Will museums be forced to sell collections to stay afloat?

The decision to auction off more than 200 items from the museum was, in fact, taken long before COVID-19 was an abominable twinkle in anyone’s eye.

THE EIN HAROD Art Museum.  (photo credit: RAN ERDE)
(photo credit: RAN ERDE)
One of the hardest hit sectors of the country’s once-normal run of things, since the pandemic first struck, has been culture. Cultural institutions and artists have been delivered body blow after body blow, as the doors of museums, galleries, music auditoria and any venue where artistic work is made available to the public have been shut, temporarily reopened, and then slammed shut again.
As things stand, our museums will remain closed until December 27. That is not good news for our repositories of artistic and historical artifacts, which desperately need their turnstiles to begin spinning again, and are looking to replenish their dwindling cash flows with income from ticket sales.
The sorry state of affairs is palpably felt across the cultural domain, with institutions of all scales having largely become ghostly edifices emptied of their patrons, groups of excited schoolchildren, tourists and locals of all ages coming in to get a firsthand eyeful of the exhibits.
Just how bad things are right now was made crystal, and painfully, clear recently when the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, entrusted more than 200 of its works for sale at an auction that is due to take place at Sothebys in London on October 27. In an unprecedented move, according to general-director Nadim Sheiban, the museum is looking to offload 166 works of Islamic art and 64 timepieces in order to keep the institution afloat.
Then again, the forthcoming sale is not the direct result of the disastrous financial fallout of the pandemic, although the way things are currently going is not helping matters at all. “The museum building and collection actually belong to the Hermann de Stern Foundation, which is based outside Israel,” Sheiban explains. “They agreed to the sale at Sothebys.”
The decision to auction off more than 200 items from the museum was, in fact, taken long before COVID-19 was an abominable twinkle in anyone’s eye. “This step did not come out of the blue. I was involved in the process over the last two years,” Sheiban notes. “The foundation, which has been supporting us for the last 40 years, has diminished. The markets have been in a bad way in recent years, profits have been down. Almost 65% of our funding comes from the foundation.”
Sheiban feels the state could have done more to obviate the need to divest the chronometers and archaeological and other artifacts. “The Culture Ministry, and all the self-righteous bunch, were aware of this all these years. They saw the museum’s budgets and were very happy with our development and prosperity. They were very strict about preserving the museum’s artifacts, and their usage, and appreciated the exhibitions we put on. All is wonderful, other than the fact that what we received from the state and the municipality over the years only accounts for 17% of our expenses.”
And so the museum came to the painful step of selling off hundreds of items in order to balance the books. Then again, Sheiban says the sale will not spoil the public’s viewing experience when – hopefully – normal service is resumed in the next month or two.
“We have over 5,000 Islamic works of art and more than 200 valuable timepieces in the museum, and we are accredited according to the Museums Law. We are taking out items from our reserves, from our storerooms, which are just lying there as deadweight and no one will remember if they saw them in an exhibition. The precious and special things are displayed in our permanent exhibitions.”
The aforementioned legislation was passed by the Knesset in 1983 and defines the duties of the museums, although it does not delineate financial support for them. “That means I am duty bound, according to the state, to include statutory members of staff, such as a conservator, an educational officer, security and anything else that is relevant,” Sheiban continues. “That comes at a very high financial cost. Just providing security costs us more than what we get from the state. But we can’t neglect a museum with a collection.”
The general-director also notes that, due to the pandemic directive closures, revenue for ticket sales to the museum for 2020 is down from NIS 1.5 million to around NIS 300,000, and that the two sole exhibitions the museum did manage to put on this year cost a whopping NIS 1.5 million for logistics, catalogues and such like.
NAVA KESSLER is well aware of the sorrowful state of play, probably more than most. She serves as chairwoman of ICOM Israel, the local representative of the International Council of Museums, a global nonprofit founded in 1946, which works closely with UNESCO and the UN Economic and Social Council. Kessler is, to put it mildly, horrified by the Museum for Islamic Art’s impending sale. “The museum’s role is to preserve works of art for future generations, and for the good of society,” she says. “That is also the purpose of the law.”
She also parries suggestions that the art museum’s decision to sell some of its works – known in the art world as deaccessioning – is connected to the current economic crisis. “They made the decision back in 2018. They are unconnected.” Kessler feels the Jerusalem institution could have searched for other solutions to its financial morass. “Museums generally don’t have the backing of a foundation, like the Islamic Museum. They look for income from things like renting out halls, and looking for additional donations, and collaborations.”
Kessler sees offloading items from museum collections as a drastic step. “ICOM has rules and regulations of ethics that state, explicitly, when and how works of art can be removed from collections. Which artifacts can be destroyed and which can be sold. And any income [from sales] must be plowed back into the collection, to nurture items in the collection or to purchase other works.”
There is a pecking order. “First, the museum should try to sell to another museum, rather than selling to a private collector, because that means removing the work from public access. If you don’t manage to sell to another museum, you then try for some other cultural or educational institution. If that doesn’t work and you sell privately, all the income has to go to the museum’s collection.” Kessler says the Museum for Islamic Art fell down on that score. “It wasn’t ethical. The museum did not apply the principle of transparency. We have only just heard about this. They made the decision in 2018. Secondly, they did not offer [the works] to another institution. “
In the United States several museums are currently looking to offset their coronavirus-fueled losses by selling off artifacts, although, as Kessler points out, there the state does not support museums. In this country there is precedent for that measure. In 2011 the Israel Museum sold works of art, for $340 million. The proceeds were used to acquire new works.
Happily, at least for now, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art does not need to sell in order to keep going. “It is very dramatic for a museum to sell in order to survive,” says general-director Tania Coen-Uzzielli. “We, thankfully, don’t need to do that but we do engage in deaccession, as any museum does when they reconsider their collections and check their relevance. Never say never, but I hope I never have to resort to selling art to keep the museum going.”
That is a sentiment shared by Ein Harod Museum director and chief curator Yaniv Shapira. “We have a responsibility to preserve the museum, the employees and our educational and other activities,” he says. Rather than divesting, Shapira opted to hold sales of works by various artists, under the museum’s auspices, in order to generate income for both parties. That, naturally, did not entail deaccessioning. “Selling off from our collections would be a last resort,” he states.
Perhaps that is an income-generating tack that could be explored by the sector as a whole.