As the Colby College Museum of Art builds up collections and resources, a dramatic deaccessioning at Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art in Indiana sits in contrast. A proposed deaccessioning of three valuable paintings at the Brauer Museum highlights the value of best curatorial practices. To care is the Latin translation of curate, the main job of museum directors, Lunder Curator of American Art Sarah Humphreville pointed out.
“We work to preserve and take care of art in perpetuity,” she explained, “and we have ethical guidelines in writing as museums and as curators.”
The guidelines are listed online with an emphasis on ethics, education, and accessibility. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) states that museums cannot deaccession artworks to pay for anything other than new acquisitions.
However, guidelines were updated over the course of the pandemic when museum revenue was widely limited, and funds from deaccessioning can now help to cover collections care. This category can include conservation, staff members who devote time to the care of these objects, physical space to properly store or display the objects, and the monetary cost of purchasing and maintaining the objects. According to Humphreville, “this is a responsibility curators think about when accepting gifts or purchasing artwork.”
These guidelines are also an important consideration when deaccessioning, or officially removing an object from a museum collection to sell it.
In a case that has been gaining national attention, The Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University in Indiana has proposed the deaccession of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1930 “Rust Red Hills,” Childe Hassam’s 1914 “The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate,” and Frederic Church’s 1849 “Mountain Landscape.”
These pieces, all tied to the Brauer Museum’s Sloan Fund, are expected to raise millions of dollars — but at a great cost to the merit of the museum.
In response, students and supporters of the museum collection have made a website called Art Is A Core Resource, with a petition underlining the mission of an educational institution: “We, the undersigned — artists, collectors, donors, art historians, museum professionals, teachers, university faculty, and lovers of art — write in protest at your intention to sell paintings from the collection of the Brauer Museum of Art to fund the renovation of dormitories.” People from all professions have signed in protest to this artwork sale for capital revenue. The slogan of this movement is, “Red dots belong in a gallery, not an academic art museum.”
Since the Brauer Museum is not an AAMD member, the agreements about how to manage a collection may not apply directly, but the motion has attracted opinions from such organizations. Together, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC), the AAMD, and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) issued a joint Statement on the Brauer Museum of Art’s proposal to deaccession three artworks to fund a construction project elsewhere on campus:
“This remains a fundamental ethical principle of the museum field, one which all institutions are obligated to respect: in no event shall funds from deaccessioned works be used for anything other than support for a museum’s collections, either through acquisitions or the direct care of works of art.
“Although the Brauer Museum is not a member of AAMD, collectively we remain hopeful that the University will reconsider its decision. We stand ready to assist, in any way we are able, to find other solutions to the institution’s needs without resorting to the selling of works that can never be recovered, to the great detriment of current and future students and community members,” the AAMD’s website states.
The impact on the community of students, whether attendees of the school or just patrons of the museum wanting to learn from the collections, could be devastating for the long-term future of this museum.
Based on news articles with interviews from the president of Valparaiso University, lacking contribution from curators and museum administrators, it seems as though the deaccessioning of these three works was a decision made by the University without consulting the museum.
The impacts may not be breaking an institutional rule, but an act of deaccessioning for capital investments will change the reputation of this institution. Ultimately, it is not in the best interest of the institutions to sacrifice collection quality for funding, particularly in an unrelated domain.
“It is really dangerous for a college or university or museum to be looking at an art collection as if it is a monetary asset; that is not why Colby has a museum, or why Harvard’s museum, or why the Met exists,” Humphreville said. She explained how a collection is a part of bringing in audiences and revenue, and that deaccessioning such major works will likely change the role of the audience.
“Museums are non-profits; they exist to educate and share collections with the communities we serve,” Humphreville said. The role of a museum in its community can change over time.
Andrew Witte, Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellow in Museum Practice, emphasized that the pandemic has caused several changes in museum boards’ attitudes toward deaccessioning, and emphasized that accessibility of artwork should be a vital value in museum sales and acquisitions.
“Collections are large and expensive, but photography of this work will be a publicly accessible resource,” Witte said. “If there is a deaccession that supports the museum, the work will be out of the public eye, but it will not be invisible or completely inaccessible even if in a private collector’s hands.”
Essentially, deaccessioning an artwork does not mean it will disappear from public viewing because museums can still lend objects from private collectors, but it does change the role and potential of a museum’s collection.
“One of the most important things a curator does is really understand what the collection is,” Humphreville said. She is enthusiastic about the Colby Museum’s role in the greater Waterville community as the new arts center has started to hold programs: “it is apparent how prominently featured the museum is by the College building an arts ecosystem.”
In addition to the Museum, the Greene Block + Studios and the Schupf Arts Center are places for conversation and communal progress.
The College emphasizes what an educational resource the Museum is, integral to the college experience and much more than a financial asset. The most valuable feature of a museum is access to artwork, and it is a constant responsibility to take care of the diversity and meaning of a collection so that patrons can see the artwork on display and learn from it, then come back when displays change to appreciate and learn more.
“We work closely with the College in different capacities, and it is clear that the College overall is invested in art in a really remarkable way,” Humphreville said — she moved to Maine from New York City where she did curatorial work at the Whitney Museum of Art. The Colby Museum draws talented and interested people toward an arts community because they maintain best practices in curating and collection management.
Humphreville appreciates how integrated the Museum and the arts, in general, are to the student experience; she said that working with classes from different academic departments is one of her favorite parts of the small and closely linked school and museum.
In the case of the Brauer Museum in Indiana, Humphreville said, “It feels very short-sighted to sell this way and assume the museum will be the same.”
~ Molly George ’23