Museums Vote to Allow the Sale of Art to Care for Collections

Members of the Association of Art Museum Directors have voted in favor of allowing American institutions to sell their art to finance the cost of caring for works in their collections, the organization announced on Friday.

The vote rolls back a long-held policy that prohibited museums from using the funds from sold works to pay their bills. The rule had been relaxed during the pandemic, allowing institutions a two-year window in which they could put those funds toward maintaining their collections while they dealt with financial upheaval and plunging attendance.

Since then, museum leaders have been engaged in a sometimes heated debate over whether it’s time to make permanent the loosening of that policy, and this past week, a majority of voting members of the association decided in favor of doing so — with some limitations. Of 199 eligible members, 109 voted in favor of the policy, while 21 voted against it. The remaining institutions did not submit votes.

Some arts leaders and critics have objected to the practice of selling items from a museum collection, known as deaccessioning, saying that art owned by institutions is held for the public benefit and should mostly be retained. The norm has been that while some items could be sold, they were supposed to be artworks that were duplicative or no longer in line with the museum’s mission. The funds gained from any sale were to be assigned to the acquisition of other art, not to underwriting staff salaries or other operating costs.

The directors’ association has the power to impose sanctions on members for selling off artworks to pay for general operating expenses.

But during the pandemic, museums faced extreme deficits, and some turned to deaccessioning to help pay the bills. The Brooklyn Museum put works up for sale and has raised $40 million. The Metropolitan Museum of Art began taking advantage of the loosening restrictions on how funds could be allocated. In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art said that it would sell works by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol — saying the sales would help fund acquisitions of art by people of color and staff-wide salary increases — but after criticism, the museum reversed course.

The new policy approved by the museum directors association defines where the funds from deaccessioning can be funneled. In a new rule, it says, the money can be put only toward “direct care of works of art,” meaning, the costs associated with “the storage or preservation of works of art.” Examples of those costs include restoration treatments and storage materials, like frames and acid-free paper.

According to the new rule, the funds cannot be put toward staff salaries or “costs incurred for the sole purpose of temporary exhibition display.” The association said the previous rule had been in place since at least 1981.

In line with the association’s move to temporarily relax the restriction, the Met, in its last fiscal year, took about $7 million from its deaccessioning fund and put it toward care of its collection, said Ken Weine, a spokesman for the museum. Most of that money went toward salaries for collection care staff, which is no longer permitted under the association’s rules. (The size of the deaccessioning fund fluctuates based on how much the museum decides to spend from it in a given year, but over the decades, a $10 million balance has been typical, Weine said.)

Erik Neil, director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., has been outspoken in his opposition to giving museums broad latitude to pay their bills with funds from art sales, but he said he voted in favor of the policy change because of how narrowly it defined where the money could go.

“They put some guardrails up,” Neil said. “For me, this was a good, reasonable, prudent step forward.”

Thomas P. Campbell, the director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has warned against the loosening of restrictions, writing in a 2021 essay that doing so could undermine the confidence of donors and lead to fiduciary irresponsibility on the part of museum boards. But he embraced the limitations written into the new rule, saying in a statement on Friday, “The new guidelines send a clear signal that collections cannot be monetized for operating costs.”

Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, who voted against the rule change, said he saw the policy as it stood as a basic cornerstone of the trust that the association has built with donors. “I think it is an abdication of the trust we have spent more than 100 years establishing,” he said.