Orange County Museum of Art Secretly Sells Paintings, Opens Back Up Deaccessioning Debate

Speaking of hard times in the museum industry, the Orange County Museum of Art has found itself being marred by criticism over their recent sale of nearly all of their California Impressionist paintings to a private art collector. All of this was done on the quiet and quick back in March, but was discovered due to a tip to the LA Times‘s Culture Monster blog. Now that the information has been released, it’s brought the debate over deaccessioning back to the table, particularly if the Orange County Museum followed the guidelines set forth by museum organizations (e.g. it’s okay if you’re selling work to buy more work, but it’s not okay to sell work just to pay the bills, and it’s also important that you try and get the pieces to other museums, instead of into the hands of collectors who plan to squirrel them away). So now the museum is playing on the defense, trying to smooth the situation over with their critics and explaining the sales. But they’ve certainly yet to soothe everyone, with or without the full story:

What OCMA says it did is not a clear-cut ethical breach, said Janet Landay, executive director of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. “Frequently these things are less than black and white,” she said, and a private sale to a collector “isn’t in that level of egregious behavior” and “could easily be a very legitimate decision.”

That doesn’t wash with Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, and Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum. Both say that if they’d known the California Impressionists were for sale, they would have sought donors to bankroll bids. The genre, often called “plein air painting,” is important to both museums.