Perhaps unbeknownst to UBC’s student body, the AMS’ deaccession and sale of Jeune Fille en Uniforme was done amongst a heated international debate about the ethical dimensions of removing artwork from museum collections. These discussions have been passionate and varied, with the only clear consensus being that deaccessioning is a difficult topic and isn’t brought up until absolutely necessary (despite this there are several sets of professional guidelines, which I will discuss).  Although deaccessioning cultural objects from is by no means a recent phenomenon, particular media attention has been directed towards the practice since the 1970s[1].  Removing objects from museum collections is done for a few reasons, including repatriating pieces to their rightful owners, accommodating a shift in the institutions focus, trading for a piece better suited to the collection, and others. However, considering my starting point with the AMS collection and the wording of the 2017 referendum which led to the eventual sale;

“Do you authorize the AMS to sell up to four (4) pieces of art from the AMS Permanent Collection?

Note: Proceeds from sale will go directly into the AMS endowment and the interest generated from the balance of the endowment that is attributed to the sale of the AMS Permanent collection which will create a sustainable source of funding for programming and initiatives through the Hatch Art Gallery. The 72 piece collection is currently valued at approximately $4 million.”[2],

I will be focusing this literature review on the most controversial of deaccessioning justification; what Martin Gammon called extracuratorial justifications or the disposal of artwork without a curatorial rationale.[3] This is most often done to mitigate a financial crisis or for the “purpose of strengthening the institution, rather than its collection”, as put by Julia Courtney.[4] Although the selected sources generally advocate for a more nuanced understanding of deaccessioning as something that should be considered a necessary aspect of curating a collection, there is an almost universal distaste for doing so solely for financial benefit.

Firstly, it is worth discussing the general deaccessioning procedure in museums and galleries. The process within an American context is aptly summarized by Darlene A. Bialowski, who defines deaccession as “the legal/procedural removal of an accessioned object from a collection.” Bialowski outlines possible reasons for deaccessionging as follows;

“the object no longer fits the museum’s mission; it is a duplicate of another in the collection (object in better condition would typically be kept); no information about the object exists; the object requires significant conservation not currently in the budget and resources are inadequate for its care; the object has been determined a fake or forgery or its authenticity questioned; the object has been identified as stolen or looted.”[5]

 To deaccession does not mean to sell, but this is one possible outcome of deaccessioning. The entire process is generally managed by a collections management policy that is agreed upon by the institution, and without one Bialowski believes the process should not go forward; the emphasis of this author is due diligence and transparency if an artwork is to be deaccessioned.

Many of these standards are outlined through a variety of museum membership organizations, such as the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), or American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). The Canadian Museums Association (CMA) serves this role in Canada, and has an extensive “Deaccessioning Guidelines” that discusses the way deaccessioning from collections should be enacted.[6] The guidelines firstly state that “there is nothing wrong inherently with deaccessioning”, and go on to outline what issues Canadian institutions should consider when deaccessioning. Firstly, museums must develop clear disposal policies that relate to acquisitions policies and collecting mandates; the proposal to dispose work should be assigned to curators. Deaccessioned items should be offered to other public institutions as gift, exchange, or sale before any consideration of a commercial option. Interestingly, the guidelines end with four bullet points on “when is the deaccessioning of an object unacceptable?”, which read as follows:

When is the deaccessioning of an object unacceptable?

  • Primary need is for financial reasons
  • Undertaking without adherence to collections policy
  • Undertaking on an ad hoc basis, paying little or no attention to expert advice
  • Is not in the best interests of the stakeholders” [7]

These standards mirror that of the AAMD, a much larger governing organization that has historically censured or sanctioned institutions that have gone the route of using restricted funds to pay for “general operating expenses”. A recent development in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a temporary suspension of these penalties, which has resulted in many large American institutions considering large-scale deaccessioning efforts to help with financial losses[8]. These policies are not particularly stimulating to read through, but they point to a standard of care and due diligence that are in place when institutions are to deaccession pieces from their collection; these actions are carefully considered, and the use of any funds that result are scrutinized to an incredible degree. However stiff these professional guidelines, recent scholars have been thinking about deaccessioning in a number of exciting ways.

