AAMD Should Extend Their Expiring Sanctions Pause on Deaccessioning Art

Celeste Fleetwood

In April 2020, the AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors) announced a two-year suspension on censures and sanctions from museums using deaccession funds to pay for expenses directly attributable to collection care. The AAMD still does not approve of using deaccession funds for unrelated operating expenses.[1] Pre-pandemic, the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) already allowed its members to use deaccession funds for collection care. Deaccessioning art is not illegal but most art museums have formal policies in place for when it is considered appropriate.[2] New York is the only state with legislation regarding when a museum can deaccession objects. The industry norm is that sales proceeds from deaccessioned art should only be used for the acquisition of new art,[3] but that does not help a museum in desperate need for funding to pay their employees during a pandemic or economic crisis. Deaccessioning can lead to sanctions from the AAMD and a freeze out from the industry during which time the museum will not be loaned exhibits from most, if not all, accredited museums.

Deaccessioning is the formal removal, often through sales, of an object from a museum’s collection when the art is damaged, inferior, duplicative, or outside the museum’s mission. Within the AAMD’s two-year sanction pause, the Brooklyn Museum sold twelve works to establish a $40 million fund to pay for collection care long-term.[4] The Indianapolis Museum began ranking their 54,000-piece collection with letter grades in order to understand what works would be a good fit to sell or give to another museum.[5] The UCLA Hammer Museum sold a 1930 Picasso painting, which had not been publicly displayed for six decades, to fund the acquisition of works on paper because the Picasso fell outside the museum’s collecting mission. Also, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Met”) announced that they would sell 219 duplicates of prints and photographs in the museum’s collection to cover collection care costs.[6]

The belief is that selling art to pay for things like operating expenses violates the trust of donors and the public and lowers the chances that the art will be available to the public. But there is no legal “public trust” in a museum’s collection. Deaccessioning collection pieces is not inherently a bad thing but can help ensure that the museum’s collection reflects its collecting purpose. For instances, MOMA has to deaccession art regularly so it can buy new art and keep its collection up to date as a modern art museum. In recent years museums, like the Baltimore Museums of Art in 2018 and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2019, have deaccessioned works in order to pay for new works from diverse artists.[7]

Also, most of a museum’s permanent collection is not on display for public viewing but kept in storage. The Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen became the World’s first museum to put their entire 151,000-piece collection on view to the public by opening their storage facility, adjoining the main museum to all in November 2021 after nearly twenty years of planning.[8] The Met owns two million objects and displays only tens of thousands at a time and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a 450,000-piece collection but only displays 18,000 objects at any one time.[9] Would donors prefer that the art they donated end up in storage or on display at a smaller museum that has the space to display the work? If the public hasn’t seen the art in decades because it sits in a museum’s warehouse then there is no “public trust” purpose in preventing a museum from deaccessioning that art. After an artwork has been in storage for a period of time, the museum should be permitted to deaccession the work by selling it at public auction or by loaning it to another museum that would put the work on display (increasing public access).

Museums lost significant operating revenue from lost ticket sales when forced to close during COVID-19 lockdowns.[10] Museums reopened but visitation has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The number of daily visitors at the Met is only about half of what it was pre-pandemic.[11] In the United Kingdom, the Tate Modern has had only 7% of its typical visitors and the British Museum has had just 3% of its typical visitors in 2020/2021.[12] The AAMD’s sanction pause was meant to alleviate economic challenges during the pandemic but museums have not yet fully recovered.

The AAMD’s two-year sanctions pause is set to expire April of 2022 and it does not look like it will be extended or made permanent any time soon. In 2021, AAMD members voted against a motion to consider permanently changing their deaccessioning policy. The AAMD’s policy is not legally enforceable, it is just an industry standard. If the AAMD changed their deaccession policy to permanently allow funds to be used for direct collection care expenses, it would align more closely with the AAM and FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board).[13]

The AAMD’s sanction pause should either be extended or permanently aligned with AAM’s deaccessioning policies, but AAMD would have to define what types of “direct collection care” expenses would be acceptable. What is the point in large museums like the Met keeping most of their collection in storage, when the Met could sell works to an individual or organization that intends to loan/donate the work to a smaller museum that has the space to display the work? The Met could benefit from a new source of funds and less collection care expenses. The buyer could benefit from the itemized charitable deduction on their Federal Income Tax return from donating the work or from the increased public awareness from loaning the work. Finally, small museum could benefit from gaining a new work for exhibition that they may not be able to afford otherwise and that could help attract new visitors to the museum.


