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Largest US Art Museum May Sell Off Art to Pay Bills


The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the economy, and one niche hit particularly hard has been the world of museums, which has seen ticket sales plummet due to lockdowns and people staying away from indoor spaces. Now the largest art museum in the US is facing a massive budget shortfall, and it’s looking into selling art to pay bills.

The New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking at a shortfall of up to $150 million and that it has begun conversations with auction houses to explore selling some art to ensure the care of others.

One of the main stumbling blocks to doing this in the past was the Association of Art Museum Directors, which has guidelines for selling art from a museum’s collection (something known as deaccessioning). Previously, museums could only use proceeds from art sales to purchase other art, but during the pandemic, the association has relaxed its policy, opening up a two-year window (through April 10, 2022) in which museums can use proceeds to pay their bills.

Now the Met is joining many institutions in similarly dire financial straits in considering how it can take advantage of the relaxed guidelines to stay afloat through these difficult times.

Any artwork selected to be auctioned (generally lesser/never shown pieces that may be redundant or supplanted) would have to be approved for sale by department heads, the museum’s director, and the museum’s board.

In addition to the iconic paintings and sculptures in its collections, the Met has also had an independent photography department since 1992. The Department of Photographs now contains roughly 75,000 works spanning the history of photography from the 1830s to the present day. It remains to be seen whether photographs will be among artworks sold by struggling museums.

“Every museum in the U.S. is having these conversations,” Ian Alteveer, the Met’s curator of modern and contemporary art, tells the Times. “Do we want to use this window? What would it mean for the institution? What would it mean for the collection?’ For us not to discuss this now would be irresponsible.”

One notable industry figure who isn’t a fan of these latest developments is Thomas P. Campbell, who formerly directed the Met from 2009 to 2017.

“Disconcerted to read that The Met is considering deaccessioning art to support operating expenses,” Campbell writes. “While I know as well as anyone the complexity of running that behemoth, and I have great sympathy for those in the driving seat, I fear that this is a slippery path.

“[T]he danger is that deaccessioning for operating costs will become the norm, especially if leading museums like the Met follow suit. Deaccessioning will be like crack cocaine to the addict – a rapid hit, that becomes a dependency. I fear that the consequences could be highly destructive to the art museum industry.”

Image credits: Header photo by Hugo Schneider and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0