Art Museum reviews thousands of works for removal from collectionOctober 12, 2017 | In the Press
The St. Louis Art Museum has removed more than 1,000 pieces from its collection since 2014, and another 1,000 are slated for review as the museum takes steps to improve and diversify its inventory.
"Each curator is charged with looking for ways to improve their collections area," said Jeanette Fausz, the museum's director of exhibitions and collections. "They're also looking for opportunities to expand it."
The effort is one cog in the museum's five-year strategic plan to attract more visitors and provide new experiences. The sale or auction of the works of art deaccessioned to this point is about $350,000, all of which would be used for improving the collections the removed artwork was pulled from.
"These often aren't hard choices for the curators," Art Museum spokesman Matt Hathaway said. "A work of art no one is ever going to see isn't much use to anyone."
Choosing which works to remove depends on various factors, and involves input from curators, scholars, museum directors, and the donors of the artwork or their heirs.
In some cases the artwork's condition is too poor to display; in other cases it's that the museum over time has acquired more exemplary pieces from a place or era and must make room. The museum also has to verify it has good title to each work, which in some cases could come into dispute without adequate record keeping.
"It's not a quick thing," Fausz said.
There are some 33,000 pieces in the museum's collection, most of which aren't on permanent display. Many have to be kept in secure storage areas that are also climate-controlled to limit deterioration.
"We want to house the best and most appropriate items in the collection," Fausz said. "Deaccessioning has always been part of our process as good stewards of the collection."
Hathaway said a number of the items removed may have been acquired by the museum 40 to 80 years ago. Two of the top sellers at auctions, a small sculpture titled "Virgin and Child" from 14th-century France and a figure of Santiago Matamoros from late 15th-century Spain, were acquired in the 1920s.
Combined, they fetched $75,000 at auction by Christie's in 2015. Other pieces removed to date have also been sold or auctioned at locations around the country, including Boston and New York.
"Perhaps at the time those were the best example of something the museum or curator might expect to have," he said. "Then 30 years after that someone gives you several better examples and those understandably are the ones you put on view."
The strategic plan also focuses on improving the museum's hospitality, accessibility to the disabled and the overall experience. Changes to the experience include a digital strategy with a new website launching in September 2018 and expanding wireless internet, which is now available over about 75 percent of the museum's campus.
Other parts of the museum's strategic plan include identifying and attracting more visitors from diverse communities, including millennials, households with young children, and members of the black community overall. Black adults made up only about 8 percent of museum visitors between 2012 and 2016, according to surveys of visitors done by the museum.
The museum hopes to consistently attract more than 500,000 visitors annually through the plan.