Fickle Collections: Deaccession of Work by the Living
For example, in looking on eBay for the works the Dutch are going to sell there (I'm guessing they're either not up yet or the sale already happened), I decided to search simply on "painting." The first item in the results list sounded really interesting:
EARLY AMERICAN OIL PAINTING ON STRETCHED CANVAS, 20x24Wow, I thought. Perhaps eBay is going to give the auction houses a run for their money. Someone is selling an painting from the early American period (something I'm particularly attuned to at the moment because of Sarah Peters' excellent exhibition up in the gallery at the moment [no, I'm not above the shameless plug]). But clicking on the search result link, I came to this page (scroll down to the bottom...bidding has ended on this item) with this painting:
And this caption:
THIS IS A VERY NICE PAINTING THAT IS FRAMED. I HAVE ENJOYED IT VERY MUCH BUT IT NO LONGER GOES WITH MY DECOR. PREOWNED, VERY GOOD CONDITION...OK, so there's clearly an opening for an obnoxious joke or two about the new decor (leopard skins and all), but my objection to this listing is that "Early American" might be relatively subjective with regards to many things, but when it comes to art, it's really best reserved for items created prior to 1830.
But that's not the crux of what I wanted to highlight here (I simply had to get that off my chest). The deaccession, including works by living artists, from a national collection raises some questions to my mind.
First is actually the context of the sale. By not bringing the work to a specialized art seller, what is the Dutch government saying about the value of the work? One artist's response to the plan suggests he shares my overriding sense that eBay is, in general, the place you go to sell off your junk:
The government’s decision, a response to the cost of conserving the works, has outraged some artists and cheered others. “They called me the PicassoI'll concede that Kruzdlo's comment might be directed at the deaccession itself, and not the venue. Also, some artists are very happy to sell their work on eBay and do well at it.
of Amsterdam,” complained one painter, Robert Kruzdlo. “I do not paint rubbish.”
The second issue here for me, though, is the one I'm most curious about: what are the ethical obligations (if any) with regards to selling off work from a collection by artists who are still living. I'm not talking about financial compensation (I assume Holland will share the profits, if any, of the sales with the artists), but rather the societal protocols. Does the state, or any institution (I'll leave private collectors out of this, as I feel that's very different), have an ethical obligation to consider how best to carry out deaccessions, being especially aware of what their actions might do to an artist's career or pride?
Consider this incredibly careless (to my mind) statement by Dutch government:
Marina Raymakers, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, which manages thousands of state-owned art works, said, “These are works that have not been on display in 100 years or works that do not fit in with the kind of exhibitions in museums.” She added that many were produced in the 1980s under government subsidies to support artists.OK, so putting the implied swipe at state-subsidized art aside for the moment (although I tend to agree it's problematic, coming from a government official, can I just say, "Yikes!"), how fickle are the curators/directors for this collection that in 20-some years many of their choices already don't fit in with the exhibitions they're interested in producing?
The entire project strikes me as somewhat heartless, I must say, but not all the artists involved think so:
[A]nother painter, Willem Oorebeek, said, “I don’t see the auction as a loss, but more of a renaissance of my work, a rediscovery.”Which is a healthy way of looking at it, I'll admit (i.e., better that someone should enjoy the work than it sit in storage). Still, other questions remain, such as do the artists whose work is being sold now have to take that collection off their bios? Or was the original purchase and the prestige that went with it theirs to tout forever? Would the government be wrong to protest their leaving it on their bio if they chose to?
There are perhaps more pertinent ethical questions (and feel free to raise them), but these ones alone strike me as problematic enough that deaccessing work a high-profile institution purchased relatively recently might be given a bit more thought than just that they "do not fit in with the kind of exhibitions in museums." We know the kinds of exhibitions in museums can change with new curatorial leadership. (Which brings to mind a delicious scenario in which the government one day is faced with the decision of whether to buy back a piece they sold off, but, I digress....)