Museums will be able to apply funds from the sale of deaccessioned art toward the “direct care” of their collections, according to a new policy shift announced today by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Previously, the AAMD restricted the use of those funds to the acquisition of works of art only.
This new update to the AAMD’s Professional Practices in Art Museums helps bring the association’s policy in line with the American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM), which has for years permitted its membership to use the proceeds from sales of deaccessioned objects for purposes of both acquiring new objects and caring for existing ones in its collections. But while the AAM’s policy does not define what constitutes legitimate “direct care” spending, the AAMD’s new rule does, referring to costs accrued from the storage and preservation of artworks. As examples, the AAMD cites conservation and restoration efforts and even the purchase of materials like frames, mat boards, and acid-free paper for storage. Exempted from “direct care” are salaries for staff and costs associated with organizing temporary exhibitions.
Some arts professionals welcome the shift. “Collections care is a constant need within museums, particularly as acquisitions continue to expand the scale and complexity of their holdings,” Laura Raicovich, the former president and executive director of the Queens Museum, told Hyperallergic. “This change facilitates care for existing collections, which is an important aspect of museum stewardship.”
Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, applauded the AAMD for offering clarification on the definition of “direct care” but raised further questions. “Given the cultural and financial power of the institutions represented on the Task Force — and via AAMD membership generally — conversations around any ‘philosophical shift’ in the field could surely be more inclusive,” Fischman told Hyperallergic. “It might be the perfect moment, even, to invite diverse leadership into such a group of ‘important collegial institutions.’”
Discussions ahead of today’s change began as early as 2019, with formal work on officially changing AAMD’s policies beginning nine months ago with the formation of a task force of 18 members including Christopher Bedford, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; and Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and president of AAMD. Rod Bigelow of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art led the task force.
In April 2020, the AAMD approved a series of resolutions that temporarily removed certain restrictions on how museums could spend their funds. In particular, it allowed museums to deaccession works and use proceeds from those sales on operating expenses and other purposes beyond the mere acquisition of new work, pausing its sanctions on members who do not comply.
Rules around deaccessioning have long been controversial, with some holding that museum collections should not be treated as liquid assets to weather difficult times. In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art halted the auction of three paintings just hours before the sale following weeks of pushback from critics and members of the local arts community. The estimated $65 million from the sale was earmarked for staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions of works by diverse artists.
In a statement, Zugazagoitia acknowledged that AAMD’s members sought “more flexibility” and that AAMD’s policy “was no longer in sync” with those of other organizations, like the AAM. “This focused change addresses changes requested by members, ensures our approach is consistent with norms across the museum field, and provides crucial guidance to members on how to implement a ‘direct care’ standard should their institutions choose to do so,” he said.