March 18, 2019

Museums are overrun with art, but spring cleaning is no easy chore

Museum Stockroom Overloaded

Museums are coming to terms with the reality that they can’t maintain their enormous art collections, which might never be displayed and worse yet, are still growing. These inefficiencies are coming to light and are seen in the rating, cataloging, and distribution outlets of the artworks themselves.

How did they get to where they are?

Wealthy art owners have been giving museums their stuff for decades, either due to philanthropic reasons, tax deductions or just the prestige of seeing their works on display in esteemed settings. The issue is that these objects can be anything from actual art by famous artists to things dubiously deemed worthy of being preserved and displayed such as cocktail napkins, underwear, and other personal effects.

The issue is it’s far easier to get more stuff and museums accumulate it at a faster rate than they can put on display and some items, such as those with paper, can only go on for so long because of light sensitivity. As a result, all of these objects have to go somewhere and have to be well taken care of, creating an issue of sustainability for the institutions.

Even More Art is Coming

The process of deaccessioning items, the formal term for disposing of an art object either through sale or transfer to another institution, is much easier said than done. There is a lot of red tape that prevents museums from culling their collections. Or worse, it forces them to increase them. For one, the Association of Museum Directors has strict guidelines dictating that proceeds from art sales can only be used to acquire more work, not to cover operating costs like staff salaries. What’s more, is getting rid of art means going through several layers of approval and sometime’s that’s not even possible.

The Brooklyn Museum can’t get rid of an over 900-item collection given by Col. Michael Friedsam, who died in 1932. The issue is a quarter of the gifts were fake, misattributed or of poor quality. Yet, deaccessioning them requires permission from his executors, the last of which died in 1962.

Independent of restrictions, however, is simply future and changing demand for art. As contemporary art becomes more popular and museums aim to integrate more work by women and artists of color, there is bound to be more art making its way into museums as well.

How some museums are deaccessioning

Charles L. Venable, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, took it  upon himself to begin a process that eventually led to the deaccessioning of some 4,615 objects by assigning each item a letter grade from D (a “has been”) to A (an absolute masterpiece) depending on a given work’s aesthetics, physical condition and whether the museum had better examples in the genre. Based on these grades, the museum sought to find new homes for the objects that would value them accordingly: some institutions might have many specimens of an item and thus consider it a ‘D’ and others might have none and consider it an ‘A.’

Our thoughts and the historical footprint

If museums are institutions are tasked with both preserving and sharing history with future generations, it makes one wonder how much physical history is displaced and lost because it never made it into a museum. As mentioned above, wealthy collectors certainly contribute valuable works that museums are happy to have, but they also contribute things that are just that, things. Moreover, the value of an object could very well be an arbitrary decision by a museum authority and combined with the structure of the curatorial and deaccessioning process, a lot of junk could very well be taking up valuable climate-controlled space because of some technicality.

How much history are we presented that’s only considered noteworthy because someone put it in a glass box? Some collectors, not content to see their collections languish in storage, take matters into their own hands and create private museums. But for us mere mortals who can’t afford to acquire, store and display collections, can we still make history?

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