Deaccessioning art in a Museum

When it comes to a museum’s permanent collection, one may instinctually believe that adding to it is the main goal. Bigger is better… right? If that is so, why are museums around the world working to deaccession their stores?

To deaccession an artwork is to permanently remove a piece from a museum. The justification is up to the curator to decide, but reasons can range from the fact that the work may simply no longer fit in the permanent collection thematically, or simply because a museum can no longer afford to keep it. Often, the latter is the case. While running exhibits and funding programs are costly to the institution, usually simply keeping art in storage can be amongst the most expensive parts of running a museum. Storage space, temperature control, humidity control, fire sprinklers, and insurance can rack up a hefty bill. Thus, it is often in the best financial interests of the museum to cut the fat.

While every institution’s deaccession methods can vary, generally, the process starts with the curator. The curator evaluates the piece for characteristics, such as physical condition and consistency to the majority of the collection. In UCSB’s AD&A’s case, the museum opened in 1960, and the new museum eagerly accepted most works that were donated. However, as the years passed and the AD&A’s preferences grew more refined, the institution was able to be more discriminating in its decisions to accept and keep work. When the decision has been made as to deaccession the piece, its history is then researched. It is essential that careful, thorough research is done to ensure that a valuable piece is not accidentally removed from the collection. Facts, such as when it was donated and by whom, are invaluable, as often the works are returned to their donors. If the donor has passed and has no living kin, the museum has the option to return the work to the artist, donate it to another institution that could better use it to serve the public, or sell it at a public auction, where proceeds are used not for profit, but to improve and expand the museum’s permanent collection.

-Momo Fong, Fine Arts Curatorial Intern

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