July 2001

New French legislation allows works less than 30 years old to be deaccessioned

Contemporary art museums say their collections are undervalued and at risk

Thierry Raspail, the director of Lyon's Museum of Contemporary Art, was among those up in arms about new laws regarding deaccessioning in French museums Photo: Serge Mouraret / Alamy

A new bill regarding the status of smaller French museums has passed its first reading of the French Assembly.

There are 34 museums all over France classified as nationals that come under the direct control of the French Ministry of Culture. These include the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay and are managed by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. They have State protection, funding and management.

The new bill clarifies the State’s relationship with smaller museums, that may have private funding and management. It proposes a new category to replace those of “musée classée” and “musée controlée”, the 1200 or so museums linked into the ministry through their director or supervised to comply with certain requirements.

In addition, a museum will now be able to register as a “museum of France” if it respects certain rules concerning the management of its collections and the level of service given to the public. The “museums of France” will be supervised by a panel of experts, ensuring a better level of protection for their collections, and a harmonisation of standards across France.

Although the bill allows the transfer of items from one public body to another, it reaffirms the principle of inalienability, whereby works cannot be sold off. There is one exception however: works by living artists made within the last 30 years may be deaccessioned.

Alfred Recours, the member of parliament who presided over the commission, said, “I am not at all sure that acquisitions made 15 or 20 years ago are relevant today”—though he declined to cite examples.

This has aroused an outcry from contemporary museums, who see their collections as undervalued and at threat. Without the protection of the new law, works donated to a museum in good faith could be sold off.

Thierry Raspail, director of Lyon museum of contemporary art, and president of CAC 40 (association of French contemporary art curators) commented that “this amendment, is closely linked to doubts about the legitimacy of contemporary art.”

Director of the “Museums of France” scheme, Francine Mariani-Ducray is opposed to the exemption: “I consider the museums of France to be, guardians of an inalienable heritage: there can be no exceptions.”

The bill also proposes a new tax of 1% on casinos to fund the acquisition of national treasures. France has no discrete national fund for this purpose, and French works of art are not cheap—a Cézanne sold for $38.5 million at auction in May.

This is the first reading of the bill. It will be voted upon in summer, where it may be amended, then in autumn will have a second reading, before passing though to the Senate, the upper house of the French government, who again may make amendments.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Irrelevant modern art?"

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 116 July 2001