Scandal or Salvation? : More and more institutions are selling off artworks. Are they just cashing in, or is it part of their mission?

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Every time the D-word appears in print, it sets off a new round of finger-pointing, hand- wringing and moralizing. Deaccessioning , the art world's term for selling works from museums' and other institutions' collections, is a messy issue that never seems to be ironed out. It only acquires new wrinkles.

Lately, the wrinkles seem to be getting bigger and appearing more frequently. Early last month, the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore requested legal clearance to sell its entire collection of about 20,000 works of art, appraised at $15 million. On Jan. 12, the New York Historical Society sold 176 Old Master paintings from its collection for $12.2 million at Sotheby's New York auction house. Two months earlier, the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center cashed in on an illustrated manuscript by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci at Christie's New York. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates snapped it up for$30.8 million.

Is this a trend?

Each case has its own set of circumstances, but in today's economic climate, when IBM is putting its corporate collection up for auction and the venerable Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is eliminating 83 of 480 staff positions to cope with a $4.5-million deficit, clearly the urge to view artworks as liquid assets is powerful.

Sotheby's sold $12 million worth of art from institutional collections in 1993 and $13 million worth in 1994, and it expects a 1995 total of $30 million--having already racked up $17.7 million in institutional sales, thanks largely to the New York Historical Society auction--says Katherine Ross, head of the firm's museum services department.

Despite these figures, auction house officials deny that deaccessioning is entirely driven by the economy.

More museums are selling works from their collections, and they are increasingly inclined to do so at auction, the officials say, but the reason is that the auction process has become more orderly, forthright and familiar, and many museums have expanded and reworked their collections.

"I see most deaccessioning as a way of refocusing and sharpening the mission of an institution. And most of what's sold is inexpensive material," says Jay Cantor, who directs museum services at Christie's New York.

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Nonetheless, a continuing string of controversies makes deaccessioning a hot topic. In the Baltimore case, the Maryland Institute, College of Art is seeking a declaratory judgment in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City confirming the school's right to sell its collection. The institute plans to use the proceeds to enlarge its endowment, which currently stands at about $9 million.

This is an unusual situation involving a school that has lent its vast collection to two museums for more than 50 years. While Maryland Institute trustees view the art holding as an asset that should be liquidated to further the school's mission, museum officials contend that the collection is part of Baltimore's cultural heritage and should not be sold.

The collection was built by George A. Lucas, a Baltimore businessman who died in 1909. It is composed of 300 paintings by 180 artists (mostly 19th-Century French), 18,783 prints by more than 500 artists, 122 bronze animals by 19th-Century French sculptor Antoine Louis Barye, 50 Chinese and Japanese porcelains, 71 French artists palettes, 1,500 books and various diaries and correspondence.

The prospect of liquidating such a large holding would cause an art world furor under any circumstances, but it has raised howls of protest from the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has maintained and exhibited the bulk of the collection since 1933, and from the Walters Art Gallery, another Baltimore museum, which has housed five pieces since 1944--including by far the most valuable item, "Road to Louveciennes," a painting by Camille Pissarro valued at $4 million to $5 million.

Lucas spent the last 50 years of his life in Paris buying art for himself and acting as an agent for other collectors, including Henry Walters, a benefactor of the Walters Art Gallery. Lucas bequeathed his entire art holding to Walters or, if Walters should die first, to the Maryland Institute. Walters' attorney presented the Lucas collection to the Maryland Institute in 1910, long before Walters' death, with a letter stating Lucas' hope "that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest ambitious effort of art students" and that the collection "be dedicated to sincere art education" in his native city.

