It is the kind of sale that once would have engendered criticism, perhaps even sanctions: The Brooklyn Museum is putting 12 works up for auction at Christie’s next month — including paintings by Cranach, Courbet and Corot — to raise funds for the care of its collection.
But it is now completely within the parameters of loosened regulations, which are themselves a measure of just how financially damaging the coronavirus pandemic has been for cultural institutions.
“This is something that is hard for us to do,” said Anne Pasternak, the museum’s director. “But it’s the best thing for the institution and the longevity and care of the collections.”
Selling off work from a museum — known as deaccessioning — to pay for operating costs has long been taboo. The Association of Art Museum Directors has dictated that proceeds from such sales can only be used to acquire more work. And institutions take seriously the mandate to protect art and resist putting a monetary value on their collections.
But museums around the country are increasingly recognizing that the cost of maintaining and storing large stockpiles of art may not be sustainable, particularly during this pandemic, when museums lost substantial revenues while they were closed during lockdowns. And though many are reopening, they are doing so at diminished capacity and with precautions in place because of state-mandated limitations and almost nonexistent tourism.
This dire situation prompted the museum association to announce in April that, through April 10, 2022, it would not penalize museums that “use the proceeds from deaccessioned art to pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections.”
The Brooklyn Museum is the first major U.S. institution to take advantage of this two-year window. With an encyclopedic collection and a large building that is far from Manhattan’s Museum Mile, the organization has long struggled financially. Ms. Pasternak said it is aiming to establish a $40 million fund that can generate $2 million a year, to pay for the collection’s care.
Ms. Pasternak added that the museum was being “conservative” in its cost estimates to make sure the money would go only to direct care, like cleaning or transporting an artwork. It would also help cover a percentage of the salaries of those involved in such care, like registrars, curators, conservators and collection managers.
The money raised will not cover utilities, exhibitions or public programs. And the works to be sold represent a small fraction of the museum’s collection, which consists of more than 160,000 objects.
The deaccessioned works — selected by the curators and approved by the board — “are good examples of their kind but don’t diminish our collections in their absence,” Ms. Pasternak said. “We have a deep collection of high-quality art, but we have works that — like many museums of our size — have not been shown ever or for decades.”
They include works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Donato de’ Bardi, Giovanni dal Ponte, Francesco Botticini and a portrait attributed to Lorenzo Costa, all of which will be sold in Christie’s old masters live auction on Oct. 15.
That same day, the auction house’s European Art sale will include works from the museum by Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Charles-François Daubigny and Philip Wilson Steer. Works by Jehan-Georges Vibert and an anonymous artist from the Netherlandish School will also be sold online starting on Oct. 1.
“Can we still tell the story of that artist? Can we still tell the story of that moment? Can we still have the kinds of conversations that we want to without damaging our ability to do any of this?” said Lisa Small, the museum’s senior curator of European art. “If the answer is yes, after a lot of research and thought, then that becomes a good candidate for deaccession.”
Christie’s high estimates for these works range from $30,000 for Vibert’s “Spanish Bullfighter With Flowers” to $1.8 million for Cranach’s “Lucretia,” an oil on panel that exemplifies “his work from the 1520s to the mid 1530s,” said Joshua E. Glazer, a specialist in old master paintings at Christie’s.
Despite an art market that is heavily focused on contemporary work, Mr. Glazer said that demand for old masters remains strong and that the provenance of a museum adds luster. “We do find quite a few bidders coming when we are offering paintings that are exciting like this,” Mr. Glazer said. “Knowing that these are works that have been seen by generations gives people confidence when they’re buying.”
Ms. Pasternak said the deaccessioning effort represents the culmination of “a lot of really deep thinking” about how the museum can continue to responsibly look after its collection, given the significant costs of maintenance and storage. Other institutions have been engaged in a similar process. The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, for example, recently embarked on an ambitious effort to rank each of the 54,000 items in its collection with a letter grade (20 percent received a D, making them candidates to be sold or given to another institution).
Culling a collection to acquire other works is routine for museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, which last November sold “Pope,” a Francis Bacon painting from its collection, at Sotheby’s for about $6.6 million.
The Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently made a point of selling work to acquire more art by women and artists of color. And earlier this month, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., announced that it would deaccession a painting by Jackson Pollock to diversify its collection, selling it at Christie’s evening sale of 20th and 21st Century art on Oct. 6.
But in the past, museum association sanctions have been imposed on institutions including New York’s National Academy of Design, the Delaware Art Museum and the Berkshire Museum for using the proceeds from art sales for operating costs. And selling art from a museum collection is often fraught, given curators’ concerns about deaccessioning decisions they may come to regret, donor restrictions and a potential hue and cry from purists or members of the public.
“You don’t sell off the thing that is the core of a museum — you don’t sell books out of a library,” said the critic and curator Robert Storr. “This is the last resort, and it is a very, very bad move to be making. What we’re witnessing is an institutional and social betrayal of lasting impact and we need to put the brakes on.”
“The blame falls squarely on trustees,” he added. “Anne has tried hard to raise money. She’s got trustees that just don’t give enough.”
Similarly, Christopher Knight, an art critic at The Los Angeles Times on Monday decried the Everson Museum’s Pollock sale as “inexcusable,” saying the museum is “betraying its legacy.”
But museums like Brooklyn argue that evaluating their collections with an eye for redundancies or lesser examples is crucial to future survival. “Works that have never been shown or have rarely been shown are not core to our mission,” Ms. Pasternak said. “Not all institutions have giant endowments and billionaire board members.”
“What’s more core,” she asked, “having an appropriately sized conservation team or works that don’t see the light of day in a collection?”
She acknowledged, though, that deaccessioning can be a slippery slope for institutions with board members looking to offload their financial responsibilities. “You could have trustees who say, ‘Don’t ask me for money,’” she said, “‘just sell the collection.’”
Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said the Brooklyn Museum’s steps “make sense.”
“The financial challenges that the Brooklyn Museum has faced are well-known,” Ms. Anagnos said. “So this approach looks like it will address both their near-term financial needs and, in the process, create an endowed pool of funds with long-term benefits to the museum in ways that are consistent with our guidelines.”
Moreover, while deaccessioning can prompt intense internal divisions among curators, Eugenie Tsai, a curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, said the decision reflected collective concern among her colleagues about the institution’s overall livelihood.
“The curators at the Brooklyn Museum realize that these are unprecedented times,” Ms. Tsai said. “It was an all-hands-on-deck situation, and it’s definitely cross-departmental and everyone is on board.”
Ms. Pasternak said the museum plans to sell additional pieces — which have yet to be determined — but would never include contemporary artwork. “You don’t deaccession living artists,” she said. “It would just be the wrong thing to do.”