Vassar Today

The Art of Deaccessioning

By Elizabeth Randolph

Deaccession. Those not involved in the art world may never have heard the term, but it’s a process many professionally administered art museums go though to improve their collections. Deaccessioning removes from the museum’s inventory works that may be redundant, in poor condition, or not of sufficient quality to be held. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center currently is engaged in the process and expects to deaccession and sell 100 paintings among the 18,000 works in its collection through auction houses and other commercial art venues starting this fall.

James Mundy ’74, the Art Center’s Anne Hendricks Bass Director, calls it “judicious housecleaning.” “In every collection, there are things that are donated and accepted without a thorough examination of how the work will fit within the collection,” he says. “Deaccessioning allows institutions to strengthen their collections by making room for work that better complements what already exists. It’s part of the natural cycle of a collection’s health and growth, like pruning a tree.”

Rachel Kitzinger, dean of planning and academic affairs, agrees: “Cultivation is a great metaphor for deaccessioning, one that has all the implications of life and growth rather than a static pile that simply accumulates.”

This idea of cultivation is particularly important because Vassar’s art collection has been tied to the curriculum since the collection’s inception in 1864. “Normally you wouldn’t think of art as being redundant because each work is unique,” Kitzinger notes. “But because we view the museum as a teaching museum and it’s connected to the curriculum in multiple ways, if we have more than enough in one area and not enough in another, we really do have to try to balance the collection’s strengths over time.”

Museum professionals realize that deaccessioning is just a normal part of managing a collection, but explaining the process to donors who have given artwork to Vassar (or their descendants) is extremely important. “We don’t want anyone to feel that we don’t value the gift they have given,” says Kitzinger. “We have to be sure they understand that their original gift will be acknowledged in whatever we purchase to replace it.” (The name of the original donor is applied to the credit line of any subsequent purchase with the notation “by exchange.”)

As Mundy explains to donors, most decommissioned pieces have been in storage for years; replacing them with works that will have greater exposure in the Art Center’s public galleries will actually bring the donors’ names front and center.

Set forth as part of the museum’s collection management policy when the Art Center was officially accredited in 2004, the procedure for decommissioning works ensures deliberate and thoughtful action. After an exhaustive review of the collection, Art Center curators propose to the director works to be considered for deaccessioning. The list is then discussed with representatives from the Department of Art. At least one outside expert (preferably a museum professional) is consulted and asked for written recommendations on whether to decommission the works. They are then formally vetted through the Art Center’s Advisory Board and a final list of deaccessioning candidates is presented to Vassar’s Board of Trustees, which endorses the action. Three independent appraisals must be obtained before the works are sold through a reputable gallery, at public auction, or offered in exchange to another art institution.

Revenue from the sale of decommissioned paintings will go to acquire new works. “Ultimately, deaccessioning comes down to better stewardship of the collection,” Mundy says, “and these funds will foster healthy growth that will allow that stewardship. It’s a matter of keeping the collection vital.”