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May 6, 2016
Deaccession: Rosenbaum vs. LACMA
As a recipient of Douglas McLennan’s ArtsJournal’s free daily newsletter, it is not uncommon for me to read Lee Rosenbaum’s CultureGrrl blog from time to time. I read her blog recently,  in order to find out about the Halsey Minor and Sotheby’s trial . That post is interesting in its own right, in terms of art law, but I was drawn away by a link on the same page to an article that she had written for the New York Times in 2005; For Sale: Our Permanent Collection. It is this article, though 5 years old, that I would like to address today.

Considering that I have been Curatorial Assistant at the BRMA for less than 2 years, I will be the first to tell you that I am probably not as well-versed in the deaccession process as Lee Rosenbaum or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who she takes to task in this article. Which is why it upset me to read the sweeping generalizations that Ms. Rosenbaum used as argument when criticizing the LACMA’s deaccession policy.

Here at the BRMA, we are currently undergoing the long, arduous process of deaccessioning items from the collection.  As an AAM-accredited institution, we must adhere to strict guidelines in terms of how we choose and ultimately disseminate our deaccessioned artworks. Based on what I have learned here, I take issue with a few points.

Example of Alberto Giacometti sculpture
Courtesy of katicabogar's photo stream, Flickr

Rosenbaum’s Critique of the LACMA Deaccession

Firstly, Rosenbaum has it correct that items which are:

  • Widely traveled
  • Admired by experts and public alike
  • Considered historically significant pieces

Usually are the least likely to be chosen for deaccessioning.

For the LACMA, admittedly, eliminating an Alberto Giacometti that was displayed in a three-part sculptural installation is a bit odd, to say the least. However, simplifying the curators’ desire to expand the collection merely to “redecorate their shiny new edifices with some appropriately breathtaking acquisitions” is short-sighted. By comparing the curators to overzealous interior designers she insinuates that they are acting frivolously, releasing a great piece to purchase a new one for decoration. I find it highly unlikely that the LACMA deaccession is akin to “going shopping” with the money to satiate a mere whim on the curators’ part.

It is obvious that Rosenbaum fears the dispersal of our country’s treasures. True, it is printed in most museums’ missions that their purpose is to act as custodians of culture and that deaccessioning items does not seem to be guarding them very well. 

Read the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s Mission.

However, it is at the discretion of the Board of Directors, Director of the Museum, and Head Curator to decide what exactly fits that mission and is a good reflection of the culture. This understanding should be fluid. If no business were ever allowed to revise its mission or goals, how would we progress in the world market? Are museums doomed to languish solely in the past, with decades-old visions, simply because we traffic in old things?

Again, Rosenbaum is correct in suggesting that the rules for the LACMA deaccession were to first lend out, or even give, their unwanted items to other museums first, if requested. This is one in a series of steps that the museum must go through before finally selling the item. For the LACMA deaccession, this act highlights the error that Rosenbaum’s op-ed points out, that of releasing such an esteemed piece of work as the bronze Giacometti.

However, Rosenbaum continues on to disparage the Guggenheim for deaccessioning a major Kandinsky in 1990 because they “had so many.” As she mentions, redundancy is an accepted reason to deaccession an item. She chastises the Guggenheim because they are also supposed to “collect an artists’ work in depth.”

That is all well and good, but the Guggenheim has 17 Kandinskys listed on their website in their permanent collection:

  • Blue Mountain, 1909
  • Black Lines, 1913
  • Taut Line, 1931
  • Various Actions, 1941

Those were but a few from the listing. Not a broad enough cross-section?

Storage and Collections

In addition, Ms. Rosenbaum’s op-ed seems to have omitted something that many people forget when considering museums and missions. Museums do not have unlimited storage space. Although we would love to take in and care for all the little orphan artworks out there, it wouldn’t be long before we turned into the crazy cat lady you see on the television series Hoarders.

There just isn’t room enough for everything. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to let an established artist from the canon of art history go in order to make room for a lesser-known artist. Perhaps an artist who didn’t, until recently, receive the attention they deserve (see: most artists who are not either male or white).

Finally, although clever, the last sentence in Rosenbaum’s op-ed article is misleading to those not of the museum world. “When museums cross too many lines, the public's elected representatives must step in. Otherwise, it won't be long before pragmatic museum trustees sell a Degas ‘Toilette’ to pay for the toilets.” It is not accepted practice to use moneys garnered from sales of artworks to pay for building enhancements. It is quite clearly laid out by the AAM that sales of artworks are to be used to purchase new artworks only. Now, I would be remiss not to mention the outcry over the Rose Art Museum’s intent to deaccession its collection to pay for operating costs . But the Rose Art Museum using moneys to keep the lights on is vastly different than suggesting that a burgeoning museum like the LACMA would enhance the facilities at the expense of Mr. Degas.

Posted by: Kelli Bodle, Curatorial Assistant @ Friday, April 9, 2010 3:59:42 pm 
Very passionate. It doesn't matter what status Ms. Rosenbaum has, if she's wrong, she's wrong. Way to keep it real. I especially like the comment about letting lesser known artists have a chance to be known. Most aren't known until they have long passed anyway. Sounds like Ms. Rosenbaum is stuck in the past. Bummer for her.
Posted by: C Rohde @ April 22, 2010 7:40:00 am

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