anne pasternak

The Market Is Coming for Museums’ Art, and 7 Other Takeaways From a Hot-Button Conference on Deaccessioning

American museums are in a bind. Budget shortfalls during the pandemic have led to existential threats, while at the same time activists have ramped up calls for museums to correct long-standing racial inequities, which necessitates more funding—all of which has led to a heated debate among professionals about how institutions should manage their finances.

As museums struggle to find new ways to raise money amid plummeting revenue streams, deaccessioning has come the the fore as a controversial solution. At a conference organized last week by Syracuse University, “Deaccessioning After 2020,” brought together directors, curators, scholars, and other experts to discuss policies surrounding the way museums sell objects from their collections.

While museums routinely sell works, how they can use the resulting funds are determined by two leading industry organizations, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). (“Deaccessioning” includes sales along with giving items away and repatriating them to their countries of origin or other rightful owners.)

While the AAMD’s guidelines have restricted museums’ use of proceeds from sales to purchasing other objects, AAM’s policies have long allowed institutions to use those funds for “direct care” of their collections. But to help museums face the financial crises caused by the pandemic, AAMD has opened a two-year window during which its members may use such funds for direct care.

Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum quickly moved to take advantage of the exception. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sits on an endowment of some $3.3 billion, revealed that it, too, would take advantage of the loosening regulations, causing considerable blowback. Thousands signed a petition calling on board members to write checks to meet the museum’s $150 million budget shortfall. Some professionals warned of a slippery slope that might result in boards being less willing to fund institutions that could simply sell objects, and of a threat to museums’ tax-exempt status. 

Furthermore, “direct care” has never been strictly defined. When the Baltimore Museum of Art recently penned an expansive definition of the term as it planned to sell several masterworks to raise $65 million to meet ambitious diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion goals, the AAMD balked. The museum withdrew the works from auction at the last moment. 

Speakers at the conference, which was held on Zoom, included the Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, the Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford, scholar Glenn Adamson, lawyers for the Berkshire Museum, as well as government officials. 

Here are eight key insights on the future of museums put forth by the participants.

Protesters outside Sotheby's ahead of this morning's American Art sale, which included works being deaccessioned from the Berkshire Museum. Image courtesy of Save the Art—Save the Museum

Protesters outside Sotheby’s ahead of an American art sale that included works being deaccessioned from the Berkshire Museum. Image courtesy of Save the Art—Save the Museum

1. Museums are not going to “sell” their way out of their financial problems. Not during the pandemic—and not after. 

During a panel on legal issues and the role of the courts, Nicholas O’Donnell, partner at Sullivan and Worcester’s art and museum law practice group, sounded a warning bell. (O’Donnell was one of the lawyers arguing against the sale of works from the holdings of the Berkshire Museum in 2017.) If a meaningful percentage of museums face the inability to continue, he said, selling art isn’t going to help them stay open. (A survey by AAM conducted at the beginning of the pandemic found that a third of museums faced the real possibility of closure.)

2. That’s because museums have grown way too large without regard to future costs. 

In the opening keynote, National Gallery of Art director Kaywin Feldman sounded warning bells of her own. Museums’ governing philosophy in the 20th century, she said, was growth. Collections grew and grew such that today, lack of storage space is a crisis. Buildings grew to fill museums’ properties without regard to future costs to maintain the physical plant. Galleries and storage spaces are overflowing, she said, and yet the industry keeps talking about growth. 

3. Don’t expect clarity from governing organizations on what “direct care” actually means.

The AAM added direct care to its code of ethics in 1994, but left it to museums and their boards to define the term. And yet, in the years since, the industry hasn’t outlined it with much clarity.

In a recent vote among AAMD membership, museum directors opted not to even have any further discussion on the subject. Museum directors were too afraid to even talk about this hot-button issue, the Brooklyn Museum’s Anne Pasternak said. But they need greater guidance from the AAMD. Museums are too diverse for a one-size-fits-all solution, and yet the current situation, in which boards just make their own decisions, isn’t ideal.