[1] Nancy Kenney, AAMD Loosens Rules for Museums Seeking to Divert Income Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Art Newspaper (Apr. 15, 2020), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2020/04/15/aamd-loosens-rules-for-museums-seeking-to-divert-income-amid-coronavirus-crisis; Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis, (Apr. 15, 2020), https://aamd.org/for-the-media/press-release/aamd-board-of-trustees-approves-resolution-to-provide-additional.

[2] Rockwell v. Trustees of the Berkshire Museum, 2017 WL 6940932 (Mass. Super. Ct., Nov 7, 2017) (holding that the museum’s art sale alone does not violate the museum’s corporate purpose because deaccession is not barred by the museum’s charter or the law, and the art was not given with donor restrictions). 

[3] Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, (Adopted June 9, 2010, amended Oct. 2015), https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/AAMD%20Policy%20on%20Deaccessioning%20website_0.pdf; American Alliance of Museums (AAM), AAM Code of Ethics for Museums, (adopted 1993, amended 2000), https://www.aam-us.org/programs/ethics-standards-and-professional-practices/code-of-ethics-for-museums/.

[4] Robin Pogrebin, Brooklyn Museum to Sell 12 Works as Pandemic Changes the Rules, N.Y. Times (Sept. 16, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/arts/design/brooklyn-museum-sale-christies-coronavirus.html.

[5] Robin Pogrebin, Facing Deficit, Met Considers Selling Art to Help Pay the Bills, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/05/arts/design/met-museum-considers-selling-art.html (raising $31 million from the twelve works sold).

[6] Christopher Knight, Commentary: UCLA is Selling a Picasso. Why that’s a Good Thing, L.A. Times (Oct. 18, 2021), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-10-18/hammer-museum-grunwald-picasso-met-deaccession.

[7] Angelica Villa, The Most Controversial U.S. Museum Deaccessions:  Why do Institutions Sell Art?, ArtNews (Oct. 26, 2020), https://www.artnews.com/feature/most-controversial-museum-deaccessioning-plans-1234575019/.

[8] Amah-Rose Abrams, This Dutch Museum Is the World’s First to Open Its Storage to the Public, Putting Its Entire 151,000-Piece Collection on View, ArtNet (Nov. 4, 2021), https://news.artnet.com/art-world/depot-boijmans-van-beuningen-opens-2029819?utm_content=from_artnetnews&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=11%2F4%20US%20PM&utm_term=US%20Daily%20Newsletter%20%5BAFTERNOON%5D (displaying the art in pull-out storage shelves, in a 167,000 square foot building, allowing visitors to view the un-curated works up close).

[9] Geraldine Fabrikant, The Good Stuff in the Back Room, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2009), https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/arts/artsspecial/19TROVE.html.

[10] A survey of 850 Museums conducted in October 2020 revealed that over half (52%) of the museums had six months or less of operating reserves and 82% had twelve months or less of operating reserves. American Alliance of Museums, National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums (October 2020) (posted Nov. 17, 2020), https://www.aam-us.org/2020/11/17/national-snapshot-of-covid-19/.

[11] Matt Stevens, New York’s Cultural Institutions Have a Lot at Stake as International Visitors Return, NY Times (Nov. 8, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/08/arts/nyc-museums-theater-opera-international-tourists.html.

[12] Martin Bailey, Running at 7%:  Tate Modern's Visitors Slumped From 5.7 Million at its Peak to Just 361,000 in 2020/21, Art Newspaper (Nov. 10, 2021), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/11/10/tates-income-loss-reflects-disastrous-impact-of-covid.

[13] Nancy Kenney, Members of US Museums Association Narrowly Reject Proposal to Contemplate a Change in Guidelines on Art Sales, Art Newspaper (March 16, 2021), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/03/16/members-of-us-museums-association-narrowly-reject-proposal-to-contemplate-a-change-in-guidelines-on-art-sales.