How Collections are Made and Shaped: Deaccessioning de-mythified
Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower is currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada, where it can be seen with other works from the collection of European and American painting and sculpture. As widely reported in the press earlier this year, the Gallery proposed to sell it in order to purchase Jacques-Louis David’s Saint Jerome, an important canvas with a long Canadian history and one familiar to many visitors, as it hung at the Gallery from 1995 to 2013. In the language of the museum community, the Gallery “deaccessioned” The Eiffel Tower to raise funds for a new acquisition, a decision that was retracted when it became clear that the Saint Jerome would remain in Canada.
Deaccessioning is an important part of caring for institutional collections and is recognized as a normal practice by professional bodies such as the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization and the Association of Art Museum Directors. It allows institutions to refine and improve their holdings, the better to fulfill their missions, as well as to meet legal and ethical obligations, such as returning works to their rightful owners. The National Gallery has deaccessioned works for decades and, nearly thirty years ago, the 1990 federal Museums Act re-affirmed the practice.
Deaccessioning can take many forms, including donations, sales and exchanges; the means are carefully chosen in light of the work of art and the Gallery’s responsibilities. To give some idea of the decision-making process, donations are a good place to start: over the years, the Gallery has donated works to institutions better placed to make use of them. For example, the Gallery recently donated three nineteenth-century portraits to Library and Archives Canada, including James Green’s John Arthur Roebuck. Acquired in 1941, it has never been displayed at the Gallery. Green was a minor artist and this particular work, considered purely as a painting, is routine and relatively unambitious. In contrast, the sitter, Roebuck (1802–79), is far more significant. Born in India, he spent much of his youth in Ontario and, after moving to England, served as a member of the British Parliament. Known for his reformist views, Roebuck retained a strong interest in Canada. In effect, the painting has been in the wrong place: it should be in a history museum, not an art gallery. Keeping it at the Gallery – where it would necessarily be seen through the prism of aesthetics – limits our understanding of the work. Library and Archives Canada holds Roebuck’s papers, making it the perfect home for his portrait.
Another example of the Gallery deaccessioning and donating work is Arthur Lismer’s Pioneering in Canada, part of a mural painting commissioned for Humberside Collegiate Institute, Toronto. It was separated from the mural when the school was renovated in the 1960s and donated to the Gallery years later. When the mural was restored in the 1990s, the Gallery decided to give this piece to the school so that it could be reintegrated – a decision supported by the donor. Lismer’s work is well represented in the Gallery’s collection, which holds 60 paintings by the artist, and the aesthetic and historic benefits of reuniting the pieces are obvious.
Deaccessioning and selling works to raise funds for new acquisitions is common in the United States and undertaken by such institutions as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In Canada, the best known example is the Art Gallery of Ontario’s decision in 2014 to sell 48 European paintings, which was well received by the press. Other Canadian institutions have also raised funds this way.
The National Gallery of Canada has never sold a work by auction, but, to use the professional terminology, we have “exchanged” them – trading them and applying the value of one work in payment or part payment for another. For example, in 1936 the Gallery deaccessioned A.Y. Jackson’s Winter Afternoon, purchased 21 years earlier, and exchanged it with the artist for his Terre Sauvage, one of his masterpieces. The Gallery has also exchanged prints by Rembrandt and Dürer with dealers. An inferior impression of Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Cottage and a Large Tree, bought decades earlier, was traded for a better one of the same print. For its photographic collection, the Gallery has deaccessioned duplicate photographs by one artist to acquire examples by other photographers. The overarching goal is to refine and improve the collection or to expand its boundaries.
Deaccessioning is sometimes done to right a past injustice. At the Gallery, we carefully assess the provenances – ownership histories – of both new acquisitions and works already in our care. The results can be seen in our ongoing Provenance Research Project. Based on this research, two works were returned to their rightful owners: Édouard Vuillard’s The Salon of Madame Aron, looted during the Second World War, and a Tang Dynasty sculpture looted from the Longmen Caves in China.
In the North American museum community, deaccessioning is seen as commonplace, even necessary. The practice draws on art historical scholarship and conservation science. It requires in-depth knowledge of the work at issue, of the strengths and weaknesses of a collection, of the possibility to improve it. Checks and safeguards are provided by professional ethics, institutional policies and the law. Fundamentally, the ability to deaccession a work – like the ability to acquire one – is an important part of institutional self-governance: in the service of the public, museums are expected to make difficult decisions based on their expertise.
Such assertions should not stifle public discussion nor should we ignore the concerns that deaccessioning can generate: questions about the function of museums, the nature of art, the role of the market and people’s strong sense of investment in individual objects and the institutions that care for them. There are many different kinds of value that come to be attached to art works: art historical, documentary, personal, popular and financial, to name a few. For the Gallery, it is the art historical importance that matters most, yet this sometimes can be at odds with the others.
As an art gallery and a national institution, there are many questions that need to be considered: does the work belong here in terms of its importance, quality and condition? What role does it play here? It is the right representative work for this particular collection? What are the costs of keeping it – the resources devoted to its storage or treatment, or the risk that, while it may be preserved here, it may rarely or never be displayed? Sometimes, the art market values a work in excess of its art historical worth: if the sum it would realize could be put to significantly better use for the collection, should the work be sold? This calculus is not wrong – as an analogy, we do this with every purchase we make, weighing one possible acquisition against another in terms of costs and benefits. These questions may be controversial, but we must ask them and act accordingly.
For further information on one aspect of deaccessioning, consult the Gallery's Provenance Research Project. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.