by William Valerio
The New Year is a time of renewal. Museums, too, renew themselves on an ongoing basis, a process of assessment and decision-making we call acquisition and deaccessioning. As Woodmere embarks on some changes to our beloved outdoor sculpture garden, as well as to the overall collection, I would like to explain how museums approach this important process.
In recent years, Woodmere has added many notable works of art to our collection. We will celebrate this growth with a 2015 exhibition, “Keeping it Real: Recent Acquisitions of Narrative and Realist Art” (on view Feb. 14 through June 14) that traces the history of Philadelphia’s realist traditions in the 20th century. We recently received new gifts of outdoor sculpture by Philadelphia artists to add to our collection: Christopher Smith’s (b. 1958) remarkable Sankofa Kore (the subject of a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer) and several important works by the late Dina Wind (1938-2014).
A museum’s collection is much like a garden; as we grow, we also need to prune, removing or deaccessioning works of art from the collection. We may choose to keep, for example, only those works that best represent an artist. Sometimes a work of art acquired in the past no longer seems an essential part of the stories we tell about Philadelphia’s art and artists. The deaccessioning process gives us an opportunity to add important works by artists not currently represented in our collection, as we continue to refine and develop new ideas and interests through the art we present and preserve.
Best practices in the museum world require that the process of deaccessioning is thoughtful, open and transparent. Museums have committees charged with the difficult process of making acquisition and deaccession decisions. It is common practice to offer deaccessioned works to another museum or institution, or to return the work to the donor or artist as a gesture of goodwill. When the artist or collector cannot be contacted, or if they decline to repossess, deaccessioned works may be sold through public auctions or galleries.
Funds raised through the sale of deaccessioned works must be channeled back into new acquisitions, never used to pay the electric bill or cover operating costs. In this way, the collection feeds its own growth and evolution, and is safeguarded from being sold in increments by museums in times of economic stress.
Deaccessioning is not a reflection on the quality of the art or artist that is removed from the collection; rather it is the result of a museum’s ever-evolving programmatic mission.
A work of art might have a better life and be more strongly appreciated in another context. The process is a delicate one and, like all human endeavors, it is imperfect and mistakes can be made. Our current exhibition “Schofield: International Impressionist” includes wonderful and important paintings acquired by private collectors after they were deaccessioned by museums in the 1930s.
With the addition of Smith and Wind’s work, Woodmere’s Collections Management Committee has turned its attention to the needs of the sculpture garden. You may have noticed that some of the sculptures on Woodmere’s lawn have been removed; in one case, an artist found his sculpture a new location. Other cases are more complex, especially when all attempts to contact the artist fail, or when the condition of a work is beyond reasonable repair. Even so, we always ask ourselves, “What would the artist want us to do in this instance?”
Deaccessioning is a deliberative process, and every attempt is made to assure that decisions do not follow changes in taste but instead respond to broader issues that relate to the long-term health and relevance of the museum’s collection, with the goal of keeping the museum and its collection fresh and alive.
It has been my pleasure to greet many of the readers of this column at Woodmere throughout the holiday season. I thank everyone for expressing enthusiasm, enjoying Woodmere and supporting our efforts throughout the year. We wish you a season of joy and renewal in the New Year.