I love it when Mike O’Hare deconstructs “ethics” to show the snobbery and fuzzy thinking that underlies them. And I’m certain he’s at least 90% right about “de-accessioning.” Here’s my take on the other 10%:
1. When someone donates an object to a museum, part of what he or she is buying is bragging rights: “I (or my ancestor or dear departed spouse) had the wit and cash and taste and right-place-in-the-right-timedness to acquire a piece of art worthy of being in a museum collection.” Of course the value of those bragging rights is diminished if the piece is actually in storage, but not to zero. Selling a donated piece is an affront to the donor unless the buyer is another museum and the donor’s name stays with the object. The calculus is a little different with art donated by the artist or his or her heirs, but not completely different.
Another reason to give to a museum is to express local pride and to be seen contributing to a local public good, and to be contributing something specific, not just money or money-equivalent. Again, the donor might reasonably be offended by the sale.
This matters both ethically — if a donor who thought the piece was going to stay in in a museum in New York is dismayed to find that it was sold to a museum in Podunk or to some private buyer, then that donor can reasonably claim to have been cheated — and operationally: you don’t want to discourage donations.
So I’d want to distinguish de-accessioning donated items from de-accessioning bought items.
2. Stuff in museums, even stuff not on the walls, is available to scholars, and available for specialized shows put on by the home museum or in other museums. Stuff in private homes, not so much.
Some of the folks who work in museums are scholars, and people who donate to museums think they’re supporting (among other things) the project of art history. So there’s a sort of value provided by the stuff in the museum basement that is lost by sale into private hands. And that doesn’t count the risk that the private buyer won’t take good care of the piece, will have it cut down to fit better on his living-room wall, or will leave it to someone who doesn’t know what it is so that it disappears from art history. (This raises the question of whether and how to compensate private holders of art for providing museum-like functions of caring for it, recording information about it, and making it available for scholarship.)
Moreover, having a bunch of stuff together facilitates the research process in a way that having it dispersed, even to other museums, doesn’t. (Yes, of course paying for high-quality cataloguing with multiple images of each object, and making the results available to all inquirers, would greatly reduce the force of that argument.)
3. The curators of a museum work there in part because it gives them access to art, including art not on the walls, both to look at and to write about. If any substantial chunk of the collection, even the undisplayed collection, gets sold off, that constitutes a sort of pay cut for the curatorial staff, which is a perfectly reasonable institutional concern.
None of this, it seems to me, changes the bottom line: that when museum directors gang up on one of their number for selling some inventory to dig her institution out of a financial hole, they’re acting like a bunch of snobbish jerks. But it’s probably worthwhile putting all the legitimate arguments against de-accessioning out front, rather than leaving the inchoate sense that there’s something wrong with it.
Having said that, let me emphasize Mike’s accounting point, which seems arcane but is in fact central. Right now, museum directors aren’t expected to create value from the stuff they hold. If they were asked to show a reasonable rate of return (in the form of experience or scholarship) from the value of their collections, lots of current practices (e.g., not having the museum open 10-9 Sun-Thurs and 9 a.m to midnight Fri-Sun) couldn’t survive.