Even Art Works Undergo High Stakes Testing

In a literal case of one person’s trash is another’s treasure, New York Times had a piece about museums grading the works in their collection to decide what to liquidate.  It has long been acknowledged that museums often only display a small fraction of their collections. As they continue to acquire more pieces, the likelihood that some pieces may ever be displayed decreases. At the same time, the need for temperature controlled storage space increases.

The NY Times piece has an interview with the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Charles L. Venable, who halted plans for a $14 million expansion of storage. Instead, he had the museum staff grade 54,000 pieces in their collection from A to D. Those pieces receiving D grades will be sold or given to other institutions.

The NY Times article has an interactive quiz where you can try to guess which pieces received an A and which received D. The whole process forces one to revisit the unenviable questions of “what is art” and worse, “what is good art?”

The criteria used by the museum was “A being a masterpiece,” … “and D being maybe onetime in the distant past this was a valuable object for us but we probably shouldn’t hang on to that.”

The whole process of deaccessioning is so cumbersome, it is almost easier to retain and store. In addition to the issues mentioned by the NY Times below, recently there has been a lot of concern about art finding its way into private collections where it can be even less accessible than before. (Even when not displayed in a museum gallery, scholars are able to study works.)

Deaccessioning, the formal term for disposing of an art object, is a careful, cumbersome process, requiring several levels of curatorial, administrative and board approval. Museum directors who try to clean out their basements often confront restrictive donor agreements and industry guidelines that treat collections as public trusts.

The article details some of the exacting requirements made by donors which have intentionally and unintentionally firmly cemented the presence of certain works at different institutions. Some works will never be placed in storage other than the time it takes to effect repairs and restoration thanks to donor stipulations.

There are also some instances where museums accepted nearly everything that was offered during their early years in an attempt to build the collection. Many times, not only did the institution lack the means to care for the works, the quality of the work was rather inferior. As time went on, the institutions had to determine how best to divesting themselves of works they probably shouldn’t have accepted in the first place.

If nothing else, take the interactive quiz to get a sense of how works are judged and graded.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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2 thoughts on “Even Art Works Undergo High Stakes Testing”

  1. There may be value in seeing how an artist’s work changed over time, or how they depicted a certain place or scene, considerations which may not play into the “masterpiece” rationale. Some works once considered outrageous or trash, have become important. Criteria change over time. Some collecting institutions may accept less than masterful work in the hope of later obtaining more important works or even entire collections. Those collections may contain lesser works. As much as I love the Kimball in Ft. Worth, where they only collect the best available example of an artist’s work, I’d not wish to live in a world of museums with only “masterpieces.” Such thinking might be seen as simple minded. That which is simple minded rarely serves higher learning.

    • Oh definitely. It wasn’t that long ago that I was at a show which had the study pieces for a work next to the final piece. I preferred one of the previous versions to the final work. The subject was the front of an old farmhouse and I felt the final piece cleaned things up a little too much. It wasn’t necessarily a matter of feeling it was idealized vs. an authentic portrayal. The piece I like best was nicer than the reality depicted in an earlier study piece. I just preferred that median stage piece a little better.

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