Controversial Museum Practice: Deaccessioning Western Art for Diversity
Article written by Caroline Haller
Last Tuesday, May 17th, 2022, three paintings were sold at Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction. Those three works were Nu s’essuyant (the Bather) (1912) by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Clairière (The Glade) (c.1895) by Paul Cézanne and Fleurs ou Fleurs devant un portrait (1923) by Henri Matisse. They were part of a deaccession effort from the Toledo Art Museum in Toledo, OH (Figures 1-3).
With Oliver Barker as its auctioneer, the May 7th auction accrued $408 Million in one night, the third highest total for Sotheby’s. The sale of these three works brought in just under the estimated $60 million they were expected to receive.
Fig. 1. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Nu s’essuyant (The Bather), 1912, Private Collection. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The deaccession of those three works is meant to serve the museum’s mission to diversify their collection of art in order to broaden the narrative of art history they are able to tell.
This deaccession is one of several controversial deaccessions that have recently made news headlines. Over the past few years, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, museums have needed to address limited funding and financial difficulty. Deaccessioning high value works in their collections, allows art museums to purchase other works from a more diverse background. Other high profile deaccessions have included works from The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse and Palm Springs Art Museum in California.
Additionally, In 2020, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), decided to allow for funds made through deaccessioning works to be used for museums operating costs. This allowance suspended a rule that money made from the deaccession of works could only be used to purchase new works. This suspension of the rule, which came to an end this year, would last for two years and lead to several controversial deaccessions.
In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art was set to sell three works worth a total of $65 million attempting to take advantage of the AAMD’s special ruling. These works included works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden. The Still and Marden abstracts were eventually pulled from the Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale due to the controversy surrounding the deaccession. Though, they were later deaccessioned privately.
Also in October 2020, the Brooklyn Museum of Art sold nine works at Christie’s during the Old Masters and European Auctions. One work of note was Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia. The Brooklyn Museum of Art wanted to raise 40 million dollars in funds to establish a 2-million-dollar yearly budget for care of the collection. This would include building and maintaining storage, conservation efforts and staff salaries.
Fig. 2. Paul Cézanne, Clairière (The Glade), circa 1895, Private Collection. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Moving into 2022, as the effects from COVID-19 are slowly being mitigated, art museums still must confront the harsh reality of their overwhelmingly white and Eurocentric collections. Dealing with this issue, of course, means increasing the acquisition budgets dedicated to purchasing and acquiring works from diverse backgrounds.
Art museums across America have been criticized because many collections feature mainly White and European art. This is not only due to decades of biased collecting, but an attempt to tell a specific story touted as the cannon of Art History. The cannon has been pointed out to be a flawed and limited view of what is important in art. However, there is still much to do in order to tell a diverse and equal story which serves the communities in which museums operate.
Many art museums in America have shifted their missions to serve the communities of which they are apart of. In doing so, many are focused on making sure that all members of their community feel welcomed and represented within the museums. If the future of art museums is representing the community they serve, then the collections must be diversified in order to represent minority populations.
Deaccessioning works by white and European artists from their collections can solve both monetary issues as well as the need for diversification of a museum’s collection.
In cases like the Toledo Museum of Art’s deaccession of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, the museum will be able to use the funds from the public sale in order to purchase new works for their collections. This helps the museum to diversify their holdings by purchasing new and diverse art that represents minorities.
Fig. 3. Henri Matisse, Fleurs ou Fleurs devant un portrait, 1923, Private Collection. Courtesy of Sotheby’s
However, these deaccession sales have many opponents. Critics of this sale note that these works, and the artists who painted them, are part of an essential narrative. Many believe that museums need to continue to tell the narrative of the history of modern art.
Additionally, selling these works at auction, where they will certainly fetch a high price, feeds into the long-established hierarchy of what art is valuable. It also limits the public’s access to the paintings. There are few, if any, museums that would be able to afford the hammer price on these esteemed and highly desired works. So, they will go into a private collection, likely with limited viewing access.
Criticism aside, the deaccession of these works does open up space and allow funds for art museums, like the Toledo Museum of Art, to expand and diversify their collections. Although it will in no way correct the problematic cannon of Art History, it will start the process of allowing for representation of minority groups in collections which claim a desire to represent the communities they serve.
 Elaine Velie, “The Toledo Museum of Art is Deaccessioning Impressionist Works to Diversify its Collection.” Hyperallergic. 27 April 2022, Accessed 23 May 2022.
 Nancy Kenney, “Brooklyn Museum Steams ahead on deaccessioning,” The Art Newspaper, October 16 2020, Accessed May 23 2022.