Fintan O’Toole: The ‘deaccessioning’ of art – an ugly word for an ugly deed

‘The tale of the Beit paintings merely puts some more glamorous touches to a drearily familiar canvas’

It is an awkward word for an awkward action: deaccessioning. The very fact that it was necessary to make up a new word for it suggests that what is going on with the sale of paintings from the Beit collection at Russborough House is something that could not have been imagined in the 20th century.

When far-sighted collectors such as Alfred Beit left their artworks for the public benefit (in Beit's case, the Irish public), they never imagined the collections would be broken up and flogged off piece by piece.

Deaccessioning would have sounded to them like what it is – an ugly word for an ugly deed, a strange distortion of the purpose of public collections. Yet some very important paintings, including two by one of the greatest of all artists (Peter Paul Rubens), are being offered for sale by the Beit Foundation at Christie's in London on July 9th.

The Rubens pictures are, or should be, real adornments to Irish cultural life. They were meant to be enjoyed by the Irish public. But there was no public consultation about their sale.


Deaccessioning has become a big issue in the US in recent years, as public art museums, starved of proper funding, have come under pressure to privatise parts of their collections in a buoyant art market. But even in the extreme case of the bankrupt city of Detroit, the Michigan attorney general last year ruled out proposals to treat the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts as collateral for creditors, pointing out they are, after all, not just property to be sold.

The guiding truth on this whole issue should be that laid down by Susan Taylor, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors in the US: "The principle for us is that works of art shouldn't be considered liquid assets to be converted into cash. They're records of human creativity that are held in the public trust."

Familiar canvas

But what is “the public trust” and who guards it? These are, of course, questions that are especially pointed in


. The tale of the Beit paintings merely puts some more glamorous touches to a drearily familiar canvas.

At every stage there is a problem that is all too common: the lack of a coherent vision for the future of Russborough House; the secretive export of major cultural assets behind the backs of Irish citizens; the tangled intimacy of Irish institutions in which the director of the National Gallery is both a trustee of the foundation selling the pictures and the person who signs off on the export licence that allows them to be hocked abroad; laws passed by the Dáil years ago but never implemented; and, above all, the failure of Government to do more than shrug its shoulders.

This is not a story about individual villains, but about public policy. It is easy to have sympathy with Judith Woodworth and her board at Russborough, who have been left in charge of a great house and a major art collection with no plan for their maintenance and development.

Woodworth herself pointed to this unsustainability in The Irish Times (June 1st). The dilemma she articulated is real. But funding Russborough by selling off its treasures is not sustainable, either. It's the kind of short-term panic measure that comes to seem acceptable only in a vacuum of public policy.

Or perhaps, more accurately, three vacuums.

There's an absence of official thought on the future of places such as Russborough. The statutory Heritage Council, which is an excellent organisation, has been almost destroyed, with its funding cut from €22 million annually to €7 million and deeply disruptive (eventually abandoned) proposals to abolish it as an independent entity.

Secondly, the legislative framework is a mess. The Dáil actually passed legislation as far back as 1997 to provide criteria under which export licences for artworks could be refused. But the ministerial orders required to bring this legislation into force have never been passed, making the whole system a sham. A “review of the process around export licences” has been under way since last year, presumably with an urgency reflected in the way the loopholes continue to gape open.

Political direction

Thirdly, of course, there is a vacuum of political direction from the Department of Arts, Heritage and


, an arm of government that has more or less gone to seed under the present Government.

Asked in the Dáil about the Beit sales in May, Minister Heather Humphreys said merely that "the administration of the Beit Foundation, which owns and operates Russborough House, is a matter for the trustees and my department has no role in the matter".

Her belated announcement that she hopes to meet Woodworth this week is all too typical of a department whose passivity has increased in line with its growing distance from the centre of political clout.

One of the best of the Beit paintings due to be sold at Christie's is David Teniers's depiction of a Flemish country dance, the Kermesse. As a work of art, it is delightfully anarchic, with groups of people dancing, shouting, pointing and reeling with intoxication.

As a depiction for the dance around the notion of the “public trust” in this whole affair, it is all too symbolic.