NY Times: Giving Artworks a Second Life




AMSTERDAM — In a gallery called OODE on the Singel canal here, Marleen Kurvers sells objects by emerging Dutch designers, along with paintings, sculpture and prints known as orphaned art.


All the artwork here dates from 1950 to 2005, including pieces from the postwar European art movement known as Cobra, and prices range from as little as €20 for unframed prints to about €1,000 for a large-scale framed oil painting, or about $22 to $1,100. The works are by professional Dutch artists and were once part of the government’s art collection. But lately the Dutch government, which for decades supported visual artists in one of the world’s most generous art subsidy programs, has been cleaning out its closets, so to speak. The process, known as deaccessioning, has become a source of controversy throughout Europe, as museums in Britain, Germany and France have looked to sales of prized works as a means to compensate for declining sponsorship and cuts in government subsidies.

“For a long time, we were creating museum institutions, so acquiring and building collections was booming,” said France Desmarais, director of programs and partnerships for the International Council of Museums, an association of museum professionals from 137 countries. “Now the museum community is moving into a different phase of its history, and in Europe, deaccessioning is becoming more and more common with the economic situation.”

The Netherlands is slightly different, in that it has put in place a system for jettisoning lesser works from its troves of accumulated art, moving them out of overstocked storage where they are gathering dust or growing mold. “Every living museum has a living collection,” said Siebe Weide, general director of the Netherlands Museums Association, a trade group with 420 members. “And it gathers new pieces and deaccessions part of it, always with care, and also with the care of the collection in mind, and never for the money.”
When museums don’t want the works anymore, he added, “why should you keep it in storage if a private person could have pleasure from it?”

Starting in 1949, the Dutch government set up a subsidy program that supported visual artists by buying artworks from them when they couldn’t sell them elsewhere. Known as the Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling, or B.K.R., the program supported some artists who went on to become internationally known, such as the Cobra painters Karel Appel, Eugène Brands and Constant and the contemporary painter and printer Anton Heyboer, whose art is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But by 1987, when the B.K.R. was finally ended, the government had amassed more than 300,000 artworks. “To be honest, many of these works are not very interesting,” said Dos Elshout, a sociologist in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. “But there is now a problem for these municipalities: What should they do with these pieces of art that are not of much value?”


The works may not be of great value, but they’re not worthless either, said C.J.M. Zijlmans, professor of contemporary art history and theory at Leiden University. “It’s not amateur art, or as we call them Sunday painters,” said Professor Zijlmans, who is known as Kitty. “They were serious artists needing a little stimulant to get started.” In 2007, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, part of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, initiated sales of some of the B.K.R. works in the government collection using eBay. It continues to do so today, and each week it also posts new items for sale on (museum auctions), with starting bids as low as €1. “The principle is that you want your culture functioning,” said Michaela Hanssen, head of collections for the agency. “You want the things you have, as much as possible, to be a part of the society, so society can make use of them.”


Deaccessioning artworks is not without controversy

“There’s a debate if a museum wants to sell an important piece of art,” said Mr. Elshout, the sociologist. “We had several controversies about selling those pieces of art in the Netherlands, and in almost every situation they didn’t sell.” The “one big exception” in recent years, he said, was in 2011, when the Museum Gouda sold a Marlene Dumas oil painting, “The Schoolboys,” from its collection through Christie’s in London for £1.1 million, or about $1.6 million at current exchange rates. The museum’s managing director, Gerard de Kleijn, said the sale had saved the museum from bankruptcy. The case caused quite a stir in the Netherlands, and the museum was almost ejected from the Museums Association. Such transactions are a sign of the times, said Ms. Desmarais, the International Council of Museums official.


“When works of art didn’t have such a high monetary value at auction, deaccessioning had a very different meaning than it does now,” she said. “There is a healthy way to deaccession, and it’s part of healthy collections’ management, but there are rules and ethical practices that must be followed.” Cleaning out collections in a methodical, careful way — gaining full clearance of ownership and weighing works against the rest of the collection — is not lucrative, proponents say.


From November 2012 to September 2014 (the most recently available data), the culture ministry received about €25,000 by selling 573 artworks. The cost of handling the sales was just over €31,000, producing a net loss of more than €6,000. Still, while the profits may be lacking, it is so expensive to maintain the stored art properly that keeping it might cost more in the long run, said Ms. Hanssen, the Cultural Heritage Agency collections chief. All the artwork sold at OODE, the Amsterdam gallery, comes through another group established to handle institutional art works, the Foundation of Disinherited Goods, a nonprofit group founded in 2012 by three cultural entrepreneurs: Dieuwertje Wijsmuller, Kathy Marchand and Jolande Otten. Every other week, Ms. Kurvers, owner of the OODE gallery, travels to the foundation’s 15,000-square-foot warehouse in the Dutch town of ’s-Hertogenbosch, where it catalogs and prepares for sale some 15,000 objects and works of fine art. She’s stumbled across “finds” such as work by contemporary artists like Robbie Cornelissen, who has exhibited in New York and Beijing, and the textile artist Claudy Jongstra, whose work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York. But mostly Ms. Kurvers is filtering through the stacks and piles to find something appealing. “It makes it easier for people to find the good works, and I bring them here to make them more accessible,” she said. One of the works recently displayed in her gallery was an abstract oil painting she found from 1985 by Pim Trooster, “Chien Méchant” (Bad Dog), which Ms. Kurvers priced at €695. Turning it over, one can see the labels and markings tracing the path it took to the gallery: It had been the property of the city of Utrecht, exhibited in various places, and priced at one time for €5,000.


The Foundation of Disinherited Goods’ first assignment was to dismantle the collection of about 6,600 antique typewriters and other writing implements from the Scryption Museum, which had been devoted to written communications before losing its funding and closing in 2011. Next, the municipality of Utrecht asked the foundation to clear out 5,000 works of fine art from its collections scattered among three different storage facilities, often in deplorable conditions, said Ms. Wijsmuller, the foundation co-founder. Ms. Wijsmuller said her group first Googled 900 artists whose work was in the collection, emailed them all, sent two letters, and posted an advertisement in a national artists’ magazine. About 600 responded, and only 10 wanted to buy back their works. “Almost everyone said, ‘please make sure that it’s seen again and that someone who will love the work will buy it,”’ she said. There are 30 million artworks and objects in art institutions’ collections in the Netherlands, distributed across about 420 museums, “of which only one percent is visible ever,” Ms. Wijsmuller said. Objects that have a “loving home,” where they can be appreciated by real people, are better off than those in storage for years on end, she said. “More than 20 million museum objects are never seen,” she said. “I think that’s a shame.”