Facing Deficit, Met Considers Selling Art to Help Pay the Bills

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Facing a potential shortfall of $150 million because of the pandemic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has begun conversations with auction houses and its curators about selling some artworks to help pay for care of the collection.

“This is the time when we need to keep our options open,” said Max Hollein, the Met’s director, in an interview. “None of us have a full perspective on how the pandemic will play out. It would be inappropriate for us not to consider it, when we’re still in this foggy situation.”

Like many institutions, the Met is looking to take advantage of a two-year window in which the Association of Art Museum Directors — a professional organization that guides its members’ best practices — has relaxed the guidelines that govern how proceeds from sales of works in a collection (known as deaccessioning) can be directed.

Even as the Met is re-evaluating its collection for works to sell to pay for collections care, the museum is also trying to bulk up its holdings in neglected areas such as works by women and people of color.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and a reckoning around race nationwide, as well as inside the museum, the Met in July issued a letter committing to a fund of $3 million to $5 million “to support initiatives, exhibitions, and acquisitions in the area of diverse art histories.”

The Met also pledged to establish within the next 12 months acquisition endowments of $10 million to increase the amount of works by artists of color “in our 20th- and 21st-century collections.”

But Hollein emphasized that building the Met’s holdings in these underrepresented areas would not mean diminishing historical categories. He cited as an example the Met’s 2020 acquisition of “The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalen,” circa 1626, and “Virgin and Child Enthroned,” circa 1345-50.

“I want to avoid any misconception that, because we have some added priorities, that makes us deaccession works to achieve those goals,” he added. “One thing has nothing to do with the other.”

Hollein was perhaps mindful of the criticism of the Baltimore Museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, for deaccessioning seven blue-chip paintings in 2018 to buy works by women and artists of color. (The 2020 sale was meant to raise money to address pay disparities in response to demands from the museum’s staff.)

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