When a Museum Closes, What Happens to Its Collection?

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More museums are finding out, as financial strains—thanks, in part, to pandemic lockdowns—have taken a toll on budgets

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That collection was largely the work of the late Marian Powers Winchester, who in 1981 left money to build a museum and an endowment to run it. But rising costs over the years meant that the money started to run out, says the museum’s last board president, Kavan Stull. Younger people “just weren’t interested in what a butter churn looks like or the type of shoes someone wore in 1900,” says Mr. Stull.

covid challenges
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When a museum closes, where to find new homes for its often unique contents is a challenge that many boards have to face in recent years, as budgetary constraints and additional financial strains from Covid-19 and its protocols and lockdowns take their toll.

Typically, the value, size and importance of a closed museum’s collection dictate what happens—whether it moves as a whole or in part to other institutions or gets broken up and sold to individual buyers. The Philadelphia History Museum, which closed in 2018 after years of declining attendance, is turning over its 130,000 artifacts of city history to Drexel University. The 2,000-piece collection of arms and armor once found in the Worcester, Mass.-based Higgins Armory, which closed in 2013, went to the nearby Worcester Art Museum. In 2009, much of the now-defunct Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Mo., was sold at Christie’s for just under $3 million.

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Lesser-known collections are often sold or donated piecemeal. The Powers collection, for example, was broken up and donated to other institutions in the region. Furniture went to a nonprofit in nearby Joplin, Mo., that restores old houses. Articles of clothing were transferred to the Joplin Mining Museum. An entranceway counter was given to the Harry S Truman Birthplace Historic Site in Lamar, Mo. The display cases and bookshelves were donated, respectively, to the Freedom of Flight Museum in Webb City and the Neosho Newton County Library. Photographs and newspaper clippings went to the library in Carthage.

“There was also a piano,” says Mr. Stull. “I sold it.”

Before selling or dispersing anything, it is important to establish who actually owns the pieces. In a for-profit institution, the founder likely is the owner and may do with items as he or she chooses. In a nonprofit museum, it is more likely that objects belong to the institution itself. There can be complications, for instance, if a donated object entered a museum collection with restrictions (such as, the piece must be permanently displayed or never sold). An object with restrictions isnt considered to be completely owned by the museum. To remove any restrictions, museum officials need to contact the donor, or go to court if the donor is deceased.

Who’s the Owner?

Susana Smith Bautista, who became director of the Pasadena (California) Art Museum in 2017, began permanently closing it the following year. She says she “scrambled to look for paperwork” indicating how and when the pieces came into the museum’s collection. “For the artwork where we could either not find any documentation, or the documentation didn’t require us to return it to the artist/donor,” she says, “we tried to think of museums that would most benefit from these works, and so we approached them with the offer.”

When museums do put collections up for sale, it can be an opportunity for individual collectors. The Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif., closed in 2021 and sold most of its collection through auction. Ms. Bautista recommends that collectors “stay close to the collections that you are interested in, and maintain personal connections with curators and others related to these museums” to stay ahead of competitors for the same objects.

Private buyers sometimes can purchase objects directly from a museum that is closing, particularly if it owes money and needs to sell items to square its debts. “A buyer could call the executive director to ask about purchasing one or more items,” says Jason DeJonker, a bankruptcy attorney at the law firm Bryan Cave’s Chicago office.

Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected]

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