Pasternak added that museums need the AAMD to develop clear guidelines because direct care could be a very real part of how museums get through the current crisis.

Jackson Pollock, Red Composition (1946). Image courtesy Christie's.

The Everson Museum sold Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946). Image courtesy Christie’s.

4. Boards aren’t going to save museums in every emergency. They can’t, and maybe it shouldn’t be their job. 

If those who oppose deaccessioning expect super-wealthy boards to come to the rescue, they could be waiting a long time, said the directors and board chairs on a panel about regional museums tasked with “making difficult decisions,” including the Berkshire Museum and the Everson Museum of Art, in Syracuse, which recently sold a Jackson Pollock work to fund future acquisitions.

“Boards are not banks,” Everson board chair Jessica Arb Danial said. “They are fiduciaries.” What’s more, the Everson doesn’t have a single billionaire on its board, she said. (Though if you are a billionaire in Syracuse, she added, “I will find you.”)

On her panel, too, Pasternak called the assumption that her board could simply write checks to cover pandemic shortfalls “perplexing.”

Likewise, Mark Gold, a partner at Smith Green and Gold, in Massachusetts, who was counsel to the Berkshire Museum, called it “offensive” to assume that boards are stocked with super-wealthy members, saying that he works with institutions whose boards include local business owners and school teachers.

5. Museums must get creative about cutting costs.

The Dallas Museum of Art recently mounted a Juan Gris exhibition using many loans, director Agustín Arteaga said. Whereas big-ticket items on loan are usually lovingly cared for every step of the way by couriers, the museum managed this time to cut costs without using a single one. (As Kate Brown recently wrote, the organizers of a Rembrandt show in Germany pulled off the same feat.)

Joe Thompson, former director of Mass MoCA, piped in, saying that those loans are typically triple insured, at “absurd” rates, “with no balancing of actual risks.”

6. Some museums will go out of business, and that’s just the way it goes.

On a panel devoted to “the impermanence of museums,” Brown University professor Steven Lubar pointed out that his institution once had a museum, the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, that simply went the way of the dodo when the school’s priorities changed. Many museums have closed, said Lubar; we just don’t remember them. 

7. The market is coming for museums’ art.

Lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell’s phone started ringing as soon as the AAMD’s policy change was announced, he said. The market will find efficient ways to source art to sell, he posited, saying that “collectors are coming full force” for museums’ collections. 

8. And when it does, expect more crises, and more online rage.

While museums may collect with relative freedom, independent curator and writer Glenn Adamson pointed out that they are subjected to intense scrutiny when selling they sell, and the headlines bear that out.

When the market comes for their art, can their boards be trusted to do due diligence and defend every sale? That’s going to be “the gorilla in the room,” said O’Donnell.

When they opt to sell, expect “scorched earth criticism by bloggers,” added lawyer Mark Gold.

Velásquez, on her panel, appealed for more propositions for solutions than just criticism. The current crisis, she said, showcases museums’ most pressing needs. Those in the hot seat need great ideas and empathy. 

But Pasternak was defiant. Let bloggers criticize, she said.

“Haters gonna hate.”

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Artist Nick Cave’s Controversial Upstate New York Artwork Has Found a New Home at the Brooklyn Museum

A public art installation by artist Nick Cave that fomented a months-long political battle in a small New York town has found a new, bigger home: the Brooklyn Museum. 

The artwork, installed last fall across the facade of the School, gallerist Jack Shainman’s outpost in the village of Kinderhook, reads “Truth Be Told” in 25-foot-tall black vinyl letters.

According to a statement from the gallery, it was conceived as a “pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism.”

But as the installation went up in late October as part of the Shainman’s “States of Being” art and social justice initiative, it faced local critics, including Kinderhook mayor Dale R. Leiser, who argued that the text constituted a sign, not an artwork, and thus did not fall under the gallery’s special use permit.

Backed by the town board, he threatened to fine the dealer $200 every day the artwork remained on view.

