At its quarterly meeting on October 26, 2010, the Board of Trustees of the Rosenbach Museum & Library
in Philadelphia voted unanimously to deaccession thirteen paintings by the British artist Walter Greaves (1846-1930).
Deaccessioning is the term museums use to describe the permanent removal, by sale or by gift, of items from their collections. There are two essential parts of deaccessioning: making the decision in the first place, and then allocating the proceeds.
The following text prepared by Derick Dreher, Director, Rosenbach Museum & Library will address the best standards and practices for both issues, and explain in detail the entire process the Rosenbach followed.
Best Practices, I: Good decisions are based on curatorial imperatives
When a museums governing body engages in a thoughtful process, making the decision based on curatorial arguments, deaccessioning can be an important tool for proactive management of the collections. In contrast, any decision that is rushed, or based on the perceived market value of the work, is inherently flawed. The process should have an open-ended timeline, and investigate the possibility of keeping the works at other institutions in the region, among other considerations.
Best Practices, II: Proceeds from sales should be restricted to new acquisitions
Although industry recommendations are sometimes conflicting, it can be asserted that the best policy to follow in the case of deaccessioning is the most restrictive one. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB, which governs accounting practices at non-profits) have both issued policies that state all proceeds from deaccessioning must be restricted to new acquisitions only. The American Association of Museums, a larger umbrella group for museums of all kinds, permits the proceeds to be used for new acquisitions and/or direct care of collections. Since direct care is difficult to define, and does not in any case replenish or upgrade a collection, the Rosenbach limits all proceeds to new acquisitions only. This approach is described more fully below.
The Rosenbach process: Making the decision
The paintings now being deaccessioned were purchased by museum co-founder Philip H. Rosenbach, an art dealer who was smitten by the work of Walter Greaves. Rosenbach purchased fourteen paintings by the artist, a follower of Whistler, in London in 1911. They are mostly portraits of Whistler, but also include landscapes and riverscapes. Mr. Rosenbach attempted to sell the paintings on and off for over three decades, but only ever managed to sell a single painting, in 1943. What little reputation Greaves had in the United States was ruined by the noted Philadelphia artist Joseph Pennell, who knew Greaves from his own years in London and derided him as a third-rate copyist. Unfortunately for Mr. Rosenbach, this came just after he had purchased the Greaves paintings, leaving him with essentially worthless stock.
The thirteen remaining paintings passed from the inventory of the Rosenbach brothers business into the collections of the museum in 1954, the year the museum opened. The deed of trust created by the founders in 1950, just before their deaths in 1952 and 1953, gave the trustees of the museum full powers to sell or donate any item from the collection.
Nearly one hundred years after their initial acquisition, none of the thirteen Greaves paintings has ever been displayed. The paintings are not in keeping with the museums strengths in the area of paintings, which include mostly American works by painters such as Thomas Sully (six major portraits) and Bass Otis. Additionally, the paintings dont lend themselves to interpretive interaction with first-rate parts of the museums collections that the Rosenbachs curatorial and education staffs rely on for programmatic use. The paintings also suffer conservation issues that would make them quite costly to exhibit, and which threaten their ongoing care. Given all of these issues, the curatorial staff recommended they be deaccessioned. The Rosenbachs board later approved this recommendation.
This decision was reached during a series of board meetings that took place between April and October 2010. Specifically, the matter was discussed at length in two separate meetings of the Collections & Programs Committee, and then in two separate meetings of the full board of trustees. At all of the meetings, it was made clear that the discussion should be based on the curatorial merits of the paintings, not any perceived financial gain. Nor was any timeline set forth for making a decision.
The Rosenbach process: keep works local?
Once the Rosenbachs board of trustees voted to deaccession the paintings, the museums staff approached the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Rosenbachs board had also voted to give twelve of the thirteen paintings to the Philadelphia Museum, if it wished to have them; and to sell the thirteenth (by that time appraised at a higher level than the other paintings) for a price equivalent to the median of the high and low sale estimates. The decision to sell this one painting was based on the boards fiduciary duty to secure the best possible results for any assets that are sold. Most of the other paintings have sale estimates that were lower, so this one painting was the only asset that theoretically had significant value.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art considered accepting the gift of a different painting in the group, which its curatorial staff perceived to be of higher quality than others. Ultimately, the Museum declined, citing the necessary investment in conservation, and the unlikelihood of exhibiting the work in the near future, among other things.
The Rosenbach is now in discussions to give this particular painting to another area art museum with a large collection of European paintings. If the Rosenbach is successful in its effort to place this painting, one of Greavess more interesting works will remain in the region, even though the painter himself has no local links.
The Rosenbach process: use the proceeds only for new acquisitions
Since 2003, the Rosenbach has had a policy in place that limits all proceeds from deaccessioning to new acquisitions. In other words, the Rosenbach never uses any portion of the monies for collections care, capital improvements, or other expenses. The Rosenbach is not a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which requires such a policy, but it chooses to identify with what it views as a higher standard promulgated by that organization.
The wisdom of this approach is borne out by the Rosenbachs active program of acquiring new works for its collection. Indeed, during the same time period, the museum has acquired dozens of items: books, manuscripts, drawings, paintings, metalwork and more. The Rosenbachs most recent acquisition was a portrait of Rebecca Gratz by noted Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully.
In this regard, the museum follows the legacy of its founders (who were dealers in art and books) and their stated interest in continually upgrading the collection.
In addition, the Rosenbach maintains a segregated account for acquisitions that is audited annually to ensure adherence to the stated policy.