When Museum’s Start Selling Their Collections What Does That Mean For Preservation

By Caitlin Ballingall

While reading Michele Valerie Cloonan’s article, W(H)ITHER Preservation? (2001), the author makes reference to a public opinion survey conducted by the Conservation of Cultural Property. The survey found that Ninety-five percent of the adults who were polled either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “The collections in our nation’s museums, libraries and historic houses need to be preserved”(Gallup Organization 1996). But at what cost? This statement reminded me of an article I read last year about the Berkshire Museum, in which the Museum was looking to better serve its community and visitors by become a new “innovative 21st-century institute,” with a focus on history and science. In order to fulfill this plan the Museum would auction 40 artworks from its collection of 2,400. This sale was projected to bring in  50 million dollars to support the Museum’s 20 million dollar “face-lift” and increase its endowment.


This plan has been met with a large amount of opposition from two prominent organizations, American Alliance of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors’. The organizations even issued a joint statement,  saying: “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.” I think this raises a greater issue of are archives limiting institutions? What happens when an institution wants to change its mission, and to do so it must purge parts of its collection to make room for change and growth.


One issue, facing the Berkshire Museum is that they made a promise to Norman Rockwell that his work would be maintained in the permanent collection.  Which brings up the point of artists’ rights in this matter. If an artist sells or donates a painting to an institution specifically because they want their work on display, and cared for by that institution, is it ethical to sell the work? In some cases the popularity of the artist and their work comes into play when making these decisions.


Such as in the case of Richard Serra’s short lived public work Tilted Arc. The large curved wall was installed in  Federal Plaza, NYC in 1981. The public found the wall to be displeasing and a monstrosity.  There were plans to have the work reinstalled in a different more “convenient” location, but in this case the artist voiced his opinion.  Serra claimed the art was made for that space and to remove it would destroy it, and so it was. Eight years after it was installed the wall was split into three pieces and taken to a scrap yard.     


Differentially, in the case of moving and selling Norman Rockwell’s artwork, the work does not have a specific tie to the Museum they are housed. The paintings were not created for the Museum, and moving them would not change the meaning or integrity of the art. I also think this is a bold move on the part of the Berkshire Museum to choose Norman Rockwell’s work, as the artist is considered an American icon, and most museums would covet this work. This also sends a message that regardless of artist popularity, all work should be viewed equally to assess how it fits into the overall mission of the institution.


A second issue is that Museums, excluding Smithsonians,  must make a  revenue in order to open its doors and turn on the lights each day.  One way Museums do this is by rotating and creating new exhibitions with its existing collection and other works outside of the collection, to draw in more visitors.  In the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s Thomas Hoving, was the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s head curator. Hoving is credited with creating “Museum Blockbusters” and one of the most iconic areas of the Met, the Temple of Dendur. He is also known for selling some of the Met’s permanent collection to private dealers. Artworks like Van Gogh’s “Olive Pickers” and Rousseau’s “Tropics”.  Selling artworks like these helped to fund such exhibits like the Temple of Dendur which is a huge part of the Met’s appeal to visitors today.


However, in 1973, the Met entered into a period of full transparency with an emphasis on “more public disclosure” by creating the “Report of Transactions”. It seems under Hoving’s leadership 32 paintings were sold to private art dealers. These 32 paintings were given to the Museum by a wealthy aristocrat that wished for the paintings to be housed within the Met’s collection or placed within other institutions. The Met claims the Report of Transactions had little to do with the sale of these 32 paintings, and more to do with creating a plan and transparent procedure for deaccessioning art. Similarly in 1983, the Brooklyn Museum handled a similar matter in which the Attorney General filed a case, a case that helped set the standards for behaviors of museum officials.  


Thus, what are the codes of ethics deaccessioning art? According to the New York Times article written about the Berkshire Museum expansion: “ The American Alliance of Museums’ code of ethics says that proceeds from the sale of collections shall not “be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.” The Association of Art Museum Directors’ code includes an even narrower definition of when sales are permissible, stating: “A museum director shall not dispose of accessioned works of art in order to provide funds for purposes other than acquisitions of works of art for the collection.” So is the Berkshire Museum in breach of these codes of ethics if they do expand?


The Berkshire Museum would like to sell painting in order to fund the expansion of their Museum. The expansion will cater to a mission that is history and science based and fall in line with the popular buzzword/statement “innovative 21st century institute”. When I read that statement it did give me pause. I have found that many institution are using this “buzz statement” as it is appealing to grant applications and outside funders. Therefore it is worrisome that the Berkshire Museum could be selling off its collections in order to cater to an agenda or worse a possible passing fad.    


Furthermore, with such a large push for school education practices’ to be STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) based, it is inevitable that art will get lost, as that is just not where organizations are interested in placing their funds. By selling off the Rockwells as well as 40 other artworks, I think this becomes a larger issue of the message deaccessioning one genre of a collection sends to the public as a whole about cultural heritage.



 Cloonan. V. Michele. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 231-242.

Moynihan, Colin. (2017, July 25). Berkshire Museum Planned Sale of Art Draws Opposition.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/arts/design/berkshire-museum-art-auction-criticized.html


Brenson, Michael. (1983, March 18). Art People; Accord Ends Ethics Dispute. http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/18/arts/art-people-accord-ends-ethics-dispute.html


Van Gelder, Lawrence (1973, June 27). 1971-73 Deals Studied. http://www.nytimes.com/1973/06/27/archives/197173-deals-studied-metropolitan-museum-willease-its-secrecy-on.html


(1981) Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/visualarts/tiltedarc_a.html


Moynihan, Colin. (2018, February 9). Massachusetts Agrees to Allow Berkshire Museum to Sell Its Art



Finkel, Jori. (2009,January 1). When, if ever, can museums sell their works?.



Kachka. Boris. (2017, December 6). The Director and the Pharaoh: How Thomas Hoving Created the Museum Blockbuster When King Tut became a celebrity.


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Caitlin Ballingall

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