The Toledo Museum of Art Is Deaccessioning Impressionist Works to Diversify Its Collection

The Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) will send three works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to auction next month. Proceeds from the sale, an estimated $60 million, will be used to build a more diverse collection with the goal of “broadening the narrative of art history,” the museum said in a statement.

The TMA will deaccession Renoir’s “Nu s’essuyant (The Bather)” (1912), Cézanne’s “Clairière (The Glade)” (c. 1895), and Matisse’s “Fleurs ou Fleurs devant un portrait” (1923). The works will be offered as part of Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction on May 17.

“These works of art were clear choices for the Museum to deaccession, due to very similar and/or higher quality works by the same artists represented in TMA’s deep European collection,” a museum representative told Hyperallergic.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Nu s’essuyant (The Bather)” (1912) has an estimated hammer price of $3 to $4 million.

“We look forward to the opportunity this affords the Museum to expand its collection to better reflect our community, our city and our world,” said Adam Levine, director of the TMA, in a press release. “We want all visitors to see themselves and their histories reflected in this superlative collection.”

If achieved, the $60 million estimated by Sotheby’s will more than double the museum’s current acquisition budget. An endowment for acquisitions, started in 1901, has grown to around $40 million, but “the museum is only able to spend a prescribed annual draw of these funds,” Levine said.

In 2016, the TMA put 68 antiquities up for auction at Christie’s despite protest from the governments of Egypt and Cyprus, who demanded the works stay at the museum and be returned, respectively. The museum cashed out, raking in $800,000.

High-profile (and controversial) museum deaccessions have become commonplace over the last few years, as museums have faced financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions have also received backlash for their overwhelmingly White and Eurocentric collections, prompting calls to diversify their holdings, which often requires expanding acquisition budgets.

Henri Matisse’s “Fleurs ou Fleurs devant un portrait” (1923) is estimated to sell for $15 to $20 million.

Deaccessioning works from a museum collection is common practice, and controversy often hinges on how the proceeds are spent. (Many museums even declare outright that gifts of art are subject to deaccession later.) The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which includes the leaders of the country’s biggest museums, acknowledges that deaccessioning is normal but stipulates that the money made from sales can only be used to acquire more art.

During the pandemic, AAMD passed a resolution not to penalize museums for selling artwork to cover expenses, but they doubled down on their assertion that the best practice is to only use the money for art.

Institutions including the Brooklyn Museum took advantage of this and faced public outcry. The same year, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) withdrew three of its works from a Sotheby’s sale hours before two were slated for the auction block, and one for private sale. Their decision came in response to a flood of backlash: threats to reverse pledged gifts, op-eds, open letters (one with over 150 signatures including dozens of art historians and former museum directors), and the resignation of museum board members.

Like the TMA, the Baltimore Museum of Art also planned to sell work by three White male artists (Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol), but in addition to acquiring work from underrepresented artists, the museum planned to use the estimated $65 million from the sale for staff salaries and equity programs.

“We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; We believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage, and inspire the many different individuals that we serve,” read a press release from the BMA on October 28, 2020.

The statement exemplifies a rift in the way people view museums — either as places to serve an ever-evolving community, or as safety deposit boxes for material cultural memory.

TMA told Hyperallergic that it will use all of the money from the sale to acquire more art.

“A collections audit indicated the greatest imbalances exist across gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, nationality and geography, and material/medium,” reads TMA’s press release. “The newest additions reflect the Museum’s commitment to adding artworks of the highest quality that reflect the diversity of world history.”

Another high-profile deaccession will also take place in May — New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will sell Pablo Picasso’s first cubist sculpture, “Tête de femme (Fernande)” (1909), expected to fetch $30 million dollars at Christie’s. That money will also be used exclusively to buy more art, the Met said in a statement.

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