With its then-new fireproof facility, the school in downtown Baltimore was the only suitable local home for the collection at the time. The Baltimore Museum of Art didn't open to the public until 1925, and the Walters Art Gallery wasn't established until 1931. The Maryland Institute maintained the Lucas collection until 1933, then put it on long-term loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Robert A. Shelton, an attorney who chairs the institute's board of trustees, says that the collection's size, value and fragility made security and care expensive and that by 1933 its educational value had diminished. Today, when students have easy access to artworks in museum collections, as well as color reproductions and computerized images, the Lucas collection is of "infinitesimal" value to their education, he says. The school offers one class taught from the print holdings, but Shelton contends that the collection is mainly of interest to scholars because Lucas bought indiscriminately and preferred minor artists.

Fundamental to the decision to sell the collection is the fact that the Maryland Institute is not a museum, he says. And although the institute is not in financial distress, he insists that the board has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to use all the school's assets to further its educational mission.

But Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, says he and his colleagues at the Walters Art Gallery will fight the sale with all the force they can muster.

"The Lucas collection is one of three historic collections assembled in Baltimore within the last 150 years," Lehman says. "It has a rightful place alongside the Walters collection at the Walters Art Gallery and the collection of Clarabel and Etta Cone here at the Baltimore Museum of Art." Although the Lucas collection is relatively little-known, he considers it "an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the continuity of history that allows students, scholars and general visitors to better understand the development of art from the 19th to the 20th centuries."

No one disputes the Maryland Institute's ownership of the collection, but opponents of the sale point out that considerable public money has been used by the museums to maintain the collection, and they contend that the artworks are part of Baltimore's cultural patrimony.

They also reject Shelton's claim that the collection should be sold to further the institute's educational mission.

"The message that this sends to artists, students and educators is so anti-history, so anti-community, so opportunistic, that it's just all the wrong message," Lehman says. "It's about commodifying art and turning it into cash. Instead of acting appropriately as trustees and raising money as needed, they are cashing in."

A decision is expected in four to six months. If an appeal is filed, it will likely take an additional six to eight months to resolve the case, Shelton says.

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The Maryland Institute affair is a special situation in the annals of deaccessioning art, because a school is not obliged to conform to codes of ethics governing members of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, the American Assn. of Museums and the International Council of Museums. According to the codes, deaccessioning should be undertaken with extreme caution, and proceeds from the sale of artworks must be used to buy other works or for the direct care of the collection.

Although the codes serve as guidelines rather than enforced rules and they apply only to association members, the same principles are frequently invoked in the larger community.

"We can't go around being the deaccession police of the world," says Lehman, a past president of AAMD. "But we have to set certain standards of conduct, whether we are part of the micro-world of museums or the macro-world outside."

At least one outspoken critic of deaccessioning acknowledges being in a quandary over the case.

"This isn't a Baltimore story. It's an American story, in which assets are at variance with an institution," says Tom Freudenheim, assistant provost for arts and humanities at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "I've been very open about throwing stones at museums that deaccession for opportunism, but this is different. The board's responsibility is to make the best use of the assets of the institution. On the other hand, the collection is part of the patrimony of the community. It's a real conundrum."

If the Maryland Institute sells its collection to boost the school's endowment, it will not be the first organization to use art as a means of raising funds for purposes other than purchasing or caring for artworks.

* The financially strapped New York Historical Society put its Old Masters on the block to help dig itself out of debt.

* UCLA/Hammer unloaded its Leonardo manuscript to pay legal expenses. The work was consigned as a hedge against a potentially devastating lawsuit that was later dismissed, but museum officials proceeded with the sale, saying that the money might be needed for other claims against Hammer's estate and that any remaining proceeds would be used for art acquisitions.

* The Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University sold 11 works by artists including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Edouard Vuillard in 1991 at Christie's New York, raising $3.65 million for operating expenses.

* Johns Hopkins University sold the Peabody Library's signed copy of John James Audubon's "Birds of America" in 1989 to increase the library's endowment. The auction at Sotheby's New York brought nearly $2 million.

I n other cases, public outcries have revised deaccession plans. In 1991, the Barnes Foundation of Merion, Pa., sought permission to change its bylaws and sell some pieces collected by Albert Barnes to renovate its buildings. Citing "adverse publicity," the Barnes trustees dropped the sale and decided to generate funds by sending 84 works from the collection on an international museum tour.

