Historically, evaluating collections has always been an important part of museum work. Recently, there has been a growing public interest in understanding and learning more about the process. This activity is an essential part of stewarding a collection that is at the core of an art museum’s mission. A collection is a living and ever-evolving entity that museums lovingly and constantly nurture and shape. Refining the collection to ensure that each work of art adds to its depth, richness, and distinct personality is another crucial part of stewardship.
For art museums, however, deaccessioning is a necessary and important process that can help to shape a collection as well as aid in the acquisition of new works of art. Central to deaccessioning is the American Association of Museums’s (AAM’s) mandate that proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned works of art must not be used for general operating expenses, salaries, or building campaigns; such funds must be used solely for the purchase of works of art.
During its one hundred thirty-three year history, the Columbus Museum of Art has undertaken various collection reviews that resulted in deaccessions which stringently adhered to AAM’s mandates. One initiative, done in 1980, deaccessioned works from the Howald Collection in order to refine the collection thereby allowing the Museum to purchase art that is now treasured and exhibited regularly in CMA’s galleries. For example, Paul Manship’s bronze sculpture Diana, John Sloan’s painting Spring Planting, George Tooker’s egg tempra work Cornice, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Autumn Leaves, are but a few of the important works of art that joined our collection as a result of deaccessioned materials. All of these works bear the name of the Howald Fund, which made their acquisition possible.
Recently, CMA conducted a comprehensive and thoughtful review of many of our core collections, including European paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, American prints, and African, Asian, and Pre-Columbian art. In the area of European painting, the sale of erroneously attributed or less- than-museum-quality works from the Frederick Schumacher Collection, made possible the purchase of the magnificent seventeenth-century Dutch landscape by Joris van der Haagen (about 1613–69). Other deaccession proceeds allowed CMA to buy an imposing Barbizon school landscape by Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena (1808–76). These two important works enable CMA to tell the story of the history of the development of landscape painting from Joris van der Haagen to Claude Monet and beyond.
One of the most interesting stories that so well illustrates the mutual benefit that deaccessioning may produce is that of the our painting by Paul Cézanne of the Portrait of Victor Chocquet Seated, which CMA acquired in 1950. The painting had been a part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York when it was deaccessioned, along with several other works, in order to purchase Vincent Van Gogh’s now-iconic painting Starry Night. Portrait of Victor Chocquet is now as intragal to CMA’s collection as Starry Night is to MoMA’s.