Although scholars tend to explicitly state they are neither “pro-deaccession” or “anti-deaccession”, a trend of analyzing the potential merits of deaccessioning exists in current writing on the issue. Martin Gammon takes a theoretical approach, positing that the “unease” that exists in deaccessioning practice originates from perception of the museum as a utopic space, as institutions that perform an “immutable good which the museum must preserve in its original form in perpetuity”.[9] Imaging those that oppose deaccessioning as therefor understanding the practice as a collapse of key assumptions about the museum, Gammon takes a quite radical opposing stance. As Gammon states; “at its core deaccession might be construed as the highest-order function of proper curatorial practice” in that it allows the curator “formative judgment of selecting, revising, and excluding” rather than simply husbanding an ever-growing collection.[10] Jennie Morgan and Sharon Macdonald are aligned with this understanding of deaccessioning as a potential tool for curators, as they take an ethnographic approach in their research in American institutions.[11] Morgan and Macdonald depict curators in 2020 as hoping to “undertake more ‘proactive’, ‘systematic’, or ‘targeted collecting’ practices” in the hope that doing so would increase public support for maintaining collections.[12] Under these conditions, deaccession or even ‘refining’ collections is seen in a positive light.  These desires are seen in the context as a broader socio-economic turn towards “de-growth thinking” that proposes alternative ways to organize life away from the perpetual, exponential growth under neo-liberal capitalism.[13] In understanding deaccessioning as a curatorial asset, these scholars are also playing into ideas of Steven Lubar, who introduces the idea that collections are historically more transient than commonly understood, positing the static and immortal collection as a 19th century idea.[14]  These ideas re-imaging collecting practice as it exists today, and see the future as one where curators have more freedom in disposing work from collections in order to fulfill certain curatorial aspirations; to reimagine “permanent” collections.

            Although these ideas are exciting, and it seems correct that changes to a collection should be led by curators with a clear sense of ideology, I would be amiss to ignore the imminent financial stressors that exist around collecting art institutions today. Fishman writes from the perspective of a storied museum director who has led deaccessioning efforts in part to address financial concerns. Here, the common presumption that the only form of ethical deaccessioning is exchanging one work for another is challenged; what is the “public good” inherent in maintaining a collection? As museology moves towards ideas of museums as active places of interaction and learning, is it truly that problematic to fund programming by selling artwork that rarely sees the light of day? Fishman goes on to describe a highly controversial sale that he organized in an undisclosed American institution, but even here “the author/director’s idea was to use the proceeds to create a permanent endowment to support collections management and public education, and not at all to employ any of the principal for operational expenses.[15]Although the piece was inevitably not sold and the museum was “saved” from it’s financial troubles by a private donor, Fishman argues for flexibility in these cases; to step away from the rigid limitations of deaccessioning, and similarly to other scholars, imagine it as a tool. However, as emphasised numerous times, the public good and integrity of the institution must be prioritized in any such considerations.

            Although it seems there is no clear consensus on how deaccessioning should operate, and every institution works through these issues within their own unique historical, curatorial, and financial contexts, there is a certain decorum in considering these issues. Because selling art is a particularly thorny topic that tends to create a litany of controversy, it is generally treated with a heightened level of consideration and care on the part of institutions. Guidelines are formed and followed, and the general rule has become that any sales should benefit collecting efforts or the upkeep of existing holdings. Of course, this standard is being hotly debated. The conversation still veers in the direction of ensuring funds benefit the institution in ways that helps it re-direct or expand it’s mandates; to fund more programming or outreach rather than fund basic operating costs. All of these moral virtues are challenged by the realities of a neoliberal art-scape where selling art seems to have become a viable option in, but even these instances come out of the desperation of institutions struggling amongst a global pandemic.[16] Although a definite conclusion is not possible to make, it seems like deaccessioning art with the intention to sell, as done by the AMS, is an act that needs careful and meticulous consideration.

[1] Julia Courtney, “Introduction: Can We Save Art and the Museum?,” in Is It Okay to Sell the Monet? The Age of Deaccessioning in Museums, ed. Julia Courtney (Lanham, Maryland and London UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), kindle location 81.

Bernard Fishman, “Two Cheers for Deaccessioning,” in in Is It Okay to Sell the Monet? The Age of Deaccessioning in Museums, ed. Julia Courtney (Lanham, Maryland and London UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), kindle location 240.

[2] AMS Student Council Minutes, February 15th, 2017, UBC Alma Mater Society,

[3] Martin Gammon, “Introduction: A Note on the Title: Unbehagen, or Uneasiness” in Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2018), 35.

[4] Courtney, kindle location 91.

[5]Darlene A. Bialowski, “When Out of the Book Won’t Do”, ,” in in Is It Okay to Sell the Monet? The Age of Deaccessioning in Museums, ed. Julia Courtney (Lanham, Maryland and London UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018),Location 1233.

[6] Canadian Museums Association, “Canadian Museums Association Deaccessioning Guidelines”, 2015,

[7] Canadian Museums Association.

[8] Association of Art Museum Directors, “AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis”, April 15, 2020,

Peggly McGlone and Sebastian Smee, “The Met plans to use money from art sales to help it survive the pandemic. Critics say it’s a dangerous precedent,” The Wasington Post, March 8th 2021,

[9] Gammon, 17.

[10] Gammon, 16.

[11] Jennie Morgan and Sharon Macdonald, “De-growing museum collections for new heritage futures,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 26, no. 1 (2020): 56-70.

[12] Morgan and Macdonald, 59.

[13] Morgan and Macdonald, 61.

[14] Steven Lubar, Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)

[15] Fishman, kindle location 365.

[16] Eg. McGlone and Smee.