Monday Afternoon October 18: Selling Our Collections

A2, Single Session Panel Discussion: “Selling Our Collections, New perspectives on Old Controversies in Today’s Economy,” Moderated by Doug DeFors (Monday, October 18, 2 PM to 3:15 PM)

By Doug DeFors

Imagine a museum press conference that announced, unapologetically, that the board had voted to sell a number of very valuable paintings from the permanent collection to avoid imminent bankruptcy. What would be your reaction? Surprise? Indignation? Now imagine that this museum is your museum, and among the jobs being saved by the sale is your job. Feel differently about it?

Robert Breunig

WMA Portland will kick off conference sessions on Monday, October 18 with a panel discussion titled: “Selling Our Collections, New Perspectives On Old Controversies In Today’s Economy.” Guest speakers include: Dr. Robert Breunig, Director of the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNH) who engineered the museum’s recovery after his predecessor sold 21 permanent collection objects to a private dealer to offset debt, Jeffrey Mechanick, Assistant Director of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, (FASB), the agency designated by the IRS to set financial policy standards for nonprofits and museums, and Mark S. Gold, nonprofit and museum law attorney and Harvard museum studies graduate who has written extensively about the need to relax AAM’s financial restrictions for applying deaccession revenue to general operations.

Mark Gold

All prominent professional museum associations including AAM have categorically prohibited deaccession revenue from being used for operating expenses. But on it’s website AAM says: “Ethical codes evolve in response to changing conditions, values, and ideas. A professional code of ethics must, therefore, be periodically updated. It must also rest on widely shared values.” Are the best practices and professional ethics for museums changing? Hear these distinguished museum experts discuss how today’s poor economy may be altering the way museums will survive in the future.




What a pertinent topic: how do we sort through our obligations? Great panel Doug, and I look forward to the discussion it should spark.

I think that professional ethics have to transcend any certain job....that's what they are, right?! either you believe in not selling collections outside of accession/de-accession standards or you don't, right? I'd love to hear from other registrars in the room.

Thanks for posting this, Doug! And I really look forward to hearing your research and the findings of the panel you have put together!! interesting exchange going on over on LinkedIn:

Melissa Rosengard, Director of Development at the Chabot Space and Science Center, writes, "...This may be the single most important session of the conference..."

Doug responds, "...And if you think that's controversial - wait until the subject of employer/employee loyalty comes up. Is a museum employee's greater duty to the museum's survival to continue it's mission for public service, or to the code of ethics for museums that prohibits sale for debt relief?"

And Lauren Bloemsma, Executive Director at Telluride Historical Museum, writes, "...AASLH just hosted a very interesting session, Debating the Rembrandt Rule: What is the Appropriate Use of Collections at Historic Sites, exploring the idea of looking anew at standards that were established originally, perhaps, with art museums in mind."

And Tisha Carper Long notes, "Sounds like it will be a terrific panel, Doug! It's important that we keep revisiting the hard questions during this period of financial stress..."

Is selling art truly the institution’s last resource before bankruptcy? Museums have to survive or die. If the survival of a museum depends on selling some art pieces, go ahead. But, once you get into that practice there are certain dangers. Political & financial interests could get on the way of the core values & mission of the museum.

Selling art is not the answer. The 20th century museum model is in decline. Almost no US museum pays back the capital cost incurred on the purchase of the land, buildings and construction. Very few cover the operating expenses without a deficit.
Create a better museum business model looking at the for-profit realm and adapt your core values and mission to your audience so, you don’t have to sell your collection. Also, a smart accessioning policy wouldn’t hurt.

Something pertaining to my Portland A2 session description published in this blog just a few days ago needs to be corrected. The MNA "predecessor" I was referring to was in fact, the "acting director," who was in title, the deputy director at that time. Apologies for the lack of precision in making this clear. For those wishing to access the MNA article about the MNA collections sale please go to:

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Just want to see if you are a robot.