Are We Clear?

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The Los Angeles Times is reporting today on its Culture Monster website that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is planning to sell at auction next month more than 100 items from its costume and textiles collection. This news comes not long after Tyler Green reported on his Modern Art Notes blog that LACMA was also planing to sell two paintings later this month at Sotheby’s, one of them a portrait from 1518 by Lucas Cranach the Elder and the other a Joshua Reynolds from 1775, St. Cecilia.

The museum has said it plans to use the funds from these sales to acquire other art, so none of this should offend the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors. But I’ve had the same question in my mind a few times that Green raises on his blog. Why is that museums routinely do these sales — meaning sales entirely within the rules as the AAMD has devised them — without making any kind of public announcement? Even deaccession purists don’t question their right to sell from their collections if the money brought in that way goes to buy more art. But museums frequently attempt to sell on the quiet. The rest of us only find out what’s going out the door when the works turn up in an auction house pre-sale catalogue.

It’s no mystery why museum directors and curators prefer not to announce sales. They don’t want the inconvenience of having outsiders second guess their judgments about which works are inessential to their mission. But quiet selling gives the whole undertaking a slightly clandestine quality, which just muddies the whole debate about deaccessioning generally. Better to just issue a press release, explain your reasoning and be done with it.

It’s the AAMD’s position that it’s “important that a museum’s deaccessioning process be publicly transparent”. But I’m not aware that the group details for its members just what steps they need to take to ensure that transparency. Maybe they need to think about that.

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