Shainman didn’t balk, and the artwork is still on display. The town’s leaders haven’t changed their tune either; they are still demanding its removal. But no fines have yet been issued.

“It is ironic that a work promoting truth-telling has been met with distrust and deceit,” Cave wrote in an open letter this month, denouncing the town’s actions as censorship.

“They are censoring the words of a Black man in a moment when our country, more so than ever, is divided on the basic principles of fact and fiction,” the artist added.

Cave says the town of Kinderhook will hold a meeting on January 25 to determine the fate of the work. Leiser’s office did not immediately return Midnight Publishing Group News’s request for more information.

Among the signatories to Cave’s letter are philanthropist Agnes Gund, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, curator Helen Molesworth, and Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak.

The latter took her support even further, offering to mount the artwork on the Brooklyn Museum’s outdoor plaza this spring, according to the New York Times. It will go on view in conjunction with an as-yet-unannounced exhibition. The museum declined to share additional information on the show.

“Museums are being called on to tell the truth, from the painful to the celebratory,” Pasternak told the Times. “We can invite a constructive conversation.”

Next week, Cave and the work’s co-designer, Bob Faust, will amend its text to simply read “Truth”—a message that needs little additional context against the backdrop of President Trump’s escalating campaign of disseminating incendiary disinformation. 

“The individuals opposed to this work are calling for its removal because they are inferring from it a meaning that stands in opposition with their own values,” Shainman told Midnight Publishing Group News. “The fact of the matter is that ‘Truth Be Told’ can be read in many different ways and when taken at face value, it simply speaks to the importance of truth telling. In my opinion, great art challenges and confronts, and the fact that these three words have caused such an uproar alone speaks to its significance.”

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What Is the Future of Museums? 7 Predictions From Max Hollein, Koyo Kouoh, Anne Pasternak, and Other Top Curators and Directors

In his new book The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, published in November and available worldwide in January, the writer, researcher, and arts consultant András Szántó interviews the world’s leading museum directors and curators about the trials they faced in 2020 and how they see art institutions evolving in the years to come. Here are excerpts from seven of those 28 conversations.

Anne Pasternak,
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Is there a narrative of museums that you see evolving?

More people are visiting museums than ever. It’s a must-do activity, especially when people travel. While it’s easy to be annoyed with overcrowding in some museums, overall it’s great that more people are being exposed to art and history. But what excites me Community 66 is that museums are being pushed to change. Historically, museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, have upheld white patriarchal narratives, but at long last more and more institutions are starting to show and collect more women and BIPOC artists. Just as important, BIPOC people are shaping the narratives of our exhibitions and programs. As a result, the stories we tell are becoming more thoughtful, truthful, inclusive, and exciting. Our field has only taken baby steps, but I am hopeful that fundamental change is happening. It’s essential—including for the survival of our field.

Where are the break points in this narrative—the unresolved issues that still need to be tackled?

Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum were founded on the belief that the sharing of world cultures would lead to greater understanding and empathy, and thereby advance civilization. I believe in this ideal. And I believe in the historic role of the museum as a place where we come together to experience great art, learn about our past and the dignity of other cultures. But museums have also played a role in supporting narratives that have led to the pain and suffering of others. We are monuments to a fraught past. We have left out the histories and narratives of so many. We have upheld sexist, classist, racist, colonial, and many other unethical and inequitable practices. So it should not be a surprise that we are facing a major shake-up. As the Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, recently told me, “museums are in a crisis because America is in a crisis.” Museums shape narratives that matter, so it’s no surprise young people are passionate about pushing for change. It’s time now to do better—a lot better. That means looking at ourselves honestly and fixing a whole lot about the way we work as we make authentic commitments toward equity, inclusion, access, and anti-racism.

Philip Tinari
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

Philip Tinari in 2014. ©Patrick McMullan. Courtesy of J Grassi/

China will play an important role in the next century of the museum, just as Europe and North America did in the last century—that’s just a matter of economics and global power. How will the future be different because of China’s greater role in it?

