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At the Sotheby’s Modern Evening sale next month, an oil painting by Edward Hopper, Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930–33), will hit the block with an estimate of $8 million–$12 million. That work is one of eight on the auction docket in May owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is also selling pieces of lesser value by Hopper, Maurice Prendergast, and John Marin.
Yes, the Whitney is dabbling in deaccessioning, the institutional art world’s perennial bogeyman. Sell-offs have a tendency to evoke spite and bile among the art world’s old guard. But, for many, it is now just part of a natural progression.
“We want to grow the collection,” Jane Panetta, curator and director of the collection at the Whitney, told me over the phone last week. “This is part of hitting that goal, and it’s a goal we’ve had for a while, really since the museum moved to its current location in 2015.”
“The permanent-collection hang held following the Whitney’s move to the Meatpacking District in 2015, “America Is Hard to See,” was a catalyst that initiated the curators to look at the holdings anew, Panetta said.”
Panetta also framed deaccession as within Whitney’s founding principles, in particular its mission to show work by living American artists. Changing the collection is about acknowledging that the America of today is starkly different from what it was decades ago, much less a century ago.
“We’re always thinking about how one defines ‘the museum of American art,’ being mindful of wanting the collection to accurately represent the United States,” Panetta said. “We think that means the collection has to evolve. We have to try and close critical gaps, and having endowment funds for acquisitions is a key means to doing that.”
This is not the first time the museum has grappled with what it means to be an American artist. During Thomas N. Armstrong III‘s run as museum director in the 1970s and ’80s, an artist without a US passport or a green card was not considered a true American, and the museum even considered deaccessioning works by artists without proper paperwork. One near casualty of that rule: Japanese-born artist Yayoi Kusama’s 1962 Air Mail Stickers. Luckily, the rule was ousted in 1990.
Among the most vocal critics of deaccessioning has always been the prominent industry group Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). While the AAMD has no legal power, it can and has sanctioned museums that deaccession works for any reason other than bolstering their collection. An AAMD sanction essentially bans offending museums from loaning artworks, sharing resources, or engaging in other collaborative efforts with the association’s member institutions.
Meanwhile, those in favor of deaccessioning, like San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Christopher Bedford, are often considered radical. In Bedford’s previous position at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), he came under fire in 2020 for attempting to sell works, primarily those by white male artists like Andy Warhol and Brice Marden, for up to $65 million. That money was to be earmarked for “collection care” and to acquire contemporary works by women and people of color, thus freeing up other money for salary increases. The effort was abandoned after severe pushback from BMA board members, staff, and art critics. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight famously wrote that the proposed sell-off made the museum “the leading poster child for art collection carelessness.”
(Bedford’s predecessor at SFMOMA, Neal Benezra, was also a deaccessioner, selling off a cherished $50 million Rothko from the museum’s collection in 2019.)
One can’t help but wonder what Knight might have said to Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of MoMA in New York, who mandated that works in the collection that were more than 50 years old be sold to other institutions, so that MoMA could acquire works by living artists and stay, well, modern.
The writer Ben Lerner, whose most recent piece of fiction published in the New Yorker, “The Ferry,” touches on matters related to museum collections, has a theory similar to Barr’s. “A work of art or a library or museum collection or any significant form requires subtraction as much as addition, right? It requires omission, deaccession, etc., not just hoarding,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker.
Oddly, the 2020 Sotheby’s sale in which the Baltimore Museum was to sell those works also included works from the Brooklyn Museum by Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Claude Monet. And, while the BMA pulled its works two hours before the sale, the Brooklyn Museum did not. It wound up making around $20 million.
Both sales were possible because the AAMD relaxed its rules in April 2020 around the use of “restricted funds held by some institutions” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the association’s rules didn’t actually change, the group placed a “moratorium on punitive actions” and granted leeway for using “proceeds from deaccessioned art to pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections.”
The AAMD codified that policy last year, permanently allowing museums to use funds generated by deaccessioned art for “direct care” of objects in a museum’s collection, with specific criteria for what constitutes “direct care.” Selling work to offset operating costs or salaries is still taboo. On the task force that wrote the policy: Bedford, along with Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art.
For those keeping track: Lowry and MoMA kicked off the last major news cycle about deaccessioning this past September, when Sotheby’s announced it was selling 80 works worth approximately $70 million that had been on loan to MoMA since 1990.
Not everyone was happy with AAMD’s decision. In 2021 Erik Neil of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, said to the New York Timesof the policy, “if you want to flip paintings, there are many other types of institutions where you can do that, and they are called commercial galleries.”
The Whitney’s deaccession plan may be in lockstep with AAMD guidelines, but then so was Bedford’s BMA plan, and we know how that turned out. The Whitney artworks, according to Panetta, are only from areas where the museum has “deep holdings, where we have stronger and similar examples by the very same artists—Prendergast, Marin, Hartley, and, of course Hopper.” The BMA argued the same thing about its Warhol holdings.
Still, Panetta understands why the idea of deaccessioning works is considered verboten. “I think people get anxious with the deaccession because it seems to kind of undo that goal” of the museum being a “permanent steward of the objects that it collects,” she said.
While the Whitney plan doesn’t include a monumental work analogous to the Warhol that the BMA attempted to sell in 2020, Hopper’s name is all but synonymous with the museum. And while the painting going up for auction didn’t make it into the museum’s recent Hopper show, it did hang in the Oval Office during President Barack Obama’s tenure, which should at least keep the bid cards waving come May.
As to whether the sale will generate a backlash, we’ll just have to wait and see.