The Delaware Museum of Art, home to the Bankcroft Collection – a beautiful collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, recently received three generous gifts totaling $1.7M from two anonymous donors and prominent Wilmington, Delaware residents, Peggy and Edgar S. Woolard.

The museum invested the funds in what has been named the Annette Woolard-Provine Endowed Curatorship, which is designed to attract talented scholars to the museum.  The generous donations come as a surprise given the museum’s recent controversial decision to sell off certain works of art including the Pre-Raephaelite painting by William Holman Hunt, O.M., R.W.S. (1827-1910), Isabella and the Pot of Basil, which recently sold for over £2,882,500 (a record auction price for the artist) at Christie’s (London).

After expensive renovation and expansion over the last several years, the museum was faced with mounting debt and little options.  Consequently, in March of 2014, the museum’s Board of Trustees elected to deaccess up to four works of art from the collection.  As a result of this controversial decision, the museum was formally sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which instructed member museums to refuse to lend artwork to the museum.  Pursuant to AAMD guidelines, “[f]unds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses.” (emphasis added).

While the AAMD’s directive to museums regarding deaccession (i.e., that proceeds from the sale can only be used to acquire more art) may protect collections from being dismantled willy-nilly, hard and fast rules preventing museum board’s from making decisions to sell off works when appropriate may not be the most effective means of protecting collections.  In reality museums have limited space, and if the collection is overflowing, much of the artwork may not even be on display for the public to enjoy.  Further, some donated works while generous may not fit with the museum’s collection and remain in storage for no one to view.  It may be helpful in limited circumstances for museums to have more autonomy to deal with deaccession decisions and the use of the proceeds as they see fit without losing other benefits.  However, trustees must carefully weigh the cost/benefit to deaccession.  Even if a museum is not formally sanctioned, there is a danger that a museum will lose donations of art and/or funding, if donors believe the art will be sold off.  Luckily, in the case of the Delaware Museum of Art, the generous donors still chose to give to the museum despite the recent sales.

In order to avoid the need to sell off works, museum trustees may look to generate revenue from other means such as developing tuitioned visual art programs for children on winter weekends; and/or marketing the museum as an event space including investment in kitchen facilities and strategic exhibit layouts that works to maximize total attendees to events.  I also wonder if rotating art and changing the exhibits of even the permanent collection (like department stores do) would generate more visitors.