The elephant in the art museum

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy, from Wikimedia

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

If the white boxes within art museums have grown larger and larger over the years, is it perhaps to accommodate the increasing girth of the elephants that museum communities would rather not discuss?

One of the largest of the herd is the question of de-accessioning, an elephant that became starkly visible on or about May 24th, 2014 at the Detroit Art Museum, before being quickly re-cloaked by a unanimous Michigan State Senate Committee.

It is taboo for museums to ever consider selling art from their collections in order to meet expenses. But it is generally considered okay to sell something if the money is used to acquire other art, e.g., to better focus a collection.

There are good reasons for this taboo. Public galleries are very literally not-for-profit. If a practice of selling works from collections was condoned, galleries might quickly drift toward profit-centred acquisitioning, as in “I wonder how much we could get for that 10 years from now?” That kind of market play should be left in the hands of dealers and collectors who are better equipped to speculate and suffer the consequences.

The mission behind museum collections is to preserve great art and give the public access to it, neither of which can be done as effectively in private hands. Selling work has nothing to do with either.

On the other hand, it has been said that too much art is now trapped in museums. Once all the Van Goghs or Tom Thomsons are in public hands, the intrigues and competition of the private market aren’t there to stimulate interest.

Are there other constructive ways of thinking about collections that are still consistent with their purpose? How about a cycle of “catch and release,” taking work into public collections, divesting it after a time (such as 50 or 100 years) so the museum can financially benefit from the phenomenon of market inflation and the work can be coveted and fought over and celebrated in the marketplace once more, eventually to be donated again to another museum, creating both new tax benefits for the philanthropist and new thrills in the museum world?

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