Art museums are the aristocrats of the charitable sector, with all

the virtues and vices of the aristocracy. In their prime, they are glorious

exemplars of the finest in cultural expression. But in their dotage,

they are weak and vulnerable, constitutionally incapable of avoiding

financial ruin. Some art museums have even gone bankrupt and dissolved,

despite owning large collections of extremely valuable objects.

What explains this paradox? Deaccessioning rules: professional

rules governing art museums and art museum directors that prohibit

the sale of works of art for the purpose of generating capital. When

art museums find themselves in financial distress, deaccessioning

rules can effectively prevent them from saving themselves. For want

of a sale, an institution is lost.

I find it tragic and tragically unnecessary. I question the enforceability,

justification, and legitimacy of deaccessioning rules. But even

if you think such rules reflect best practices for museum collection

management, they should not require the unnecessary sacrifice of a

museum. When faced with the decision of either violating deaccessioning

rules or dissolving a museum, directors should almost always

choose the former.

Ironically, as I was editing this article, the "deaccessioning police"

seem to have reached the same conclusion, albeit with considerable

reluctance. On April 16, 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic,

the Association of Art Museum Directors announced that it

was temporarily relaxing its deaccessioning rules. Specifically, it provided

that for the next two years, member museums can use deaccessioning

proceeds for the "direct care of collections," a "substantial

shift" from its standard policy prohibiting the use of deaccessioning

proceeds for the purpose of anything other than purchasing artwork.

Perhaps things are finally about to change, no matter how much the

AAMD and its beneficiaries want them to remain the same.

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Notes/Citation Information

Brian L. Frye, Against Deaccessioning Rules, 53 Creighton L. Rev. 461 (2020).

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