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Museums selling their art to stay alive during COVID

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 11, 2020 5:00 pm

You know those movies set during the Depression or Hard Times when people resort to selling whatever heirlooms or trinkets they have left at the local pawn shop, just to pay the heating bill for another month?

That’s starting to happen in the art world.

In the US, for example, museums are starting to sell off their fine art to stay afloat during a time of plummeting patronage.

This month, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has opted to peddle a dozen works at two Christie’s auctions — including a Courbet, a Cranach and a Corot — to keep the lights on.

This is troubling, but it’s a sign that the coronavirus is not only a grave and lingering threat to lives; it also destroys cultural institutions. We’ve written about music clubs — like Liverpool’s Cavern Club — being close to closing down because of the sharp drop in tourism.

Now it’s the world’s museums that face similar hard choices.

Cue late-night TV ads: “We lost our lease! Everything must go! Come on over to Crazy Eddie’s Art Emporium! These priceless Sisleys and Renoirs can be YOURS for a few months’ rent! Hurry, now! Remember, art may be eternal, but these crazy prices won’t last forever!”

When you start selling the art off the walls to keep the lights on, you know COVID has gone on too long.

Lucas Cranach's "Lucretia" is one of a dozen European artworks being auctioned off by Brooklyn Museum.

The term for when a museum sells its art inventory actually has a fancy name: “Deaccessioning.” Sometimes, museums will sell a few paintings to obtain a more desired canvas, as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts did in 2012 when it hocked some Monets, Gauguins and Pissarros to raise the money to purchase a Gustave Caillebotte (“Man at His Bath”) that fit in with its Impressionist collection. (Think of it as the NBA setting up player trades during draft pick season.)

Usually, the practice is a last resort, carried out only to improve a museum’s overall collection. Not to pay the bills. But deaccessioning has now extended to keeping museums alive in the United States because the powerful Association of Art Museum Directors recently loosened its rules, greenlighting museums to sell whatever they need to stay afloat until at least April 2022. That’s how bad it is.

"What we are trying to achieve is to provide our member organizations with a little bit more financial flexibility" is how Brent Benjamin, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, explained it to CBS News. Think of the AAMD as the Federal Reserve, loosening US interest rates to help the money flow this way and that. The sad fact is, a museum’s priceless worth isn’t doing much good on the walls if nobody’s paying to come see it.

Corot's "Italienne debout tenant unde cruche" is being auctioned off by Brooklyn Museum.

While it’s not been a mad, wild dash to dump Van Goghs and Picassos on the open market, more US museums are expected to employ the new, looser rules. Besides the Brooklyn Museum’s auctioning of 12 artworks, there have been other recent shifts in inventory. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York just sold Jackson Pollock’s “Red Composition” at Christie’s, fetching $12 million, which they said was done to help “diversify” the overall collection (presumably the Angry White Male Artist demographic had been overrepresented). And in 2018, mid-pandemic, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts sold some 20 works from its collection to carry out museum renovations. This actually led to some museum shaming from art critics, and that — a museum’s reputation — is harder to keep intact once you’ve started hocking your assets.

Before COVID, museums selling paintings was only sanctioned — with a few critical sniffs — if it was being done to improve or protect the overall collection. Now it’s a matter of survival.

I wonder if the Philippines would ever resort to such a practice to keep its museums afloat. Would we ever see Luna’s “Spoliarium” put on the auction block to keep the National Museum of Fine Arts flush? I seriously doubt it — first of all because artworks housed in national museums are considered “national treasures” and are therefore the people’s property, not the museum’s. You can only get away with doing personal shopping with art treasures if your name ends in “Marcos.”

“In principle,” says Cid Reyes, artist, critic and creative consultant, “a national museum — precisely because it is owned by the people — must never, nor be allowed to, deaccession.”

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art raised funds to diversify its collection through the sale of this untitled work from 1960 by Mark Rothko.

But on the other hand, if you’ve got an abundance of art sitting in storage, you might think about selling some to private collectors, just to raise some cash to keep going.

“Certainly it’s an agonizing decision for any museum to make,” notes Reyes. “It’s itself a declaration that a museum is going through an extreme financial crisis that will determine its future survival.” Privately owned museums — like the Ayala, Lopez, Yuchengco, BenCab — can probably sell works with a little more flexibility, though Reyes adds “this may entail some legal complexities, particular if a private museum has received and accepted a donated piece that came with the proviso that it will never, under any circumstances, be deaccessioned.” He’s not aware of any museum here yet being forced into such desperate financial straits.

But it’s another way the world has had to adjust to a pandemic that has refused to let up its grip, forcing cultural institutions into real tough choices, often between beauty and basic survival.