Art Law Report

Rich Man/Poor Man?  The Berkshire Museum and Why Deaccessioning is so Frustrating

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 23, 2017 at 6:11 PM

Two wonderful museums recently announced plans to sell major works of art.  In one case, some 40 paintings, American masterpieces among them, will be sold at auction.  In another, more than 400 photographs will also be sold.  The former case has prompted a nationwide outcry, the latter…effectively nothing.  The differences and similarities between the two underscore the aspirational rules that govern what is known as “deaccessioning,” but also remind us that principles and the goals they are meant to reach are not always the same thing. 

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Topics: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Delaware Museum of Art, American Alliance of Museums, Lee Rosenbaum, MoMA, Deaccessioning, AAM, Norman Rockwell, Association of Art Museum Directors, Alexander Calder, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, AAMD, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Pittsfield, General Electric, Waconah Park, Berkshire Museum, Housatonic, Lake Onota, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Zenas Crane, Williamstown, Lenox, North Adams, Mass MoCA, Felix Salmon

A Trust For The Benefit of the Public is Not “the Public Trust”—The Deaccessioning Debate and the Detroit Institute of Arts

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 4, 2014 at 6:30 AM

Reflecting on the recent argument by the Detroit Institute of Arts that the city of Detroit cannot legally sell, let alone be forced to sell, the artwork in the museum to satisfy creditor, some overlapping terminology creates the possibility of an important confusion. Particularly in the realm of deaccessioning, this distinctions are quite important. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan today approved its part of the “Grand Bargain” to subsidize the bankruptcy to avoid sale or encumbrance of the artwork.

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Topics: Donn Zaretsky, Roberta Smith, Rose Art Museum, Lee Rosenbaum, Columbia University, Deaccessioning, Detroit Institute of Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Association of Art Museum Directors, Michigan, Albright-Knox Gallery, New York Times, Detroit Bankruptcy, AAMD, Edward Hopper, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, grand bargain, Brandeis University, Barnes Foundation

Detroit Institute of Arts and Motor City Bankruptcy: Deaccessioning Fact and Fiction, Hope and Reality

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 1, 2013 at 12:27 PM

The recent filing by the City of Detroit for bankruptcy—the largest such municipal filing in history—has brought with it an unexpected art law twist. Namely: to what extent can, or should the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts be used to satisfy the city’s creditors. As one might expect, the differences between what the city can do, what it should do, and what others can do to influence that decision have become hard to distinguish as the volume is raised. A review of some of the issues involved and the governing principles is in order. As rumors of the city’s bankruptcy circulated, speculation began about what would happen to the collection of DIA. And thus the dreaded “deaccession” debate began. This debate is essentially as follows: is art a fungible commodity that can and/or should be used in whatever way advances the mission of the institution (including selling it and using the proceeds to finance the museum’s operations), or do museums hold art in a public trust that must prioritize the collection and display of art? The latter view certainly holds sway among many in the museum community as an aspirational mattter, but its enforceability is often far less than they think.

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Topics: National Academy Museum, Brandeis, Deaccession, American Alliance of Museums, Rose Art Museum, AAM, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Collections, Association of Art Museum Directors, Motor City, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Cleveland Museum of Art, Detroit Bankruptcy, AAMD, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

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About the Blog


The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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