Museums United Kingdom

International move to curb disposals

UK position weakened, leading to calls for greater safeguards against rash sales

Privatised: "Bondage" by Ernest Normand, sold by a regional museum

LONDON. Leading international museum directors have restated their opposition to the financially motivated sale of works of art from public collections when the proceeds are used for “anything other than acquisitions or the direct care of the collection”. The call comes at a time in the UK when the pressure to sell works is increasing and concerns are rising at the lack of obstacles to ill-conceived sales.

Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of the Reina Sofía museum, Madrid, speaking as president of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (Cimam)—whose board includes Neal Benezra, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sheena Wagstaff, chief curator, Tate Modern, and Kaspar König, the director, Ludwig Museum, Cologne—said Cimam was concerned by cases when money from sales was diverted to “things that had little do with collections, such as expansions”.

Cimam, which is a committee of the prestigious International Council of Museums, said museums risk suspension if they break this principle.

“It is important to restate that a public collection is different from a private collection,” said Borja-Villel. “The public collection has an element of memory—we must respect what colleagues have collected before us.” He added decisions need to be made by directors, “not by politicians or just managers”.

This follows the hardening of the US Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) opposition to deaccessioning to raise funds for operating expenses and expansion projects. In June, Kaywin Feldman, director of the AAMD, said: “No exceptions will be made.”

Concern is rising in the UK at the lack of safeguards to rash, financially motivated sales from regional collections at a time when pressure on local authority finances will increase following the coalition government’s austerity drive.

Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, said: “We are implacably opposed to councillors pointing to a Picasso and seeing a short-term solution to a funding crisis. Deaccessioning is not a sin but it has to be very carefully undertaken.”

Current safeguards are voluntary and depend largely on moral persuasion. The UK Museums Association (MA) has relaxed its ethical stance from a hard-line presumption against disposal to one that accepts that works of art might be sacrificed for the greater good of a collection. “The basic principle of museums in exceptional circumstances liquidating their collections is a principle that we have embraced since 2007,” said Maurice Davies, the MA’s head of policy, “and the world hasn’t come to an end.”

The MA did not protest when this year the Royal Cornwall Museum sold two paintings including Ernest Normand’s Bondage, 1895, which had been in the collection for 90 years and was considered important enough for Tate Britain to borrow for its reopening in 2001. The painting failed to meet its reserve at Christie’s in June and was then sold privately for just over £1m to build an endowment.

When in 2009 councillors in Southampton proposed selling a painting by Alfred Munnings and one of two sculptures by Rodin to help fund a maritime museum, it caused disquiet. “The MA thought the basic idea was OK,” said Davies.

One proposal for greater regulation is to create an expert panel that would review proposed deaccessions, an idea explored in detail by Edward Manisty and Julian Smith in the journal Art Antiquity and Law. Such a panel would act along the lines of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art (see box below).

Minister for culture Ed Vaizey, who is due to deliver a keynote speech at a seminar at the National Gallery in London next May to discuss deaccessioning, said: “It is primarily for museum professionals to navigate through these complex issues, but Government has an interest in the wider public policy context.”

So is an expert panel needed? Maurice Davies thinks not: “The last thing we want is another committee. And it would require legislation.” Diane Lees, the director general of the Imperial War Museum, who is also due to speak is also doubtful. “Arbitration is more helpful than a big mechanism for exceptional examples.”

Bendor Grosvenor, another planned speaker at the seminar, who is a director of Philip Mould and a former advisor to the Conservative Party on museums, supports the idea: “Government would be well placed to look at setting up an expert panel,” he said, adding: “If you had a panel it could help regional museums make decisions—and to get best value for sales.”

Fred Hohler, who set up the Public Catalogue Foundation to document the nation’s collection of paintings, said: “These collections are assets and they could be economic assets [to cities] if they were enhanced.” He also warned: “It’s not just the Titians, Veroneses and Botticellis, it is the ‘unimportant’ paintings [that should be protected] that are going to become increasingly important as a visual record of the world before photography—even more so when you add watercolours and drawings.”

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25 Nov 10
15:34 CET


To clarify the proceeds from the sale by the Royal Institution of Cornwall have been put into an endowment for the care of the collection. It was an act of last resort and will ensure hat the collections can be cared for to the standards expected of an accredited museum now and in perpetuity.

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