those rules. It’s important to think about the purpose of those rules, what function they serve for the museum and the work they do to keep museums vibrant institutions in their communities.

In his first, “sell the art,” essay, Schjeldahl makes a point about the value-financial and metaphysical-of the art as opposed to the value of the institution:

Art works have migrated throughout history. Unless destroyed, they are always somewhere. It’s best when they are on public display, but if they have special value their sojourns in private hands are likely temporary. At any rate, they are hardly altered by inhabiting one building rather than another.

And even in his retraction, he maintains, “Still standing is my will to distance the values of art, as art, from those of art institutions, which are often inimical.” I suppose something like this could be reasonably argued in certain cases; however, the fate of the DIA is not one of them. He’s simply wrong about this.

Rivera - Detroit Industry at DIA - North Wall
Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, 1932-1933
Detail of fresco cycle at the DIA / via

Most basically, he is wrong about the site-specific work in the DIA collection, in particular the monumental cycle of Diego Rivera frescoes, commissioned for the DIA in the early 1930s. Rivera painted his scenes celebrating Detroit as a center of industry in a grand room on the entrance axis of the then-recently built, Paul Cret-designed museum. Location in the city of Detroit was never just incidental to the DIA.

More generally, museums are scholarly, educational and caretaking institutions. They’re also exciting and entertaining to visit. The DIA has been building, studying and displaying its collection since 1885, and while it’s corny to make claims to grand, optimistic intentions like stewardship of artworks for the public good, that is exactly the kind of principle at the foundation of creating and maintaining a public collection. And over the years, the DIA has become one of the most important collections in the country.

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In 2011, The New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin interviewed a number of directors of major museums about the role of deaccessioning in the building and focusing of their collections. Thomas Campbell, director of The Met, compared the process to “a gardener pruning a tree over a long period of time.” The directors of The Met, MoMA, The Whitney and several others were open and forthcoming with examples of deaccessions and about the hyper-specific, very carefully considered reasons why individual works have been or would never be removed from their collections. It’s an interesting read for all the candid explanations of the museums’ policies, but it’s also an important articulation of the cultural role museums fill.

What we can learn from the strict rules of deaccession is that the process is a tool museums use to improve their collections, make them more relevant and consolidate their resources. Because of this tree pruning directive-and because the funds can only be used to purchase artwork more consistent with the more focused shape of the tree (OK, I’m done with that metaphor), the collection as a whole means something.

Every museum has fields and sub-fields-or even individual artists-that they collect broadly and deeply to acquire specialties. We can think of a museum collection, as well as installations and exhibitions of that collection, as an argument. A collection is the professional, expert staff of a museum making a case for the value of a particular group of artworks. What’s more, relationships among artworks-connections, echoes, homages, dissonances, rejections, jokes-that become evident when the artworks can be seen together are part of what make a public collection more than the sum of its individual objects.

Bruegel - Wedding Dance 1566
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Wedding Dance, c. 1566

Just one example: Consider the juxtaposition in the DIA collection of the Rivera frescoes and Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1566 painting The Wedding Dance. The DIA offers the unique opportunity to see these two paintings during a visit. Almost 400 years separate the images, but they both depict groups of people in specifically meaningful spaces engaging in significant social rituals (however, only the Bruegel includes codpieces). These two paintings highlight opposing social priorities-work vs. recreation-but the compositions, the variety of exaggerated poses and the cultural information about the past to be gleaned from them all contribute to making each of them more interesting and communicative in context with each other at the DIA.

That is why the proposal to liquidate the DIA collection is so shocking. It would not only disperse beloved artworks to which the people of Detroit have become deeply connected, it would destroy the vital interplay among these artworks that the museum has presented as an argument in the public service for more than a century.

Add to that the long-term financial implications of Orr’s illegitimate tag sale (great link!). Selling off the DIA collection in this time of financial turmoil is particularly short-sighted, considering that the opposite approach, maintaining and reaffirming support for DIA through the municipal bankruptcy, would likely help generate revenue for the city on an ongoing basis, into the future, as the arts are wont to do. What was it that happened to that goose that laid those golden eggs? How’d that turn out?

Read the CFR’s previous coverage of the threat to DIA’s collection here and here and here.