To sell or not to sell?
There are other things to do with art that seldom leaves storage, apart from deaccessioning
By Mark Fisher. Web only
Published online: 20 June 2011
Almost everyone interested in art or museums both in the UK and further afield reacted with horror two years ago when Southampton City Council on the south coast of England proposed to sell Sir Alfred Munnings's After The Race, 1937, and one of two Rodin bronzes, Crouching Woman, 1882, or Eve, 1880.
Not only would that have punched a hole in an outstanding regional collection, built up in the 1940s and 1950s on the advice given by Kenneth Clark, but it would have sent a clear signal to other galleries and museums that, if they were short of money, they could turn to their collections and flog off paintings.
Apart from the undermining of a fine collection that includes such old master rarities as an Allegretto Nuzi triptych and a portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola, in addition to good English paintings (Van Dyck, De Wint, Richard Wilson), excellent 20th-century British paintings and half of the Milner-White studio pottery collection (Leach, Hamada, Staite Murray), what was especially worrying was that the council proposed to use the proceeds of the sale to build a tourist visitor attraction, “Sea City Heritage Centre”, to tell the story of the Titanic.
That proposal was eventually withdrawn to general sighs of relief but all the questions about the appropriateness of museums selling works—deaccessioning—were reawakened and explored last month in a seminar at the National Gallery organised by law firm Farrer & Co, "Foul Play or Opportunity Knocks? Deaccessioning and Disposal from UK Museums": timely, when the financial pressures on public museums and galleries look likely to sharpen in the years ahead.
Other countries, notably the USA, do not share our British caution about deaccessioning and do not subscribe to the restrictions on disposal in our body of legislation and in the Museum Association’s ethical guidelines that provide the context for disposal in the UK. But in a lucid and scholarly speech Gary Tinterow, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, explained the different cast of mind among curators and trustees in the USA: that the contents of museums (with the exceptions of the Smithsonian and the Met in New York), were not considered to be “for all time”; that collections should reflect the changing tastes of directors, curators and the public; that it should be possible to alter and enrich a collection by means of disposals and acquisitions; in short, that they should be “actively managed”.
He made an attractive and intelligent case that was countered, equally well, by Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, and Timothy Potts, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, whose previous museums (the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne) offered contrasting approaches. Simon Jenkins, the chairman of the National Trust, voiced a fundamental concern: how does the public benefit from works that are held in store, often for years, unseen? If they are not to be shown, should they not be sold to people or institutions who do want to exhibit them?
It is indeed the case that many of our national museums have works in store that they will never show and which, as a result, the public are denied any chance to see, except in reproduction or on line, both of which are very different experiences. We, the public, own, and finance the care of, these works.
But selling them on the open market to the highest bidder is not the only way to get them out of the storeroom. More enthusiastic loan policies, or permanent transfers, to other public collections or other exhibitors, would serve. These have financial implications (loans are expensive; permanent transfers can put a burden on a small collection’s curatorial and conservation budgets) but we should be pursuing both with far more determination than at present. Why are our national collections not more imaginative in lending to National Trust and English Heritage properties, or to universities? Why are works in the Government Art Collection, or in the excellent collections of the Arts Council of England and the British Council seldom exhibited?
But deaccessioning is another matter. In the USA the relaxed, imaginative and attractive attitudes described by Gary Tinterow take place in a wholly different financial context. It is not simply a matter of culture. Many museums over there are supported by donors and philanthropists whose generosity is underpinned, and subsidised by the US tax payer, by personal tax concessions. If a work is sold there is always the strong likelihood that funding will be available to enhance, indeed even to significantly change, the quality and character of a collection. In such a fluid financial context it is easier to be relaxed about disposals and acquisitions. Here, where almost every public collection has limited, sometimes non-existent, funds to buy new works, the situation is very different, and the questions about what criteria should apply to disposals, and who should make those decisions, are vital.
The Southampton case was worrying because the momentum to sell came from the council, for purely financial reasons. Had the motive been to enhance the quality of the collection (as was the case in every US example given by Gary Tinterow) the debate might have been very different.
All existing UK legislation (the Museums and Galleries Act 1992, the National Heritage Act 1983, the British Library Act 1972 and the British Museum Act 1963), and the guidelines of the Museums Association (MA), have at their centre the questions of quality and motive. They restrict disposals, and transfers, to works that are damaged, or duplicate, and all specify that money accruing from disposals must be spent on acquisitions.
If we are to consider any variation in our present arrangements it is vital that we are clear about the criteria that would apply. Decisions should be made by directors and curators, on grounds of artistic quality. Proceeds should be ring-fenced. Tax incentives, such as proposed in the recent Goodison Report, should be introduced by the government. Museums and galleries should be encouraged to adopt far more open loans policies. The criteria in the Museums Associations code of ethics are slow (decisions can take two years), but not inflexible—the sale of a De Chirico by the Estorick Foundation, of which I am a trustee, was agreed by the MA, with the proceeds being put into an endowment to enhance the quality of the collection.
Such reforms would allow us to maintain the framework that has served us well in sustaining the integrity of our great collections, while enjoying some of the advantages of being more open, relaxed and flexible with regard to disposals and transfers. A British compromise, and a sensible one.
The writer was Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent until May 2010 and was Minister for the Arts from 1997 to 1998. He is a trustee of the Estorick Collection.
For more opinions on deaccessioning, see our June print edition
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