Deaccessioning is part of collecting

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) website tells me that it has “over 65,000 artworks spanning thousands of years”, but it doesn’t tell me why. To what purpose have they put together this collection. National (state) art galleries are like their counterparts in the computer game Civilisation. Collect the set in your city to advance to the next level. The purpose of these institutions was to provide education and, failing that, an alternative leisure activity, infotainment. Major galleries become part of tourism with destination architecture; the Guggenheim in New York and Bibloa are paradigm examples. These institutions are about providing a tourist attraction in a spectacle based economy.

Jeff Koons, Venus 2016-20 at the NGV

I haven’t seen a full acquisition policy for the NGV, but it gets mentioned in passing in some of its annual reports. A proper acquisition policy would be transparent, accessible to the public, and include a deaccession policy.

However, deaccessioning is almost a forbidden topic of discussion in Australia; consider the following statements. “Deaccessioning is crazy”, declared John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the NGV, at a talk (Saturday 13 October 2012, Johnston Collection). And when Joe Eisenberg, former director of NERAM in Armidale and now head of MRAG, was asked by Anna Waldman what he thinks about deaccessioning? (Art Monthly Australia, June 2015, p.25)

“Don’t believe in it – Armidale has actually sold some works that I collected, and tears well in my eyes just saying a thing. A curator’s or director’s choice is just that, and because times and tastes change, you don’t sell off their selections. Most major Australian galleries clean-out the storeroom every so often, and I think that is criminal. It should all remain part of the collection to represent an important piece acquired at a specific time and place.”

The assumption that the collection has been acquired legally and ethically is being challenged in the post-colonial world. The conservative anti-deaccessioning position wants to keep the collection as a treasure horde regardless of its acquisition. If a state gallery can make mistakes about provenance, it can also make mistakes about aesthetic merit or historical importance. Their accession policy is not error-free, and deaccessioning is part of the process of correction.

Another assumption is that the acquisition choices are based solely on artistic quality and not popularity or displays of political allegiance. “Does the object lack sufficient aesthetic merit or art historical importance to warrant retention?” (Assoc of Art Museum Directors’ position paper on deaccessioning

The giant KAWS statues at the NGV, Bendigo and Pt Leo Estate Sculpture Park were not acquired because the directors thought they were great art. Instead, they claim that the popularity of KAWS will attract new visitors to the gallery. If this were true, would it be appropriate to sell these statues when his popularity declines and before the market crashes? But this is not the case because these institutions also support the neo-liberal idea that private ownership of art is the cornerstone of the art world. By retaining the work in their collection they will endorses the value of those owned by private collectors. 

This again raises the question of the purpose of the gallery’s collection. Supporting private collectors? Displaying part of a treasure horde? Playing some game of interstate rivalry? Not knowing the purpose of your collection is crazy. Not deaccessioning is crazy.

Temporary replica of Keith Haring’s painting on the NGV’s waterwall 2019

About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

8 responses to “Deaccessioning is part of collecting

  • softsenta

    I think you are overlooking the important preservation of history role of National Galleries at least. Not all Galleries need to have this role of course but the role of National is indeed to collect works even those of dubious merit because they may be historically interesting. Surely their collection must function in the same way as the State Libraries collection. State libraries collect everything published in the state regardless of literary value. Not sure what to think about the KAWs statues. I do think John Payne has an important point about keeping a historical record of tastes Not sure if that means they can’t de-acession things represented in other collections.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Many people think that State Galleries collections function in a similar way to State Libraries because that is a reasonable and sensible thing think but they don’t. For example, the NGV has one work, that was donated to it, of Harold Freedman who was the official “State artist” between 1972-83. Nor has the NGV been collecting any of Melbourne’s street artists. The NGV intends its collection to teach art history, not to record it.

    • Rodney Scherer

      Terrific that you have opened this can of worms! Most deaccession policies have a cooling off period. During which time the object is usually reassessed. I know some galleries have deaccessioned works because they have degraded so much that conservation is too expensive (Kevin Mortensen work at Mildura) Since most Australian Art Museums are publicly funded the policies should be available to everyone. I didn’t know there is a Guggenheim in Barcelona! Did you mean Bilboa ?

  • Mark Holsworth

    Cheers, Rodney. Good to know about the cooling off period (I don’t think that Assoc. of Museum Directors paper made much of that). Correction made to Guggenheim in Bilboa (thanks).

    • Rodney

      Hi Mark, One of the reasons for a cooling off period is to avoid the selling of objects into the secondary market. That’s the Elephant in the room. USA museums have sold off objects to fund operational costs. Some Art Museums have sold off works to fund new contemporary acquisitions! As a Gallery Director, I attempted to deaccession Two works from the LRG collection in Morwell. One was fading away, had terrible grid pattern from the sticky tape on the back from acidic backing (As no conservation had been undertaken by previous staff due to a lack of funding) the Second was held together by 2inch nails, Aluminium foil, Masonite and had been acquired by an acting director who was the president of the gallery society! ( such was the nature of local government management they made savings on a new Director appointment) Most regional galleries have limited storage. No conservation funding and these days some have Directors who don’t have visual art qualifications, but have experience in the running of performing arts centres! Truth is the acquisition policy was loose and broad enough you could drive a truck through it! Upside is you could take advantage of opportunities when they happened. Drawing a long bow of connection to acquire a collection of Asian art. The interpretation of geography is an interesting idea. There was no mention of which region the collection was to reflect! Ideally museums should have a rigorous collection policy that includes deaccession. They should have a bottomless bucket of money to provide stewardship to the highest standards. The collections should focus on the culture of the place the museum represents and it’s relationship to a broader world. (Look at the Getty) Rationalisation of collections if done with clear reasoning could be a good thing. However it must have the essential cooling off period of at least a year.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Selling off the collection to cover operational costs is a loosing strategy, if not criminal. It was why the NGV acquired a Rothko and there is no Rothko Museum, his executors were selling off the collection under the pretext of covering the establishing costs.
      Thanks for all the additional details.

    • Rodney Scherer

      Hi Mark, Thanks for responding to my comment. I responded with an anecdote and reference to art museums selling works to fund administration costs and new contemporary acquisitions. WordPress told me “I had already said that” I wondered did you ask the NGV for the acquisition policy? Cheers Rodney

      Sent from my iPhone


    • Mark Holsworth

      All your comments are there now.
      I haven’t asked the NGV for an acquisition policy but a few years ago I had a good search through their website for documents about their objectives. I made some notes but only went back to them recently when an old friend from university who works in IT brought the subject up. So I realised there was some interest in the subject and just went back to my notes for this one. As you said in your last post the collecting objectives are so broad you could drive a truck through them.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: