In mid-April, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) relaxed guidelines for museums in response to financial hardships brought on by closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AAMD stated that for two years, the association "will refrain from censuring or sanctioning any museum—or censuring, suspending or expelling any museum director—that decides to use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses."
“This is a crisis without precedent in our lifetime, with global implications and with a timeline that unfolds as we live it,” said Brent Benjamin, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and The Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. “Since planning for the future with any accuracy is impossible, while earned revenue has stopped and the future of charitable giving is unknown, it was important for AAMD to take a step that could provide some additional financial support to art museums.”
The AAMD resolutions address two separate sets of restrictions, one regarding endowment funds, trusts, or donations, and the other regarding the use of proceeds from deaccessioned art.
Long frowned upon, the practice of deaccessioning art for anything other than acquisitions might become a necessary action for some museums. Yet, the possible legal and logistical issues, repercussions and optics could be tricky even during the current crisis. Donors might reconsider gifts of artwork. The public will lose out; once masterpieces are sold, they may never return to institutions. There could be new rounds of sudden market concerns for the art industry.
As Sebastian Smee writes in the Washington Post: "Museums, after all, guarantee scarcity, because when they own works, it’s understood that they won’t come back on the market. This is a crucial factor in keeping prices high. Once undone, such a reliable assumption could trigger a market collapse. The bad publicity generated by a prestigious museum’s desperate-looking fire sale also would be likely to affect prices."
On the other hand, with the future of some museums at stake, "you’ve entered the world of weighing costs and benefits," writes Donn Zaretsky in ARTnews. "Sometimes (like, for example, now) the benefits will clearly outweigh the costs. Sometimes the costs will clearly outweigh the benefits. And sometimes it will be a close call and reasonable minds will differ."