Selling off museum pieces to save jobs should not be a taboo — especially during a pandemic

 When a group of Royal Academy of Arts grandees recently suggested selling one of the institution’s masterpieces, it caused quite a stir. 

This was not just any artwork: it was Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, a great unfinished masterpiece that is considered among the Academy’s crown jewels. 

The proposal — auction it off for more than £100m in order to protect 150 jobs and secure the Royal Academy’s financial future — provoked outrage, and was quickly rejected. “It is our duty to look after our permanent collection, for current and future generations to enjoy,” said a spokeswoman at the time.

Settled? Hardly. The incident has reignited a broader debate around whether museums and galleries should sell off works to raise money. 

With the pandemic threatening to gut the arts sector completely, many institutions across the globe are now being forced to consider the practice, known as “deaccessioning”. This has so far been more prevalent in the US, where museums generally cannot rely on public funding. But as partial lockdowns stretch on, and with London now under Tier 3 restrictions that mandate these venues close their doors once more, it is an option increasingly being discussed in the UK. 

As a rule, selling off works on financial grounds is frowned upon. Museums and galleries, particularly publicly funded ones, are not so much owners of their collections in the conventional sense — more custodians, maintaining culturally important pieces on behalf of the people. There are even laws against it, seeking to prevent the sale of works from public collections unless there is a curatorial reason, such as replacing them with something better.

This makes sense in the context of stopping casual sales. In 2014, for example, Northampton borough council wanted to build an extension to its Museum and Art Gallery, so it auctioned off a 4,000-year-old Egyptian statue. It fetched £16m from a private buyer, and has not been seen in public since. The venue subsequently lost its Arts Council England accreditation, which is vital when applying for grants. One campaign group described it as “the blackest day in Northampton’s cultural history”. 

But that was before the pandemic. Now, venues have no visitors, and are in drastic need of financial breathing space. 

From small regional galleries to central London’s cultural icons, nobody is immune. By October, the Museums Association had already tallied 3,000 redundancies nationally. Two weeks ago, Tate announced 120 job cuts among its gallery staff — more than one in 10 of its workers. And the layoffs at the Royal Academy will make up about 40 per cent of its workforce.

Government grants totalling £1.57bn have so far limited some of the damage, but when the furlough scheme ends in April, many museums will still be unable to operate in anything like a normal way. It is unclear how they will afford to pay their employees. Inevitably, more redundancies will follow unless more action is taken. Some venues may yet close forever. 

So can we blame galleries if they decide to take matters into their own hands and sell works to avert job losses — or indeed collapse? And does the picture become more complicated when we remember that, for larger institutions, many valuable items are behind closed doors already? 

According to a 2014 Freedom of Information request, the Tate holds around 70,000 works in its collections. Of those, only about 3,600 are on public display at any one time, either at Tate galleries or on loan. A further 56,000 works are available to view on request, held in Prints and Drawings Rooms, while about 15 per cent of the collection — some 10,500 works — are in storage. 

Clearly, auctioning off artwork is far from a one-size-fits-all solution. The Taddei Tondo is the only sculpture in the country made by Michelangelo. For the Royal Academy, which is not publicly funded, the 515-year-old work is a crowning glory so valuable that it would inevitably end up in the hands of a wealthy foreign buyer if it were sold, rather than another cash-strapped British institution, denying the public of the right to ever see it again. 

However, in their horror at the suggestion, some critics have recoiled too far the other way, arguing that selling even back catalogue pieces would be “a slippery slope” and should be avoided at all costs. This approach is inflexible, and does not suit these complex times. Clearly, any sale of publicly available art should be completely transparent and heavily scrutinised. It should be a last resort — but not a taboo.

Museum doors will open again. Yes, a grim recession looms, and international tourism will be slow to recover (the World Tourism Organisation has predicted the rebound could come as soon as the second half of next year, while other experts predict longer). But visitors, and the relative normality that they bring, will be back. If institutions sell off a few C-list artworks as a one-off measure to weather the temporary shock of this pandemic, it will hardly open the floodgates forever.

If ever there were a time to cast aside the idea that it is wrong on principle to auction off art to save jobs, it is now. Institutions rightly view their prize pieces as indispensable. But in the absence of proper government support, there has to be some flexibility. Employees are important too — a point that is all too easily lost amid cries that selling works would be a dereliction of duty to the wider public. 

There is a danger of clinging onto the family silver at the expense of the family itself.

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