The Phillips Collection in Washington also did a turnabout under pressure. Trustees of the institution sold a Cubist still-life by Georges Braque in 1987 to boost its endowment, but they were eventually persuaded to use the $3.3 million in proceeds to establish an acquisitions fund.

Although disposing of art to settle debts, raise endowments or pay operating expenses triggers particularly vehement objections, art sales carried out within museum association codes of ethics can also raise hackles. Indeed, deaccessioning entered art world parlance as a dirty word in 1972, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, under the direction of Thomas Hoving, exchanged six Old Master paintings for contemporary works by David Smith and Richard Diebenkorn. The incident led to stricter deaccession policies, but it didn't prevent later conflicts:

* In 1990, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York sold about $47 million worth of works by Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky to buy 320 contemporary works from Italian collector Guiseppe Panza di Biumo. The museum was criticized for exchanging valuable pieces from its core collection for lesser works, some of which are only plans on paper.

* Trustees of the Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth agreed to auction American realist Thomas Eakins' 1883-84 painting "The Swimming Hole" in 1989 to raise funds for acquisitions more in keeping with its mostly post-World War II collection. The plan raised such a ruckus in the community that the museum withdrew from the sale and helped its neighbor, the Amon Carter Museum, which had been displaying the painting, to raise $10 million to buy it.

* The late Norton Simon, who took over the Pasadena Art Museum in 1974, along with its financial burden, enraged the museum's former supporters in 1980 when he tried to sell modern works from the collection to buy art more to his liking. They filed suit, but Simon prevailed in court.

Even the most prominent and wealthy museums occasionally sell art to buy more. The Museum of Modern Art in New York unloaded seven paintings by Impressionist and modern masters in 1989 to acquire Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Joseph Roulin." And the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is frequently in the news for multimillion-dollar purchases, occasionally puts works on the block to upgrade its burgeoning collection.

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But practices vary widely with in the museum field. Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, chartered in 1979, has yet to sell a single work from its collection, and it has a policy of not disposing of a living artist's work except to buy a superior piece by the same artist. In sharp contrast, the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth has been steadily pruning and adding new pieces to its collection since it opened in 1972.

In an unusual development, the Denver Art Museum is currently working with Christie's Cantor to reshape its collection and explain the process to the public. An auction of items from the collection will be staged at the museum later this year.

Another active seller, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, has been vigorously converting the quirky private collection of its benefactor, Joseph Hirshhorn, into a public collection for the past 10 years, says Stephen Weil, the museum's deputy director.

"My position is that a museum that does not deaccession what it does not use is derelict in its duty," he says. "But the starting point is always the terms under which a donation came to the museum. For us, it is easy, because Hirshhorn gave permission to sell."

But deaccessioning can scare off potential donors, says Stephanie Barron, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's curator of 20th-Century art and coordinator of curatorial affairs. Another deterrent to selling art is that tastes change rapidly, so what seems expendable today may be highly valued tomorrow. Furthermore, she says, curatorial opinions and viewpoints differ about artworks. As a result, LACMA has an 11-page deaccession policy loaded with safeguards, which she characterizes as "very conservative."

Still, storing, conserving and guarding vast numbers of artworks that are not on public view is an expense that overburdened institutions can ill afford. Weil puts it bluntly: "Museums are not attics, warehouses or closets . . . and they don't have an infinite capacity to collect. Museums are like human beings. They can only take in so much before they have to excrete."

Dealers and auction house personnel, who make their living from art sales, contend that the turnover is inevitable and that it can be a healthy process.

"Collections are living organisms," Los Angeles dealer Louis Stern says. "You have to keep them going, and sometimes that means deaccessioning to improve them or avoid duplication."

As for institutions that sell off collections to pay expenses, he said: "Unquestionably it's a major dilemma for boards of trustees faced with tough financial problems, but we live in different times from when some of these collections were formed. We have to do what we have to do."

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