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Journal of Law and Policy

Authors

Ardis E. Strong

Abstract

Art museums are curators of ideas, preservers of culture, and educators on the evolving aesthetics and morals of society. As such, they play an important role in contemporary society and should be accessible to a wide and diverse audience. One important debate in how museums best serve the public interest involves the museum practice of deaccessioning. Historically, policies governing the proceeds museums receive when they deaccession (or remove) work from their collection have strictly limited the use of these funds to the purchase of new art. This policy is based on the idea that museums hold art for the public trust and should therefore keep their collection separate from other museum assets. These ideas are relatively uncontroversial when dealing with financially healthy museums. However, the past decade has seen many museums struggling to keep the doors open and audiences engaged.

The debate over deaccessioning resurfaces each time a museum on the brink of closure breaks industry rules by selling work to pay for museum operations. While recognizing the importance of the museum’s role in keeping art in the public trust, this note questions whether the closure of a museum ever serves the public interest. Several prominent art lawyers and art critics have advocated for relaxing the rules governing the use of deaccessioning funds and allowing deaccessioned work to remain accessible to the public. These proposals appear to have little traction among industry regulators who enforce deaccessioning rules largely through sanctions and public condemnation. This note argues that the organizations that regulate museum practices should take a more proactive approach to assisting struggling institutions and a more collective approach to collections management that encourages individual museums to look to the wider cultural community when making tough decisions on how best to serve the public interest.