GOING, GOING--GONE

Lately, and increasingly, museums across the country and around the world have begun "deaccessioning"--selling off parts of their existing collections as a ready source of "free money" to pay for new acquisitions. It's money, more than art, that's hard for many of these institutions to come by, especially in recent years, as private and public funding sources have dried up right and left. So it's easy to understand the temptation for museum directors to clean out their storerooms and cash in.

Not to be left out, the Denver Art Museum is currently in the midst of an unprecedented deaccession campaign, which reached a kind of crescendo with the September 16 on-premises auction conducted by the prominent New York-based Christie's auction house. At the all-day event, DAM divested itself of some 1,500 articles sold in more than 600 lots.

Even under ideal circumstances--which this was--the process of getting rid of once-treasured works of art is filled with pitfalls. It does break a faith with donors. And it comes with a checkered history: Scandal, or at least controversy, has accompanied deaccessioning efforts more often than not in the museum world.

Last year's hasty and clandestine disposal of northwest-coast American Indian material from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is a good local case in point. The collection, including many renowned masterpieces, was sold to a private party at a fire-sale price by the CSFAC. The questionable action became doubly outrageous when critics suggested, convincingly, that the sale had been rushed through in order to avoid the provisions of then-soon-to-be-in-force federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which has widespread implications for museums and other institutions that hold American Indian artifacts.

The Denver Art Museum, noting the bad example of the CSFAC, did everything possible to avoid making the same mistakes with its own sale. First of all, the auction was subjected to the light of public scrutiny. And just to be doubly safe vis-a-vis NAGPRA--and with an eye toward public relations--artifacts for the auction were culled from every specialty department at DAM except Native Arts.

But this auction was only the latest chapter--and far from the last--in the campaign to pare down DAM's collections. Artworks more important than those included in the auction are to be sold in the near future at Christie's salesrooms in both London and New York, including a Willem de Kooning oil on paper and a couple of Lucas Cranach portraits.

And then there's the least best-kept secret at the museum: that this month's auction was not exactly Round One. For several years now, the museum has been quietly disposing of significant parts of its immense collection. With the auction, DAM brought to an end--temporarily, at least--years of secret deals surrounding the selling off of its property. The museum wasn't legally compelled to make deaccessioning a public event. But it's clear why DAM executives decided to do so.

The mess in Colorado Springs last year came hard on the heels of an earlier deaccession at DAM--a brokered deal the museum announced only after it was a fait accompli. The museum had swapped one of the ugliest $1 million Picasso paintings imaginable in order to acquire three minor paintings by two major artists, Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove. (One can only imagine how much Christie's would have made for the museum in a public sale.) And the scandal in southern Colorado must have sent a shiver through the museum's upper ranks, since both the covert sale in Colorado Springs and the secret swap here in Denver were facilitated by the same private New Mexico dealer, the famous Gerald Peters. In both cases, there was the lingering hint of potential private gain for a dealer at the expense of public institutions.

Less a source of potential worry for the public-relations department at DAM is yet another deaccession project that few people know about. For the last few years, the museum has been dumping in a wholesale manner works by historic, mostly deceased Colorado artists that have wound up in the museum's collections in spite of the best efforts of generations of curators to keep them out. To the museum's credit--or, more particularly, to the credit of the department of Modern and Contemporary art, headed by curator Dianne Vanderlip--few still-active local artists were subjected to this ego body blow. It may be impossible to overstate the negative effect that eliminating the work of active artists would have had on the contemporary scene here had Vanderlip not been so circumspect in this regard.

DAM also should be lauded for the fact that none of these Colorado works were sold; instead they were donated to other public institutions with art collections, including the Colorado Historical Society and the CSFAC. However, the fact that these works remained in public hands is a somewhat cold comfort; one can't help feeling that moving further away from an appreciation of the art of our region is a misstep.

Unfortunately, the many pictures, sculptures, prints and decorative items that were liquidated at the recent auction had a much less dignified fate--although to be frank, viewing them firsthand would have convinced even the most skeptical observer that the bulk of the material was being appropriately dispensed with.

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