David and Art - "Dissolving Collections"

Apr 19, 2021

As works of art pass through the ages, they sometimes come together in a museum's collections for the delight of the public.

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As I mentioned last week, sometime sooner or later I’ll be in a new office. The new offices for the history department don’t have nearly as many bookshelves as our old ones. So every history teacher is going to have to pare down radically his or her book collection. Some members of the department will no doubt simply take their books home to shelves there. Others who have a second office will perhaps make use of that. For others, however, myself included, it looks like there’s going to be a sad parting of ways with a significant portion of our books.

The situation reminds me of the way in which paintings and other artworks pass through time. Sometimes a particular group of them will be together in a museum’s collection on public display; other times they may be together in a museum but not on public display; still other times, in little groups in private hands gracing only a living room or dining room, seen only by a small number of fortunate eyes.

As a rule, museums don’t like to part with their works of art, and if they do, it has to be for a serious reason. In fact, museums selling pieces from their collections—a practice known as “deaccessioning”—is strictly regulated by the American Association of Museum Directors. If a museum does so for any reason other than to buy more art, it can face stiff sanctions.

But…this is the age of COVID. A year ago this month, knowing the pandemic would no doubt wreak havoc on museum budgets, the AAMD announced a moratorium on penalties if a museum sells a work of art and uses the proceeds to help with its operating costs. The Association made it clear that this was a temporary arrangement, not intended, as it put it, “to incentivize deaccessioning or the sale of art.” The moratorium will remain in effect until April 10, 2022. Critic Robin Pogrebin said that the change was “a measure of just how financially damaging the coronavirus pandemic has been for cultural institutions.”

Last fall the Brooklyn Museum was the first to take action under these relaxed rules and it raised $31 million by selling off works. It planned to set up a special fund with the money that will help pay the salaries of conservators and curators, along with cleaning and maintaining artworks.

This whole story has made me think about art in the long run. Similar to my books the collection of an art museum is only together for a while. Pieces of art pass through history from owner to owner from collection to collection; sometimes a handful of pieces come together for a short time. As I prepare to set some of my books free because I no longer have a place for them, I can only hope that some of them, like pieces of art that have passed through the centuries, will find a new home with someone that will take care of them, benefit from them, and look at life differently because of them.