North Texas museums are holding on to what they’ve got. After The New York Times published an article last week about overcrowded museum basements and the aggressive efforts many major museums are making to thin out their collections, we reached out to local art institutions to see if they have any plans to clean house.
According to the Times, frequent gifts have caused museum collections across the country to balloon in size and museums like the Indianapolis Art Museum — which is ranking its collection from A to D to help determine what to offload — are responding to pressure from multiple sides. There’s pressure to save money on climate-controlled storage and pressure to release rarely displayed objects to smaller museums or private collections where they would be enjoyed more often.
But these pressures to sell, or deaccession as it’s known in the art world, don’t seem to have reached North Texas. Some museums, like the Meadows Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum, have dodged the problem entirely; almost everything they own is on walls or in display cases, and those in charge say storage isn’t a big expense. But even at museums that are busting out of their storage space — like the Dallas Museum of Art, whose astronomic growth is referenced in the Times article — deaccession doesn’t seem to be a huge priority.
“We have very, very infrequently deaccessioned works,” Dallas Museum of Art Deputy Director Tamara Wootton Forsyth says. “That may be a part of our collections plan moving forward, but we haven’t sketched it out yet.”
The DMA can display about a third of its collection of 25,000 works at any one time. As for the rest, some goes out on loan, but the majority is stored across five on-site vaults and one off-site warehouse. There are a few reasons a work could end up in storage. Maybe it needs conservation, or its light sensitivity demands it. A Times infographic shows that roughly 25 percent of the DMA’s collection is works on paper, and those in particular need frequent rest. But a lot what’s in storage at the DMA is there simply because there isn’t enough room to exhibit it.
With much more art on the way — the bequests of the Hoffman, Rachofsky and Rose collections of contemporary art will bring more than 800 new works to the museum — and no plans to deaccession, the DMA will soon need to find more off-site storage.
“At some point we will definitely outgrow [our storage],” Wootton Forsyth says. “We’re not going to stop collecting.”
The DMA is an encyclopedic collection, which means it collects in all areas. According to Wootton Forsyth, the DMA curators are in the process of drafting a new collections plan that will identify specific areas where the museum wants to grow.
Another Times infographic, this one of museum collection growth since the ‘70s, shows the DMA dwarfing other institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 800 percent growth. The Wendy and Emery Reves collection is also given as an example of museums’ eagerness to acquire; in 1985, the DMA reconstructed five rooms from the Reves’ home in France for its display, at Wendy Reves’ insistence.
It makes a little more sense in context. The Times starts counting in the ‘70s, which is when the DMA really got going in earnest. A City 1979 bond election moved the museum from a small space in Fair Park to its current location on Harwood Street, and Wootton Forsyth says “there were a lot of big gifts of large collections and big purchases of large collections at the time.”
One of the big gifts of that period was the Reves collection. Today the DMA doesn’t as readily accept gifts that come with restrictions, Wootton Forsyth says, but the Reves collection of more than 1,400 impressionist, post-impressionist and modern works was “worth the restrictions because of the game-changing nature of the collection that came at the time.”
All of that being true, the gap between what the DMA has and what it can display is still large, and widening every year. Nor is it alone among North Texas museums in that regard. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has roughly a thousand works in its collection that aren’t works on paper, and enough room to exhibit about 175, according to its Head of Exhibition and Collection Management Brent Mitchell. He says the Modern is already looking for new storage solutions to accommodate its growing collection.
“Some years we only bring in a handful of works into the collection, and some years we may bring in over 100,” Mitchell says. “It just depends.”
Factors that play a role include number of gifts, the budget for acquisitions and the cost of works purchased, but Mitchell says the museum wants to be ready for anything its benefactors or curators propose. That means addressing its nearly maxed-out storage, which consists of individual rooms on-site for paintings, works on paper and photography, plus an off-site warehouse.
In the six years Mitchell has worked at the Modern he says it has periodically deaccessioned works that no longer fit the scope of the museum. The Modern was chartered in 1892 but for almost a century it was known as the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery. Only in the ‘80s did it change its name and commit to exclusively collecting work post-1945. “There are probably a lot of works in the collection that predate 1945,” Mitchell says.
The Association of Museum Directors and American Alliance of Museums dictate that when a museum deaccessions a work, the funds should be used to acquire more art — ideally of the same style and period. Mitchell says that when the Modern has deaccessioned a work that doesn’t fit with its current collection, the funds have been put into the museum’s general acquisitions fund.
