Everyone, myself included, is thrilled the paintings of former Monhegan Island resident Lynne Drexler recently sold for over 1 million dollars. I also applaud the intention to reinvest this windfall in acquiring works by other under-represented women artists and artists of color. But the fiscal benefits derived from this windfall also have long lasting negative implications for private donors and future support for the museum’s programs and its ability to serve the Midcoast community. This is not just an immediate concern, nor does it impact only on the institution doing the selling. It can and will affect the long-term behavior and commitment of donors including future prospects.

Deaccessions by one museum can damage donor relations for all art museums everywhere. If most art museums can only realistically collect through gifts of art works or occasionally restricted gifts of cash with which to buy works of art, there is the real danger donors will simply turn away from the museum world as a whole. Whether or not there is a written contractual agreement with donors who give art to museums, there is a long held implied commitment such gifts will be held by the museum in perpetuity. Yes, museum donors receive tax breaks and that may be enough for some. But in my fifty odd years of working with art museums, most donors want their gifts to be accessible to the public and have confidence their gift(s) will be kept for future generations to enjoy.

In a world of COVID, Ukraine, and God knows what next, donors are already rethinking their giving priorities; they simply do not need any more reasons to pull the plug on art museums that regard their collections as private ATMs. Would Louise Nevelson and her family trust the Farnsworth today, given the cavalier treatment of Drexler’s legacy?

Housekeeping — selling duplicate works (usually prints) or works that are un-exhibitable by reason of poor condition or fragility, or work that no longer addresses the museum’s mission (i.e. European art in a museum dedicated to American art) — these are all legitimate reasons to sell. Providing the staff with pocket money to spend on art they like better is not. And the work of a deceased, long neglected woman artist should not be called upon to right past and current collecting lapses and missteps.

So, a million plus dollars sounds like a lot of money with which to buy new art by under-recognized women and artists of color. Except the art market has already driven well past the reach of all but the wealthiest museums. I note the Farnsworth could have purchased work by Lewiston-based African-American artist Reggie Burrows Hodges for low five figures as recently as two years ago. Now his work brings half-a-million for a single work. Forget well-known artists like Mark Bradford, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Michalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu, and many others whose most desirable works often sell at auction not for one or two million but many times that number. Acquiring works by these artists, as well as historically important women from the same era as Drexler — Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan (who also worked in Maine) and others are well into eight figures.

I don’t see many museums selling off important works of art just because they have an abundance of that artist’s work. The Orangerie or Musée Marmatton in Paris are never going to sell one (or more) of their “Water Lily” paintings by Claude Monet, for the very reason their meaning and impact is based on the experience of looking at an extraordinary group of different but closely related paintings. I can make a similar case for the six paintings by Drexler that mark the artist at the height of her expressive powers, reinforced and confirmed by the entire group.

And if the Farnsworth and most other museums hope to acquire work by already recognized women and artists of color, then why sell an example of an under-recognized artist the museum will never be able to afford again? There is also a whiff of the Patriots trading highly paid stars for future draft picks that may or may not achieve greatness (or even the taxi squad). So, yes, the museum might pick up the equivalent of a future Tom Brady. But what are the odds? Personally, I would stick with the rising star that is currently on the roster — the art they are trading in is a late-blooming Tom Brady (good-looking, ageless, previously undervalued, irreplaceable).

Deaccessioning precedents also begin to raise fundamental questions related to art museum tax benefits we all pay for. If museums enjoy non-profit tax benefits, which include exemption from local property taxes, then many would argue art museums, at the very least, should be more directly answerable to the public they claim to serve. Donors also receive tax benefits based on the value of their gifts — and not just gifts of art works but financial donations to support exhibitions and education. Again, most agree art museums are fundamentally educational institutions that hold their collections in trust for the public at large. If museums are going to sell their principal assets — the permanent collection some might say is their reason for existing in the first place — the public might wish to weigh in, at least to have an opportunity to hear why this drastic step is considered necessary by the Museum’s board and staff.

I am sensitive to the notion museum collections are not static, they need to change and grow to reflect new and evolving definitions of what art is or might be; they need to pay attention to living artists, especially those in the museum’s own backyard. By the same token, museums should literally “own” and honor their own histories, including mistakes and lapses of judgement. Before coming to the Farnsworth, I was director of a small museum on Long Island that was old enough to contain oddball objects, like a mounted Bison head, reputed to have been bagged by Teddy Roosevelt. We showed it one time in a look-back exhibition, “The Way We Were.” Not that the Buffalo head would have been worth deaccessioning but many who saw the exhibit were charmed by its story and the museum’s own shaggy, idiosyncratic history. We learn from self-examination and changing taste; we need museums to remind us of that including caring for artists’ works that might be regarded by others as expendable.

I am also concerned deaccessioning is like a death; it’s irreversible. And, no matter how much money it generates for critical institutional priorities and goals, like diversity and inclusion, important art works that are removed from public view are gone in ways that permanently affect realms of the spirit and imagination.

While a particular work of art may not be considered essential to the museum’s current staff or board, there are others (including the donor) who feel very differently, who will deeply mourn the loss of treasured “friends” from the collection. There are many ways to address laudable goals, including patience and paying closer attention to living artists, especially those who inhabit the museum’s own neighborhood as a regional institution. Deaccessioning is a dangerous and drastic cure for real and perceived ailments. Demographics and availability shape collections; the Farnsworth has a fine representative collection of contemporary women artists, especially those with Maine ties. Of course, the Museum must add to this. But, deaccessioning is akin to medieval medicine — leeches do more harm than good and cumulative blood loss can be fatal.

Then, there is the matter of simple courtesy and respect. The person who arranged the donation of Drexler’s paintings to the Farnsworth was her trusted friend and fellow artist, William Manning. No one bothered to inform him of their intention to sell two major paintings from the initial gift from the estate; he gave the paintings as a group, not to be sold off one by one. Deaccessioning works by living donors undermines future gifts. It is also a slap in the face to an 85 year-old, wheelchair bound artist who is also represented by several examples of his own work in the so-called “permanent” collection. Is his work expendable, too?

Long ago, my mom taught me promises are meant to be kept. The Farnsworth needs to apologize to Mr. Manning.