Is bad art worth something?

Earlier this week I read a post on Hyperallergic (which is a fantastic blog that you should read as soon as you’re done with this post!) about the Georgia Museum of Art’s interesting new deaccession ideas. For the unaware, deaccessioning is the process of a museum or gallery selling off works of art it owns to raise funds – which are usually used to purchase new art for the collection.

Deaccessioning has been a hot topic all around the US this week – an article in Detroit’s Free Press from May 24th mentioned the Detroit Institute of Art is looking into selling off some of its collection to pay the city’s debts. Setting aside the fact that I feel this idea is wrong on so many levels (this is a rant worth an entire future blog post), let’s look at one very interesting question the general deaccessioning process brings up: how do you decide what to cull from the collection?

Almost every museum in the world can only show a fraction of their collection at any given time (if you can find one that doesn’t do this, I’ll be shocked). One of the museums I’ve worked at in the past only had room to display 10% of their relatively small collection; the percentage was even less if gallery space was given over to exhibitions. With so little space, museums display their most prized possessions. Their masterpieces. The good art.

But what about the bad art? Just because a curator deems it bad, or worse than other pieces in the collection, should it just be sold off? The DIA is essentially arguing that because they have some extra works lying around, they should sell them. And perhaps those works would get better exposure elsewhere… but maybe the real problem is exactly that all this extra (read: inferior) art is only lying around in storage rooms.

One of my favorite art-related articles was published by Will Gompertz in the Wall Street Journal last October. In it, Gompertz argues that museums should – nay, have an obligation to – display all of their art. That means the good and the bad should be hung up on the walls, precisely so that viewers can decide for themselves why we call good art “good” and bad art “bad.” It’s entirely possible that some viewers won’t agree with the labels. Maybe a “bad” painting is actually pretty good to some. Who are the curators to decide what is worth displaying without even consulting the public? Just because a painting doesn’t have a famous signature in the corner doesn’t mean it’s not any good.

Gompertz’s article highlights a museum practice that I also adore – that of having guest curators come in and design a special exhibition composed entirely from a museum’s own collection. Fresh eyes can mean that pieces get pulled from storage that otherwise might languish there for years.

So why don’t more museums put on exhibitions like this? The fact of the matter is, such shows don’t attract the big crowds, and without the big crowds, the museums won’t get the funding they need to stay open. Can you imagine the outrage if the Louvre decided to put the Mona Lisa away in favor of showing the painting at the top of this blog post? But it’s the age-old question of the tree in the empty forest – if “bad” art never leaves the storage room and no one ever sees it, is it even worth anything at all?

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