Deaccessioning Museums Comment United Kingdom

The great British sell-off continues

With penalties limited, public opposition may be the best way to stop politicians casting an acquisitive eye over collections

Protesters in Southampton helped to stop the council’s attempt to sell off publicly owned art

Deaccessioning has always been tricky, although attitudes shift from period to period and from country to country. Museums in the entrepreneurial US have tended to be relatively relaxed about the idea, regularly disposing of unwanted objects or duplicates, usually to fund other purchases—though as Brandeis University in Massachusetts notoriously found when it threatened to sell the entire Rose Art Museum in 2009 to fund the university’s deficit, the process can be problematic. In Europe, where museums are more reliant on state funding and the concept of public service, the practice has historically been highly controversial, and viewed by many as indefensible.

In Britain, attitudes have been shifting. As museums and cultural bodies are expected to become financially self-reliant, realising capital assets may come to appear sensible, especially since works of art have become so valuable. A generation ago, sales by hard-pressed private trusts like the Bowes Museum and the Lady Lever Art Gallery were short-term stopgaps; today, they would stop the gap for a long time.

Pragmatic decisions

Even ten years ago, the museum profession as represented by the Museums Association was adamantly opposed to sales. The asssociation now takes a more pragmatic line, influenced by the Watts Gallery’s application to sell two paintings to rescue the gallery from near-collapse; the works were sold in 2008. Deciding that this was a reasonable decision, the association has become willing to judge each case on its merits.

At the Art Fund, an independent body that funds museum purchases, a similar approach is taken. However, in the words of its director, Stephen Deuchar: “The Art Fund remains strongly opposed to sales by museums or their funding authorities cashing in on assets without any long-term plan for improving their collections: proceeds from approved sales must be reinvested in acquisitions and collections care.”

National museums are not permitted to sell works for profit, but these rules do not apply elsewhere. Local authority museums are particularly at risk. Bury, in Greater Manchester, recently sold a painting by L.S. Lowry—A River Bank, 1947—for an unexpectedly high £1.4m to meet a budget deficit. The sale was presented as the only way to prevent the closure of libraries and care homes, on the grounds that people come before pictures.

Now the process is accelerating, with the Royal Geographical Society selling paintings worth £4m, Croydon Council planning to flog its finest Chinese ceramics (caring for the ceramics apparently does not represent “value for money”) and Northampton Borough Council seeking to sell a £2m Egyptian statue, acquired by Spencer Compton, the second Marquis of Northampton, during a trip to Egypt in 1850 and donated by his son around 20 years later.

The argument is often made that objects being sold are not part of the “core collection”: a nice device, since the core can be defined to suit one’s needs.

Museums that sell without official sanction can incur penalties, along with (generally) bad publicity. In England, they risk losing official accreditation from the Arts Council and forfeiting eligibility for grants. The same applies to designation, a category for non-national museums and collections deemed to be of national importance (such as the Royal Geographical Society’s). Evidently, these sanctions are not enough.

For Mark Taylor, the director of the Museums Association, the position is not threatening: he does not anticipate a flood of sales. Others point out, however, that leading auction houses have recently set up museum departments—not just to be sweet to museums, surely?—and that charitable trusts may well be eyeing up objects in their care. The children’s charity Coram recently dismissed the independent trustees of the related Foundling Museum with its valuable Hogarths; the trustees would no doubt have been the collection’s defenders. And as local authorities come under growing financial pressure, selling is increasingly tempting.

For those opposed to selling, who believe that what is sold can never be replaced, that sales betray the generosity of donors and prejudice the possibility of future gifts, that thoughtless deaccessioning sacrifices the long-term public good for short-term gain, and that works of art are given as an act of trust, the prospects look threatening.

In the present climate, a government with almost no interest in the arts seems most unlikely to tighten up the law, while the Charity Commissioners who supervise the governance of trusts can only intervene when there is a breach of the trust under which objects are held. At present, little can be done to prevent deaccessioning other than (potentially expensive) legal challenges, although the Museums Association and the Arts Council in its new role of supervising museums could be more vigorous.

Public opinion, and vigilance, may be the best safeguard. In Bury and in Croydon, art sales have provoked public fury, something politicians never like. In 2009, Southampton City Council’s proposal to sell a painting by Alfred Munnings and a sculpture by Rodin was withdrawn after a passionate public campaign. Our heritage is not safe with politicians, and those of us who believe these works of art belong to everyone will have to fight to keep them.

Giles Waterfield is an independent curator and writer

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5 Sep 13
17:4 CET


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