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Not for Sale: Peabody Essex Museum Upholds Strict Deaccession Rules

SALEM, MA.- At first glance, many people consider the sale of art from a museum collection an entirely reasonable option to help keep the parent institution financially afloat. Some works of art, after all, are worth a great deal of money. Times are hard and, unless an institution sells its entire collection, there are presumably plenty of works of art left in a collection for the public to enjoy.

The art museum community, however, strictly prohibits sales of art from collections to support operations. In fact, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) may censure and sanction any museum that conducts such sales. Why?

The collection is the foundation of an art museum. The combined collections of art museums document thousands of years of artistic and cultural expression. They are a significant part of our shared heritage. The works of art in museum collections inspire, illuminate and enrich the lives of tens of millions of people from all walks of life every year.

Art museum collections are held in trust to benefit the public. Selling art to underwrite operating costs or to help solve financial problems fundamentally compromises the integrity of these collections and their purpose in serving the public. The sales usually result in transfers of important, valuable works to private hands and render those works inaccessible.

Most of the works in an art museum collection are the result of gifts. Sales of art to support operations decrease donor trust in art museums and diminish their desire to support exhibitions, education and other programs. Donors give art to make art accessible to the public and to support a museum’s mission. They don’t give art to pay for staff salaries or to close an operating deficit. Further, if museums start selling art to meet their operating needs, why should donors contribute to support exhibitions and programs? Couldn’t the institution simply sell some more art?

Once a work of art enters a museum collection it ceases to be a fully fungible asset that can be freely exchanged to pay for operating expenses. Museums that violate AAMD’s policy on deaccessions may be sanction. (During the last year, AAMD sanctioned the National Academy Museum in New York City for selling works of art from its collections to help address financial problems.) Sanctions prevent other art museums from lending works of art or exhibitions to a museum, thereby crippling their ability to maintain a viable exhibition program. This severe penalty is required to protect collections and art museums.

The Peabody Essex Museum will never sell art to support operations because doing so would compromise the integrity of our collections, our relationship with donors and members, and our standing in the field.

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