David and Art - "Deaccessioning"

Oct 5, 2020

Museums sometimes sell pieces of their collection, but it’s sad to think that the public loses its chance to see them.

The little Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse New York specializes in American art and its roots go back to 1897.  In addition to occupying the first museum building designed by famed architect I. M. Pei, it has a collection of American ceramics that’s the envy of much larger museums.  Right now, however, it’s making headlines for quite another reason.  It’s putting a work from its permanent collection up for sale at auction. 

Jackson Pollock’s 1946 Red Composition goes under the gavel at Christie’s in New York City tomorrow night.

Red Composition was the last work Pollock painted in 1946 and was only his second experiment with his revolutionary drip technique.  It was originally owned by his patron Peggy Guggenheim and was donated to the museum in 1991.  The couple who donated it are now deceased.  It is, by the museum’s admission, probably the most valuable piece in its collection.  The only other Pollock they have is an ink on paper drawing from 1951.

The museum’s board of trustees recently voted unanimously to sell the painting and use the proceeds to help diversify its collection and acquire works of art “created by artists of color, women artists, and other under-represented contemporary and mid-career artists.”  Some of the proceeds may also be used to help with the direct care of the permanent collection, something that takes up a great deal of any museum’s budget.

Elizabeth Dunbar, the Everson’s Director, said that “by deaccessioning a single artwork, we can make enormous strides in building a collection that reflects the amazing diversity of our community and ensure that it remains accessible to all for generations to come.” By the way, Red Composition is estimated to be worth between $12 million and $18 million. The Everson’s annual operating budget is less than $2.5 million.

Museum associations have always maintained that deaccessioning—that is, selling off—parts of a collection can only be justly done within set guidelines and for limited reasons.  The Everson’s intentions here are within the stipulations established by the American Alliance of Museums. 

But it’s the likely fate of the painting that has some observers up in arms.  Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times called the move inexcusable. “The $18 million auction estimate almost certainly means that the small painting will disappear from the public realm, vanishing into private hands.” He described it as a key public asset being privatized.  He’s got a point—no museum is going to be able to afford this piece.  We can only hope that the new buyer would like the public to enjoy the art as much as he or she will.

There’s no right answer here, there’s no villain.  But it’s a story that goes to the heart of the complexity of the art world, where public treasures can become private possessions overnight.