Monday, June 1, 2009



When a collection item is deemed to be no longer suitable for either exhibition or study, as recently happened to a LACMA-owned Cranach, it can either be deaccessioned or it can be recycled.

Museum deaccessioning through auction or private sale is typically framed as a museum’s collection items being placed into a more suitable home, where they will be put to better use than simply sitting in museum storage. However, nothing can change the fact that the museum has decided that the deaccessioned items are useless to them, and that they no longer take an interest in preserving them for the future. Items slated for deaccessioning are, as far as the museum is concerned, trash. The only guarantee that a deaccessioned item might be cared for in the future is the large sum of money that might be paid for it. We would like to assume that the mid-six-figures price tag LACMA has placed on its Cranach would encourage the painting’s next owner to take extremely good care of this valuable object. However, buyers might have anything in mind. Marie Antoinette was known to slice up works by Boucher and Fragonard in order to decoupage fragments of the paintings onto furniture. More recently, we could look to the example of Martin Kippenberger turning a Gerhard Richter painting into a table.

While some may see these as terrible acts of destruction, they are actually landmark acts of art recycling. We are all being encouraged to recycle as much as possible today, and perhaps museums can look to this model too. What if an inferior Cranach could be turned into a superior someone else?

There is, in fact, at least one collection that has adapted this model: NASA. In over forty years of commissioning artworks, The NASA Art Program has not only loaned items from their collection to artists for inspiration (Norman Rockwell was able to borrow a spacesuit) but it has also donated items for use as raw material for art works. Chakaia Booker, for instance, ripped apart a space shuttle tire for use in a rubber sculpture. E.V. Day used spare parts from a Mars Rover to house a diorama.

Most unwanted collection items could make terrific raw materials for both artworks and everyday items as well. Paintings can be gessoed over and used for new paintings. If the canvas is still in good shape, it could be used to make deck chairs, totes, or numerous other items. Any large picture frame can easily be transformed into a striking, yet practical, ladder. A Giacometti would make a superb table lamp. Readymade sculptures, such as Chris Burden’s Urban Light (itself an act of recycling), can be returned to their original purpose. Metal sculptures can be melted and recycled into door handles, pipe fittings, bells, and cannons. Marble sculpture, when reduced to chips, can be used in landscaping or making cement. Prints, drawings, and watercolors can be turned into envelopes, paper bags, bookmarks, and scratch paper. Tickets for an exhibition can be printed on items deemed not appropriate for the exhibition. The options are limitless.