And You Thought You Had a Lot of Stuff

Museums are choking on donated art of variable quality that they can rarely if ever display, yet have to maintain in expensive climate controlled storage.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is ranking its stored artworks to see what can be donated, sold, or otherwise removed from the collection. Much of the art is by recognized artists — Vlaminck, O’Keefe, Chagall. The work isn’t necessarily bad, in poor condition, or an outright fake. A given piece might not be the best of that artist, or might be of lesser interest than other similar works also in the museum’s collection. What might be culled from the Indianapolis Museum might be a real winner for a smaller city museum that has no works at all by that artist.

Museums getting rid of stuff is called “deaccessioning”, and it’s a complicated process. No one wants to infuriate wealthy future donors who might actually have something really valuable to pass along in their estates. And some donated collections are governed by covenants legally put in place at the time of the gift. Arnold Lehman, who lead the Brooklyn Museum for many years, was successful in moving some things out of the museum’s collection, and unsuccessful with others.

Mr. Lehman was never able to unload some of the 926 items that were bequested by Col. Michael Friedsam, once president of the department store B. Altman, who died in 1932.

A quarter of the gifts, including old master paintings, turned out to be fake, misattributed or of poor quality. The museum still stores and cares for them because the courts have ruled that, under the colonel’s will, deaccessioning requires permission from his executors. The last of them died in 1962.”

We Americans have lots of stuff: valuable, collectible, or just clutter. It’s kind of funny to think of museums afflicted with the same problem we all have: what to do with our excess possessions.

One of the things many of us contend with in downsizing to smaller spaces as we age is the lack of storage space — just like the museums. I think of the houses in Rio Hato, that don’t have closets or storage spaces at all, because they don’t have extra stuff. Whatever they have is in current use. They hang things on hooks in their bedrooms.

But that’s not us. We have lots of things we’ve gathered over time and care about. The quest to find a permanent place for our treasured past meanders on.

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