As the pandemic stretches into its second year, places of gathering like art galleries and museums continue to see financial record lows. Faced with serious deficits and woes, some galleries are taking advantage of looser rules on selling off art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is doing just that – considering selling off some of its artwork assets to make up for a deficit that could sink them. Last year, the museum association governing these art sales gave the green light for museums and galleries to sell off some of these precious pieces if it became necessary. 

In 2020, the Rules on Selling Art Were Loosened

Met Selling Art

Art galleries and museums often hold some of the most precious assets in the world. Although one can see the pieces at a glance – say Sunflowers or The Persistence of Memory – and know that they have staggering monetary value, the rules governing how they can be sold have been strict in recent decades. In order to preserve historically significant pieces, like those of Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dali, a committee was established to oversee the private sales of significant pieces.

The Washington Post explains, “To counter the constant temptation to regard art works as a way to get quick cash, the museum world heavily polices the sale of works from permanent collections — otherwise known as deaccessioning. The powerful Association of Art Museum Directors [AAMD], made up of directors of museums in the United States, Mexico and Canada, has long frowned on any museum that sells off art for purposes other than acquiring new art.”

If a gallery or museum violates these rules and sells off pieces without approval, they’re publicly censured and shamed, a tactic which has devastating effect on a business that relies on public good will and good press. 

However, as a sign of how dire things have become for industries that rely on public spaces, last year, those rules were loosened. WaPo continues, “However, in an unprecedented move, and as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic, the AAMD has recently relaxed its guidelines. It’s too soon to gauge the effect, but it is already big news in the art world. Once unthinkable, the notion of selling off a Claude Monet or two to plug a budgetary hole — or to fend off a total financial meltdown — is suddenly something to contemplate.”

This decision has been met with a combination of relief and horror – depending on who you ask. Museums facing financial shortfalls are glad to be able to sell off some of their more lucrative pieces in order to keep their doors open. Serious art collectors and historians worry that these precious pieces will find their way out of the public eye and become more private commodities. 

Met Considers Art Sell-Off

It’s against this serious and weighty backdrop where the Met is considering selling off some of its pieces to make up for a deficit that it’s facing. The museum signaled that it was going to be evaluating pieces to sell after a weak financial forecast. 

The New York Times shares, “The Met’s move toward deaccessioning immediately encountered some resistance, surprisingly from its former director, Thomas P. Campbell, who on Saturday posted on his Instagram account that he was ‘disconcerted’ by the news.

‘While I know as well as anyone the complexity of running that behemoth, and I have great sympathy for those in the driving seat, I fear that this is a slippery path,’ wrote Mr. Campbell, now the director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. ‘The danger is that deaccessioning for operating costs will become the norm, especially if leading museums like the Met follow suit. Deaccessioning will be like crack cocaine to the addict — a rapid hit, that becomes a dependency.’”

But Met director Max Hollein has said that this deaccessioning will be intentional, and part of the plan is to put that money into acquiring new pieces from underrepresented populations. The museum signaled last year, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, that it would be diversifying its assets, looking to purchase more pieces from Black artists and women artists among others. This sell-off would partially facilitate that progress.

The Times adds, “‘There is some urgency in this,’ said Ian Alteveer, the Met’s curator of modern and contemporary art. ‘We’re facing a huge budget deficit. We’ve tried for years to get more robust funding for conservation, one of the prime things related to collections care.’

Understanding that deaccessioning can be a lightning rod — particularly if members of the public object to specific sales — Hollein said that engaging in this evaluation process is the more conscientious course of action.

‘Every museum in the U.S. is having these conversations,’ he said. ‘Do we want to use this window? What would it mean for the institution? What would it mean for the collection?’ For us not to discuss this now would be irresponsible.’”

The Future of Art Galleries in a Post-Pandemic World

Met Museum

The future indeed looks bleak for businesses reliant on public gathering. As the pandemic stretches on with no clear end in sight, Hollein is right – museums and art galleries across the country are discussing how to stay in business. Not just to pay employees, but to continue preserving and displaying the pieces of history they so lovingly curate. 

What sort of future can these places face with such high uncertainty? For now, selling off assets seems reasonable – in fact the only reasonable path forward. However, criticism of the process brings up valid points, and it’s a reminder that the people in charge of these priceless pieces of human history have a grave and weighty responsibility not easily borne by just anyone. In the end, they will have to strike a balance between selling pieces they can afford to lose but not turning into a business that looks for the best deal – or best profit. That sort of shift could spell doom for precious works of art and pieces of history that everyone should have access to. 

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