I obviously cannot speak for China. But what we see at UCCA is a kind of hyper-refined, accelerated version of a lot of trends that museums are reckoning with all over the world, specifically in regard to user demographics and digital convergence. China has completely redefined e-commerce. You have digital-shopping hosts who can convene tens of millions of people and get them to buy something, through livecasting. For all the restrictions and censorship, people’s digital lives here are all-consuming. This manifests in this insatiable desire to document one’s existence and declare it to those around, using whatever channel or network is in vogue at any given moment. So for example, this idea of the museum as photo backdrop arrived here early. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to turn this inexorable urge into something productive, even educational. At the very least, we need to think about how, in a place where “traditional media” are even less influential than elsewhere, this kind of transmission by individual accounts and users can create excitement and understanding around our program.

Koyo Kouoh
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town

Curator Koyo Kouoh, 2016. Courtesy of Raw Material and Koyo Kouoh.

Curator Koyo Kouoh, 2016. Courtesy of Raw Material and Koyo Kouoh.

Let’s talk about museums in Africa. It’s easy to focus on the challenges. But what are the opportunities?

I am interested in what African museums—nascent as they are—might tell us about the future of the museum in general. I hope—I wish—that new forms of the museum will come from the African continent. Our context requires us to think outside of the established boxes in the museum field. I strongly believe that the limited resources that we struggle with—because we just don’t have the same cultural-support environment that you have in other contexts—demand that we don’t necessarily have to apply the same distinctions that exist elsewhere. As an example, two weeks ago I had an Instagram Live conversation with a colleague, Daudi Karungi, whom I have admired for a long time. He epitomizes what our context demands from us in the future. He founded a commercial gallery, because he needed to build an environment around his practice in his hometown of Kampala, Uganda. After a few years, he launched the Kampala Biennial, to offer a platform to present and discuss art in a noncommercial way. Then he started an art journal—yet another platform, which for me is just another kind of curatorial and exhibition space. And then he started a residency program to support up-and-coming artists. He combined essential formats of the ecosystems of the art industry under one umbrella. Anywhere else, people would scream, “How could you have a biennial, an art fair, a gallery, a journal, and art education all together?” But here in Africa it is possible, and might well be what we need to do. I really believe that in the future we will have to tear down all these walls. We have to always come back to the question: “What are we doing? Why are we in this field?” I am here in the service of artists and art. Wherever that service is delivered is fine with me.

Max Hollein
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Metropolitan Museum of Art director Max Hollein. Photo by Eileen Travell, courtesy of the Met.

Let’s hop in our time machine. How do you imagine tomorrow’s museums to be different?

Bringing more and more objects to one place will become less relevant, versus how you translate the knowledge, understanding, and complexities of these objects to a wider audience. I do think the physical experience of the museum will continue to be powerful and strong. But museums will expand significantly in ways that are not just physical, but also digital and intellectual in regard to their engagement in various areas of the world.

A question I have enjoyed asking in these conversations is which habits do museums need to unlearn to stay relevant?

One tendency—we share this with academia—is that we always first want to know everything before we put something forward. Sometimes, it is more interesting for the public to know what we don’t know, rather than to know what we know.

Franklin Sirmans
Pérez Art Museum Miami

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Let’s go to the crystal ball. What will be different in museums in the future?

Our job will be to pick up some of the energy of more socially inclined organizations. We are not trying to co-opt what they do, but we need to be their collaborators in meaningful ways. What does it look like to collaborate with the Boys & Girls Clubs, or with houses for the homeless? We have to own the space that we have been talking about for a long time—being community-centered and having a part in people’s lives that is potentially more meaningful than just entertainment. There’s too much hate in the world, and museums should level the field and provide spaces of love—not agreement, but just open hearts. How does that remit change the curatorial agenda? You gotta let go. We have to allow for real life to enter into the conversation. It is not just an international art conversation we have to learn. You see it with educational departments over the past twenty years, and the sort of agency they have been given. Now that agency needs to extend further into the public. I don’t just mean crowdsourcing. I mean real, meaningful collaboration.

