Wednesday, October 21, 2020


Christopher Knight, the LA Times Art Critic who is, when you look closely, actually an Art Industry Commentator, wrote a piece on a couple of Museum Deaccessions. This is getting a certain amount of social media traction as "pfft, white guy complains about dead white guy art being sold off" which is to completely miss the point of Knight's article.

First of all, "deaccession" refers to a museum selling off bits of their collection.

Second of all, let's take a look at universities.

Something like 50 years ago the professional bureaucrat really started getting a foothold in the University system. Modern bureaucrats, invariably, see their job as enlarging the institution for which they labor, which mainly means enlarging the revenues, reducing expenses, and hiring more bureaucrats with the liberated funds. This is universal, there have been books written on the subject.

It manifests in Universities as an endless pressure to perform the education portion of the show as inexpensively as possible consistent with the goals of maximizing revenue. In this case, revenue comes mainly from: student tuition, research grants (universities clip around 50% of grant money to pay bureaucrats with), and alumni donations. These, of course, require some students and a degree of education to be performed. Experiments with student-less universities were performed (at least once) but did not work out in the long run.

This does not mean the bureaucrats oppose good education. They merely oppose spending much money on it. So now we have a situation where increasingly the education — once the core mission — is carried out as much as possible by temps. The mission is now to enhance the University Brand, to attract: paying students (or students who can borrow, it doesn't matter which), professors who get large grants, and alumni donations. Secondarily, to maintain the supply of alumni.

Museums, it turns out, have long had a deliberately constructed firewall between "selling shit in the collection" and "spending money" and Knight's point is precisely that this firewall is being removed. Museum bureaucrats have suddenly noticed that the collection constitutes, effectively, an enormous piggy bank which can be used to pay for more bureaucrats.

There will be some hand-wringing, some assurances, and so on. There will be deaccessions in order to fund the acquisition of works from marginalized artists (yay!) and probably north of 10% of the money will actually go to do that! The rest will go to bureaucrats, new wings, walnut panelling, and really nice desks. Maybe some Technology Initiatives.

The thing is, once a bureaucracy gets hold of a source of money, they'll never let it go. They're going to sell as much of the collection as frequently as possible as is consistent with maintaining the museum's brand. They will have an endless, literally, litany of excuses and covers, but this is the new model. They're going to sell things from the collection to fund what they see as the mission: enlarging the institution in every way except the one that matters.

I predict that Museums are about to move down market and earlier in the art cycle.

Formerly the private market mostly set the price for things and decided who and what was "good," followed by museums acquiring those works as an archive of culture.

Over the next few years we're going to see museums selling off the Monets in order to acquire emerging artists. They will begin to take a larger role in the price-setting business. The MOMA will compete directly with Zwirner and Gagosian. Collectively, they will acquire emerging artists cheaply, and produce value by blessing these artists with the respective imprimaturs, and then sell the works off at much higher prices into the private market. The work will pass through the museum, rather than being archived in it.

The wealthy will cease to donate their Picassos, because it will become clear that donating your Picasso now merely means it gets sold in 20 years and vanishes back into private hands.

The effect of this is that Museums will have smaller collections of Past Culture on display, but larger (albeit somewhat ephemeral) collections of contemporary work.

In 10 or 50 years the desire to buy work from "marginalized artists" may fade, who knows? But the Monets and the Picassos will be gone, as will the money. Even the BMWs the bureaucrats bought with the money will be junked. But museums will still be buying cheaper, emerging, artists; creating value; and turning the work over for a profit.

It's not even clear that this is a bad thing? I don't know. I like Monet just fine, but it's a big world. Maybe the rich will still loan their Monets back to museums. Or maybe they'll loan them to Gagosian instead.

I do think that Museums are about to begin a transition to being little more than art dealers with a non-profit license and a spiffy brand.


  1. Thank you for sharing Knight's article. What a fascinating topic. I've read about deaccession controversies in the past, but never such good reporting as this.
    It occurs to me that public art museums are a fairly new thing, and maybe we're still working out how to run them properly, ethically, get the category straight.

  2. "The wealthy will cease to donate their Picassos"

    Tax break.

  3. There is a very good podcast episode about this very topic in Episode One of the 5th season of Revisionist History by Malcom Gladwell. The title of the episode is Dragon Psychology 101 ( The reference to dragons refers to them being world-class hoarders, which is what he accuses museums of being. Along the way he provides some unexpected info about how museum inventory is handled by accountants, which will probably surprise people.

    The former Director of the National Museum here in Ottawa got into trouble (and lost his job) when he wanted to sell off a lesser Chagall work to fund other purchases. The Museum also owns another more important Chagall work.
    This is all very complicated. Maybe there's nothing wrong with selling off a Monet. Are his paintings all equally important? What if you have more of them than you can show, wouldn't it be better for other museums to have a chance of owning one? OTOH, buying contemporary work is always a bit risky. How do you know it's important unless sufficient time has gone by. What is "sufficient"? I have been saying for years that we should not erect statues of politicians until 50-75 years after their death, takes that long for all the skeletons in the closet to shake out.

    1. Beats me, really. I don't know if we ought to be piling up "culture" in archives. I don't know how much of it we should be heaping up, if we ought to. I don't know which bits to throw out.

      It does seem that a change in the role of the art museum is afoot, though! And I don't think there's any stopping it.

  4. The art market works like bitcoin, or tulipomania.