The Association for Art Museum Directors, a prominent industry group, has refined a policy guiding the sales of artworks from institutional collections after pandemic-era pushback over a separate but related guideline.
A narrow majority of its overall membership has voted to change its policy for what to do with funds gained from deaccessioning (or selling) artworks from a given museum’s permanent collection. Previously, the group’s policy allowed that those funds could only be used to acquire new work, but just before the onset of the pandemic, the AAMD formed a task force that would explore whether to allow those funds to go toward “direct care” of museum collections.
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The onset of the pandemic led the AAMD to loosen its restrictions. From April 2020 to April 2022, the AAMD allowed for museums to use money gained from deaccession sales to support staff wages that were involved in stewarding museum collections. The group said it would not sanction any of its member museums for using funds for “direct care,” however each institution defined it.
Many museums, from the Brooklyn Museum to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, took advantage, selling millions of dollars in art with auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
But now, the AAMD has explicitly defined what “direct care” means in its updated rule to its “Professional Practices in Art Museums” guidelines: museums can now put the funds brought in through these sales, with regards to direct care, only toward the conservation or restoration of artworks and for materials required to store them—and not toward staff salaries or the costs associated with exhibiting art.
Controversy followed the pandemic-era sales that took place under the AAMD’s policy, and scrutiny grew so widespread that some museum directors even issued statements defending the policy. Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote, “I take very seriously the impact that our actions have on other institutions. I also realize that others may have different philosophies. It is my professional opinion that a deliberate deaccession program is appropriate, useful, and necessary for an art museum like ours.”
In at least one case, a museum had to backtrack when the pushback became too intense. That institution was the Baltimore Museum of Art, whose then director, Christopher Bedford, wanted to sell works by white male artists like Andy Warhol and Brice Marden to diversify the holdings.
Bedford, who is now director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was among those who sat on the task force that rewrote the AAMD policy. Serving alongside him were figures like Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston director Jill Medvedow, and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art director and AAMD president Julián Zugazagoitia.
In essence, the new policy is far more narrow than the pandemic-era one. It will mean that museums now have to work harder to justify sales of art from their collections and that they will have to adhere to more specific criteria.
The new policy reads, “Direct care for purposes of this section means the direct costs associated with the storage or preservation of works of art. Such direct costs include for example those for (i) conservation and restoration treatments (including packing and transportation for such conservation or restoration) and (ii) materials required for storage of all classifications of works of art, such as, acid-free paper, folders, matboard, frames, mounts, and digital media migration. Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work of art shall not be used for operations or capital expenses except as provided above. Direct care does not include (a) salaries of staff or (b) costs incurred for the sole purpose of temporary exhibition display.”
The vote, according to the AAMD, was 109 in favor, 21 against, and 69 abstaining. The group said its new policy is now closer to ones dictated by the Alliance for American Museums, the other main museum oversight group, and the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which sets accounting best practices for nonprofits as well as public and private companies.
In a statement, Zugazagoitia said, “This focused change addresses changes requested by members, ensures our approach is consistent with norms across the museum field, and provides crucial guidance to members on how to implement a ‘direct care’ standard should their institutions choose to do so.”