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What Is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Thinking?

March 06, 2019

Untitled_1960After more than forty-five years in the museum field as a curator, director, consultant, museum studies professor, writer, and trustee, I have observed that in spite of an abiding concern for the integrity of their collections, and despite the sincere anguish expressed whenever a collection is destroyed by a natural disaster or is sacrificed to human impulse, museums too often are willing to compromise that integrity.  


Museums are willing to violate the public trust?  

Yes. And they do it when they sell objects from their collections on the open market. 

By now, most of you have read or heard that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is planning to sell Mark Rothko's Untitled, 1960, which it has not exhibited since 2002The picture has an enviable provenance, and Sotheby's will auction it this spring in New York City. Reports in the media say that proceeds from the sale will be used by SFMOMA to acquire art by people of color and women, as well as to establish an endowment for future acquisitions. Estimates of what the painting might fetch range from $30 million to $50 million — an amount, it would seem, SFMOMA trustees could raise among themselves if they were truly interested in keeping an important example of the work of one of the world's foremost abstract expressionists in the museum's collection.  

Why does it matter?

Museums are more than just repositories of stuff. They long ago evolved beyond their origins as cabinets of curiosities and today function as social hubs, conveyors of cultural status, catalysts for economic development, and retail trade operations, as well as places for object-based learning, contemplation, and enjoyment.

Notwithstanding the cumulative impact of these changes, the core precept of museums as thing-centered operations is what makes them unique. The museum was invented as a place where the tangible is used to explain the intangible. Collections are assembled for their evidentiary value, the objects in them providing direct proof of the topic at hand. And once they've been selected, those objects should be preserved and protected. The obligation to preserve and honor objects that have been acquired plays out most obviously in the areas of safe and secure storage, scholarly access, and public exhibitions. Indeed, museums have been so successful in making this point that the response to selling a work, as SFMOMA has decided to do with one of its Rothkos, is almost always calamitous.

Except for loss of life, the tragedy museum officials fear most is the destruction of an institution's collections. Museums are stewards of our shared cultural patrimony, and those who curate the collections they hold recoil at the thought of losing objects to chance, negligence, or something more insidious. Notable museum losses that continue to reverberate include the unsolved theft in 1990 of thirteen pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the looting in 2003 of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003, the ransacking in 2015 of the Mosul Museum by ISIS, and the recent horrific destruction by fire of the National Museum of Brazil

Museums devote considerable resources to protecting the art, artifacts, and specimens in their collections. Tens of thousands of skilled professionals — curators, conservators, directors, collection managers, security and maintenance staff — are employed by museums around the country to collect and safekeep these objects. One must assume that SFMOMA has many such professionals on staff. One could be forgiven, however, for thinking that the museum's decision to sell the Rothko suggests that some of these folks see themselves as temporary custodians of highly profitable and expendable goods.

Selling objects from a museum collection is nothing new. The practice even has a name: deaccessioning. Unless there are preexisting ownership restrictions, it is legal for museums in the United States to deaccession unwanted items. In fact, it is accepted (if not condoned) by museum membership organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History. But one doesn't have to look far to learn that the practice contravenes generally accepted views regarding the preservation of objects entrusted to a museum's care.

In the United States, most museums are privately owned and operated and are classified as tax-exempt entities under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. They are governed by boards of trustees on behalf of the public; those trustees usually are volunteers and often have no previous museum experience, relying instead on professional staff to run the institutions they oversee.

In their capacity as fiduciaries, museum trustees may do as they wish with the collections under their care. But the controversy around commercial deaccessioning oddly sidesteps the too-common reality that, unless another museum purchases the object for sale, the object usually ends up the hands of a private collector and is "lost" to the public. How does that align with the public benefit imperative required of museums as tax-exempt entities and that most museums embrace in their actions? It doesn't.


Try and figure out what happened to the objects sold at auction in the catalogs pictured above. Don't count on the museums that made the decision to deaccession the objects being able to tell you; as far as they're concerned, the objects may as well have been vaporized. And, no surprise, auction houses do not divulge their buyers. In fact, deaccessioning works to the advantage of private buyers. One interesting theory going around about the Rothko deaccession has it that a friend of an SFMOMA board member desired a stellar example of the painter's work for his or her collection. These days, Rothkos on the open market are as scarce as hen's teeth. One soon will be available, however.

Occasionally, a museum will make the case that selling a piece of art is necessary to assure its survival. This does not seem to be the case with SFMOMA. 

So, what is the "right" answer? What can we — those of us in the museum community and the public more generally — do to prevent such deaccessionings in the future? First, recognize the practice for what it is and acknowledge how it contravenes a museum's fundamental commitment to protect and care for the items in its care. Second, hold parties to the decision accountable when their actions violate sustainable collection care mandates. Third, understand that such actions put all museums in a bad light. And fourth, rectify the practice. 

Mitigating the unfortunate results of deaccessioning isn't difficult. An item can be deaccessioned and kept by the museum for educational purposes. Or it can be sold or gifted to another museum — a win-win-win arrangement. The museum moving the item no longer has the expense of caring for it. The museum taking the object can agree to assure its future and, if it cannot, can agree to transfer it a later date to another museum with the same restrictions. In either case, the public will still have access to it. And the object and its provenance will stay intact.     

Inter-museum transfer of "unwanted" pieces can be of immense value, ethically and practically, to the museum field. It aligns with the preservation obligation museums embrace 24/7. It would put an end to the hypocrisy of voicing concern for a collection's integrity while at the same time selling pieces of the collection into oblivion. And it need not rule out profit. If the sale is to another museum, museum deaccessions can continue to be commercial propositions.

We hear a lot about museum failings these days, including their lack of inclusion, diversity, and social access. These criticisms are valid and are being addressed by museums across the country. In the case of SFMOMA, steps to address shortcomings can be taken that do not involve the sacrifice of an important painting by a twentieth-century master. That would be the right thing to do.

(Image credit: Auction house catalog covers for sales featuring items officially deaccessioned by museums. Photo by Steven Miller, 2017; p. 17, Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Steven Miller, Rowland & Littlefield, 2018 c. Steven Miller 2018.)

Headshot_steven_millerSteven Miller has worked in the museum field since 1971 as a trustee, director, curator, consultant, writer, educator, lecturer, and media commentator. For sixteen years he was an adjunct professor at the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions, and he continues to be affiliated with the Museum Accreditation Program of the American Alliance of Museums. He is, in addition, the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider's Text (Wiley) and Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice (Rowman & Littlefield).

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