For the Tacoma Art Museum, selling the Young collection was part of the routine process of streamlining its holdings to minimize storage and maintenance costs, and to strengthen its focus on Northwest art to attract visitors.
That the museum is selling some of what is called a permanent collection surprises some people.
But it’s a common enough practice, especially when museums face tough economic realities and need a particular focus – and lower storage costs – to stay in business.
“It’s a typical and healthy practice undertaken by art museums with diligence and care to refine and improve collections,” said Sylvia Wolf, director of Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, a national nonprofit, has lengthy guidelines for the process, known as deaccessioning.
In its 75-year history, TAM has deaccessioned 373 works, including early American works, Japanese woodblock prints and works on paper by Robert Rauschenberg. It used the money to acquire works such as Jacob Lawrence’s “The Brooklyn Stoop” and to make room for the 2003 move to its new building.
Money from the Young collection will be used to buy works by Northwest Chinese-American artists. Displays will acknowledge the Youngs’ original gift.
Museums are not always obliged to follow donors’ intentions. When a gift is made, a deed form is filled out listing any restrictions donors have put on selling or re-gifting objects in the future.
Unlike more recent gifts, the Youngs had no restrictions.
Yet the art directors association recommends museums take donor wishes into account.
“Expressions of donor intent should always be respected in deaccession decisions and the interests of the public, for whose benefit collections are maintained, must always be foremost in making deaccession decisions,” says the guideline document.
“It gets complicated,” said Sue Lee, director of the Chinese Historical Society of American in San Francisco. “We’ve learned over time that it needs to be done because donors’ wishes are important.”
Not all donor families care about what happens to their gifts.
The TAM items put up for auction include Japanese netsukes donated by candy entrepreneur Fred Haley. His son, Mark Haley, a Tacoma native, said he’s in favor of the sale.
“My father’s collection had no connection to him or the Northwest. It was given to him,” Haley said. “But even if it were a Picasso, the museum (should) do something more significant with those funds that enhances their mission.”
For TAM, that mission is focusing on Northwest art, something the Young collection didn’t do, said director Stephanie Stebich.
“We have a deaccessioning project that began two years ago, and we have (done this) with a great deal of transparency, diligence and thoroughness,” she said. “The Young collection clearly did not speak to our Northwest-collecting focus.”
Some of the museum’s recent acquisitions support this focus, such as the Seattle-based Marioni family collection of glass art.
Others – such as the 280-piece collection of Western art (works by O’Keeffe, Remington and Moran, among others) donated by German billionaire Erivan Haub last year – are more opaque.
In a News Tribune story in July, Stebich said TAM was “broaden(ing) our definition of Northwest and the West” in light of the Haub gift.
The fact that it comes with most of the finances for a multimillion-dollar wing to house it, plus an endowed curator and funds for scholarship, also affects the acquisition.
“The Haubs clearly understand the costs associated with taking in a collection that large,” Stebich said.
Neither the Haubs nor the museum would comment on any restrictions of their gift.
The Young collection, on the other hand, involves delicate old fabrics and came with a $500 display case the Youngs later donated to house the jade.
“Deaccessioning is complicated, and no museum embarks on that except carefully,” said Beth Takekawa, director of Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian museum. “You like to think that the stories behind the objects are part of the object’s value.”