Sep 9, 2009

Deaccessioning in the UK (UPDATE)

The Southampton City Council has decided to sell parts of its permanent collection, including Rodin's Crouching Woman, pictured here, and Alfred Munnings' After the Race.  The decision was announced in July, but nobody really noticed.

Charles Saumarez Smith reports on the sale for the Art Newspaper, "[E]veryone in the museum world is aware that attitudes towards so-called de-accessioning are shifting in favour of allowing museums, in certain carefully defined circumstances, to consider the possibility of sales. It is, nevertheless, worth asking whether or not it is right that sales from one of Britain’s more significant regional art collections can reasonably be ignored."

The works could raise upwards of £5m, and only 200 works in the 3,500 piece collection can be displayed at one time. What will the funds be used for?  They will help to construct a £15m maritime museum commemorating the sinking of the Titanic.  Saumarez Smith asks the pointed question:

[I]s it sensible for Southampton town council to break trust with generations of previous town councillors, who have diligently and systematically and with a great sense of civic pride built up one of the best and most impressive public collections of works of art in the country to sell some of those works in order to celebrate the sinking of the Titanic?
Perhaps not, but if we were to apply the current rules of the AAMD to this sale, the sale would be perfectly acceptable would it not?  These works do not fall within the scope of the Southampton's collection.  In July, Councillor John Hannides, the Culture head said these works said "The Munnings has not been seen in Southampton for quite some time and that also goes for the other items too.  While they have been on display on occasions they are not central to the collection."  The good news for critics of this sale?  These works may be purchased by private individuals, but they won't leave the UK if they satisfy the Waverley Criteria, giving British cultural institutions an opportunity to pre-empt any sale abroad.

Tomorrow I'll post a working version of my piece on Deaccessioning, which encourages American museums and States to adopt a similar approach. 

De-accessioning and responsibility in the UK: Why Southampton is wrong to sell works of art to fund a Titanic museum  [Charles Saumarez Smith, The Art Newspaper from issue 205, September 2009, Published online 6 Sep 09]

UPDATE:

Donn Zaretsky notes that I may be wrong about whether the AAMD would permit the sale:

I don't think that's right. Apparently the sales proceeds will be used to help "construct a £15m maritime museum commemorating the sinking of the Titanic." Remember, under the AAMD approach, there is only one thing you can do with the proceeds from sales of art (buy more art); you can't go and build a Titanic-commemorating museum. What's more, from an AAMD point of view, it doesn't matter whether the works "fall within the scope of the collection" or not. You can sell work that falls right square in the middle of your collection and that's okay, just so long as you use the proceeds to buy art. But if you want to use the proceeds for any other purpose, that's forbidden, even if the work no longer falls within the scope of the collection.

He's right of course if the funds are used just to construct a new museum.  However if these funds are used to purchase works of "art", a slim likelihood perhaps given that the museum is focusing on the Titanic.  But if the museum purchases artifacts from the Titanic that could be classified as "art" then the sale would be permissible under the guidelines, in the same way the Albright-Knox shifted its focus to contemporary art.  But of course the funds from deaccessioning must be made "only to acquire other works of art—the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses."
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