The Modern doesn’t engage in this deaccession process continually because it’s a big undertaking. “We’re a small museum with a smaller staff so we don’t have someone dedicated just to deaccessioning like some other larger museums might, so we kind of have to shift gears into that mode when we’re doing that,” Mitchell says.
With more art coming into the Modern’s collection than going out, Mitchell’s focus is on maximizing the existing storage space. In November, the museum added more racks to its painting room. “We’re looking at reconfiguring and getting some new types of storage furniture that are more efficient and will gain us some space,” he says.
Mitchell is sympathetic to the idea that museums should share the wealth and not hoard art they can’t display, but he says it’s a lot harder to decide what to keep and what to let go of than it sounds.
“If someone offers you a generous donation, even though you may not have plans to exhibit all of it immediately, you never know what the value of that collection might be down the road and how it may inform other works you bring into your collection later,” he says. “Context is very important with a collection.”
The Modern tries to be “conscientious” in how it acquires, Mitchell says, offering the recent Kaws sculpture acquisition as an example.
“That was obviously a monumental piece that we had to get many people on board to understand the logistics and the long-term care and presentation of that art work.”
At the DMA, Wootton Forsyth is comfortable with the size of the collection she helps manage.
“When I hear some of the sizes of some of these museum collections, I’m terrified,” she says. “Some of these other institutions have hundreds and hundreds of thousands.”
Because the DMA constantly rotates its collection, she’s optimistic that every item in storage will eventually receive its time in the sun.
“Even though there are a number of things in storage, hopefully they will get to see the light of day at some point in their life,” she says.
The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Meadows Museum on the SMU campus represent a different approach to art collecting. If you visit either this week, you’ll see most of what they own. The Kimbell has a small collection of 350 works. It’s best known for its European art collection, but also collects antiquities, Asian art, art of the ancient Americas, and African and Oceanic art. Almost all of its collection is permanently installed, save for a few works that are on loan or resting.
At the Meadows, roughly three-quarters of the paintings, sculptures and decorative objects in its collection are installed, according to Collections Manager Anne Lenhart. Most of the Meadows’ 3,500 square feet of storage space is unused.
“We probably have twice as much storage space as we do collection,” she says.
The Kimbell maintains some storage space, but because it rarely collects works on paper, it needs a lot less than many other institutions. Storage is mainly a stopping point for paintings that are going out or coming in on loan, or that hang in a gallery that’s being renovated.
“The Kimbell’s storage is not filled to the rafters with works in its collection that are rarely on display,” Kimbell Director Eric Lee writes in an email to the Observer.
At one time the Kimbell did have to store some of its collection when special exhibits arrived, but that was solved by a 2013 expansion. Both Lenhart and Lee say the cost to maintain their storage spaces is minimal and that keeping the majority of their collections installed is a priority.
To achieve that, the Kimbell acquires carefully. While Lee says there was a period in the ‘80s when it grew more quickly, now the Kimbell typically only acquires one or two new works a year, almost all purchases rather than gifts. Sometimes it turns gifts down.
“The Kimbell aims to be a collection of masterpieces,” Lee says. “We hold acquisitions made through gift to the same level of scrutiny as acquisitions made through purchase.”
The Meadows, which is best known for its collection of Spanish art, has more flexibility due to the generous size of its building. Lenhart estimates the collection has grown about 5 percent a year since the museum was founded in the ‘60s, and it still has plenty of space to grow. It recently acquired a desirable Goya drawing to add to its collection of his paintings and prints, and is considering expanding into 20th-century art.
Both museums have a history of deaccessioning. For example, Lee says the Kimbell deaccessioned a Matisse in the ‘90s to generate funds to buy a more important Matisse. At one time the Kimbell even implemented a ranking system similar to Indianapolis’. But the Kimbell “has reached such a high level of refinement,” according to Lee, that it has only deaccessioned one work in the last 20 years, a painting by Benjamin West in 2008. Lee says the Kimbell let it go because it concluded West was more an American artist than a European one.
The Meadows hasn’t deaccessioned since the ‘80s and Lenhart isn’t sure what it could sacrifice right now. Other than a couple of Velasquez and Goya forgeries mistakenly purchased by the museum’s founder Algur Meadows, which the Meadows speaks about openly and occasionally drags out at a professor’s request, Lenhart says, “we have a very small percentage of paintings that we don’t consider to be excellent.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
But both Lenhart and Lee say their institutions support deaccession on principle.
“In the philosophical question of should museums deaccession and is that proper,” Lenhart says, “I believe that the Meadows would fall into the camp that says yes.”
Lee is a little more cut and dry.
“In an ideal world,” he says, “museums would not have works in their collections they would never display.”