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The Art Gallery of Ontario, seen here on July 22, 2017, has gone through a series of relatively uncontroversial sales over the past few years.

Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

Where the private sector goes, the public sector hastens to follow. This maxim may prove true when it comes to institutions selling art to make up for budgetary shortfalls brought on by the pandemic.

As recently reported in The Globe and Mail, a number of businesses in Canada and abroad have taken to selling parts of their corporate art collections in an effort to downsize and bring in much-needed cash. The question is whether public museums across Canada will adopt what appears to be a quick fix to their economic woes.

Museum collections are generally held in trust for the public. But what is a museum to do in present circumstances, when many are forced to lay off staff and smaller ones to close down entirely? How can you compare a few paintings to the livelihood of employees and the stability of an institution?

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In the past, money recouped from sales could only go toward buying more art, not to operations. But this standard has been loosened as a result of the pandemic. In April, the Association of Art Museum Directors – a highly influential body made up of museum directors from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico – introduced a temporary change to its rules that would allow museums to sell works and use the proceeds toward “the direct care of the collection.” Under this latest concession, the Brooklyn Museum just sold 10 works from its collection and made a cool US$6.6-million toward purposes such as storage, conservation, framing and – rather critically – staff salaries. The move was contentious, but the sale went off without a hitch.

Might Canadian museums do the same? It’s certainly conceivable and, as the pandemic continues to keep ticket revenue low or non-existent, will become increasingly likely. Some institutions already have a track record. The Art Gallery of Ontario, for example, has gone through a series of relatively uncontroversial sales over the past few years. There is little to stop museums now considering the process in earnest.

But there are a number of considerations to be taken into account and procedures to be followed. Perhaps most important is the obligation to be transparent and to consult relevant stakeholders throughout the process, including the public, especially for institutions that receive public funding. Who can forget the debacle two years ago when the National Gallery of Canada sent an emblematic painting by Marc Chagall, La Tour Eiffel (1929), to Christie’s auction house in New York for a commercial sale? The public outcry was so strong that the gallery had to backtrack, incurring a penalty from the auction house as a result. In the U.K., one controversial sale resulted in a museum being kicked out of its sector association, disqualifying it from government grants, while in the U.S., unpopular attempts to sell have spurred lawsuits from museum members and trustees.

What these examples illustrate is that museums – especially national ones – need to tread carefully when going through the process. Their collections are held for the public, and the public needs to be involved – or at least made fully aware – when decisions are made at high levels to forever dispose of collection items normally kept for the public’s benefit. This holds true even in the time of a pandemic.

In addition, sales should only occur as part of a long-term collections policy, one guided by curators and other experts. Works should only be removed from a collection if they don’t fall within the institution’s collecting mission or they lack a high degree of importance or rarity such that selling them would not undermine the public trust. Museums considering this option should work on low-hanging fruit, not the masterpieces at the top of the tree. They should also follow existing guidelines, such as those published by the Canadian Museums Association.

Canada’s laws in this area are relatively permissive, especially considered alongside those of France, Italy and many other European countries. In those countries, public collections are held permanently and can never be disassembled. The reason for this is that cultural heritage is seen as sacrosanct, an inheritance received from previous generations and passed on to the next. In Canada, the view is less absolute, at least according to Parliament; Canadian law generally does not prevent sales from national collections.

Even so, the decision-makers at museums need to bear in mind an important truth – they hold collections in trust for the public. Present times may indeed demand extreme actions, but selling collection pieces has always been a high-stakes manoeuvre, one that can break down if not properly managed – just ask the National Gallery.

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Alexander Herman is Assistant Director at the Institute of Art and Law.

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