Katrina Sedgwick
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Sydney

Katrina Sedgwick, director of Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Courtesy of the ACMI.

Katrina Sedgwick, director of Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Courtesy of the ACMI.

Immersive experience is nothing new, culturally speaking. We have long had cathedrals and palaces. Large-scale installations have long been made by artists. Yet in recent decades, art has been primarily exhibited in the so-called white cube, in an antiseptic, cerebral, anonymous setting. Lately, there is more public fascination with immersive experience. What is bringing forward this desire?

People are thrilled to be transported in that way. But immersion can also become relentless. We have spaces with extraordinary moving-image works, but next to them we will have a room full of costumes, for example. The cabinet of curiosities has been an inspiration for our permanent exhibition. We designed a twenty-meter-long cabinet, full of objects from across the various kinds of media that we explore. I think what people love is the theatricality of immersion. We made a show, Wonderland, in 2018, based on the screen adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Since 1903 there have been more than forty-five—film, TV, music videos, etc. We created a very theatrical, immersive exhibition that was the opposite of the white cube. You arrived in a hall of mirrors. You had to open different doors. There were things you had to climb over. A map with a little chip triggered magical animations. We were simultaneously telling a story about special effects in cinema. We had a white room that, with projection mapping, magically turned into a fully immersive Mad Hatter’s tea party, bringing the process of CGI to life. The exhibition was designed by a theater designer, and our curators worked with an advisory group that comprised all sorts of different arts backgrounds, a multidisciplinary think tank. We were inspired by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s David Bowie Is exhibition, which we presented in 2015, and by Teatro de los Sentidos (Theater of the Senses), an experimental theater company in Barcelona. We wanted to support the telling of the story with the tools of theatrical design and with digital technology.

You spend a lot of time with artists and content producers and technologists. Where do you see moving-image going?

It is important not to get hung up on the technology itself, but to focus on how you can support artists to experiment with the technology as a canvas for their ideas. The technology is going to constantly change. Depending on whom you ask, VR is over, and AR will be the dominant mixed-reality platform. I don’t know. I do know that commissioning artists in both of those spaces will lead to exciting shifts in their practice, but also exciting shifts in how the platform can be deployed. The way artists use their Immersive Experiences 272 creativity in one particular medium doesn’t lock them into that technology. As a museum, we can raise money to give artists proper funding to experiment. Nine times out of ten, they do something very interesting.


Mami Kataoka
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Mami Kataoka. Photo Jennifer Yin 21st Biennial of Sydney

Mami Kataoka. PhotoMami Kataoka. Photo Jennifer YinJennifer Yin

Where do you see programming and exhibitions evolving? Can museums tell stories in new ways?

Because of social distancing and limitations on the number of visitors, the live experience of the museum might become more precious, potentially with higher ticket prices. The museum might become a place where you detach yourself even more from everyday life: a place for contemplating, for meditation, to quietly think about your own existence. At the same time, the physical museum space itself may not be the only place for experience. The museum can pop up in different places, including the digital realm and somewhere beyond the museum walls. It can be a concept, an idea, which doesn’t have to be attached to a specific site. We have to rethink the categorization between museums, festivals, biennials, and the digital world.

The future is many things—technology, economics, demographics, architecture. How can a museum engage with all these fields meaningfully?

I would choose the word “doubt.” New technologies often have utopian ideas about the future. Economics and demographics tend to be numerical and holistic. But one role of the museum is to have a meaningful discussion with these fields and challenge them. Artists always offer a critical view, reflecting emotional and intuitive value and individual stories. They can reveal things that people are not looking at, things that are uncomfortable. Art shines a light on people and places that don’t get enough light. Bringing those parts of society and the world into the discourse with technology, economics, and so on would be very meaningful to achieving a better equilibrium in the future.

Excerpted with permission from The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues by András Szántó, published by Hatje Cantz, distributed in the US by Artbook – D.A.P. and worldwide by Thames & Hudson.

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