At Large  April 27, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

The Whitney’s Plan to Deaccession an Edward Hopper Sparks Conversations on Museum Ethics


Edward Hopper, Cobb's Barns, South Truro (1930–1933). Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.


The first director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr, said that a museum was a vehicle in motion: forward-moving, adaptive, and contemporary. Barr’s museum model followed this ethos by selling works that were more than fifty years old to other museums so that the MoMA could continually adapt and acquire works by living artists. The permanent collection would be a fluid one. But this model is not favored by most other museums. In fact, the selling or permanent removal of works in a museum collection, known as de-accessioning, is deeply contested within the art world. Critics of deaccessioning argue that the funds are being misappropriated, while supporters argue that it helps a museum continue to grow and adapt within its mission statement.

It was announced last week that on May 16th at Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction, the Whitney Museum of American Art would be selling off an oil painting by Edward Hopper, with an estimate of $8 million – $12 million. The work is part of a group of eight that the Whitney is auctioning next month, including works of lesser value by Hopper, Maurice Prendergast, and John Marin.

Wikimedia Commons

Antonio MolinariAdam and Eve, an example of a deaccessioned work: Deaccessioned in 1988 from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and purchased by Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, Indiana from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1989

In a quote to ARTnews, Jane Pancetta, curator and director of the collection at the Whitney said, “We want to grow the collection” and “this is part of hitting that goal.” Further, she framed the deaccession as within Whitney’s founding principles, to show work by living American artists. 

The act of deaccessioning is tricky for public and private museums to navigate because there are no official laws in the US that guide them. Most museum officials adhere to guidelines set in place by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). 

Museums can only sell art so that they may use the funds to buy more art that follows their mission. If they use the funds for other purposes, this is where things start to get hairy. In Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko’s article “Museum Administration 2.0,” she writes, “If proceeds are used in a different matter, the collection appears as a cash reserve to be used anytime it is needed.” Though many museums might struggle with financial stability, the AAMD put rules in place to avoid museum’s selling their collection to cover their financial burdens, which would both ruin the public’s trust in the institution, and open up the opportunity for museums to become auction houses, where anything could be sold for liquid funds.

Wikimedia Commons

Baltimore Museum of Art (1929; John Russell Pope, architect), 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, MD 21218

But in recent years, issues such as reappropriation, fair wages, and diversity within a collection have been front of mind and have loosened these guidelines. In 2018, institutions started selling works of art and used the funds to improve the diversity of artists in their collections. This type of deaccessioning shows that museums are here to serve their communities in the present, and not just to uphold old standards of what art deserves to be shown. 

In addition, the pandemic played a major role in updating the guidelines. In early 2020, the AAMD loosened its restrictions on selling art so that museums would still be able to keep their doors open. The Baltimore Museum of Art is perhaps the most well-known in this matter. In 2021, the Museum  sold it’s only Clyfford Still and Brice Marden paintings, and offered an Andy Warhol privately. The sale was estimated to net $65 million. Of the revenue from the sale, $55 million were to go into an endowment fund, where $2.5 million would be spent yearly to cover collection care, the same amount would go toward salary increases for staff, and the remaining $10 million would go toward a more diverse collection. But Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum was slammed for this in the news, with opponents including former BMA board members and staffers, calling the actions a betrayal to the museum field. Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic wrote that the BMA was “the leading poster child for art collection carelessness,” and that he was using Covid as a cover-up for his plans. Bedford’s plan was ultimately abandoned because of this pushback.

Photo by Daniel Pett. Wikimedia Commons

The Crosby Garrett Helmet on auction at Christie's, London, on 7 October 2010.

But it is an interesting idea to think about the Whitney’s recent plan for deaccessioning, as keeping with their mission to show work by living American artists. After all, the Whitney’s plan is within the AAMD’s guidelines. But isn’t Edward Hopper, who just had a landmark exhibition at the Museum, one of the founders of the great American art movement that the Whitney is lauded for collecting? The painting up for auction was loaned once to the White House during President Obama’s tenure. Doesn’t that type of prestige and history make this piece worth keeping?

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