The wealth of any museum is almost always hung on its walls. The collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for instance, is estimated to be worth somewhere between $100 and $400 billion dollars. (A very rough estimate – no museum would ever publicize an amount like that).
The endowment that supports the Met and all its operations is worth another $3.3 billion, which generates approximately $200 million in funds annually. In April 2020, the pandemic forced the museum to lay off 81 full-time employees and sharply cut the salaries of executives. But even with that, the massive art museum is expected to fall over $150 million short in revenue in 2021.
Drastic measures, they fear, may be in order.
In an ordinary year, the Met does sell some of their artwork. Not a great deal, but some pieces which have either little historical relevance or poor quality compared to other pieces in their collections. This generates revenue between $45,000 and $25 million annually. No art was sold in 2020 due to a halt on in-person auctions.
For a museum to sell art (a practice called deaccessioning), the sale and the use of the proceeds must be approved by the Association of Art Museum Directors, a professional organization which regulates art museums of all sizes in the United States.
Last spring, as every museum of every stripe was suddenly struggling under lockdowns and closure orders, the AAMD relaxed its guidelines on deaccessioning to allow art to be sold for general business purposes. And now the Met is tentatively considering doing just that.
Some people are worried that deaccessioning will become common practice—selling art to keep the doors open—resulting in too much historically valuable art being transferred from public museums to private hands.
But the alternative is also a potentially fatal slope – dipping into endowment funds to keep the doors open, resulting in smaller and smaller returns on the endowments.
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