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Sometimes museums get into trouble - deep trouble. Not because they damage art or let it get stolen. It's because they sell it. The Delaware Art Museum is the latest target of the art world's ire. It sold one painting from its collection to try and tackle a debt. And then, in the past few days, came revelations that two more paintings are up for sale. The controversy relates to a very serious museum practice with a very unremarkable name. NPR's Elizabeth Blair explains.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: I figure a good place to introduce this practice is right outside the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Can you read that word for me?

JEAN-FRANCOIS FALACHE: Deaccessioning.

BLAIR: Do know what it means?

FALACHE: Hmm.

DALE GUY: Deaccessioning?

JIM POHLMAN: Deaccessioning - no, I have no clue what it means.

BLAIR: So don't worry if, like Jean-Francois Falache, Dale Guy, and Jim Pohlman, you don't understand the word deaccessioning either. To explain this museum practice and the rules around it, let's take the example of the Delaware Art Museum or, as one blogger put it, the Disgraced Delaware Art Museum.

The museum has done something considered so egregious in the museum community, it's been sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors, an umbrella organization with more than 200 members. Trustees of the Delaware Museum are trying to pay off a $19.8 million debt for a building expansion and replenish its endowment. So in June, they decided to deaccession a painting in their collection by selling it at auction - a big no-no.

SUSAN TAYLOR: The proceeds from the sale or the funds from deaccessioning can only be used to buy other works of art.

BLAIR: Susan Taylor is director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the current president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which came up with the rules around deaccessioning. And the AAMD's sanctions can be tough. Other museums won't let you borrow their art, and it's hard to get loans.

TAYLOR: 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.

BLAIR: The Delaware Art Museum declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a Q and A on their website, trustees say, they've tried for five years to find ways to pay off the debt, including cuts to museum staff and refinancing. They now plan to sell two more works.

Now, deaccessioning is not forbidden. According to the guidelines, art can be sold if, for example, it's of poor quality or it turns out to be fake. The thorny issue is really the guideline that says, the money from the sale can only be used to buy more art. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly states that the AAMD guidelines allow for art to be sold if it's a fake. In fact, the guidelines do not explicitly state that fraudulent work can be sold. They say only that museums can deaccession — remove or dispose of — work that is "determined to be false or fraudulent." The AAMD goes on to say, "In disposing of or retaining a presumed forgery, the museum shall consider all related ethical issues including the consequences of returning the work to the market."]

MARION MANEKER: Maybe that museum doesn't need any more art.

BLAIR: Marion Maneker publishes the Art Market Monitor. He says, the AMD's guidelines makes sense when things are going well. But what about those cases museum is in such dire straits, it risks closing altogether?

MANEKER: Once you've decided to sell a work of art, what you end up with is money, and money is fungible. And saying that that money has to be cordoned off and only used for art doesn't address the realities of running any sort of museum. An art museum has to have the ability to breathe and circulate like any other organic body.

BLAIR: Deaccessioning has been a huge issue in Detroit. When the city declared bankruptcy, it had to put all of its assets on the table. And get this - the art collection is the city's most valuable asset. But Detroit's attorney general said, the art cannot be sold because it's a public trust. Graham Beal is director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. He says, museums need to think very carefully about the future before even considering a sale.

GRAHAM BEAL: During the Depression, when the DIA almost closed, there was no talk of selling art whatsoever. But if they had, they would probably have sold their new van Gogh painting - the first enter a U.S. museum - or the same with the Matisse - our great Matisse. We wouldn't have them now.

BLAIR: The folks I talked to on the National Mall still didn't quite understand the logic behind the rules around deaccessioning. Either you depend on deep-pocketed donors or, says Jim Pohlman...

POHLMAN: Then I think you have to do what you have to do. And that might be to sell a couple pieces of art. You know, not necessarily the ones that you have that are meant to draw people in. Those are sacred. You keep those. But, I mean, they all have stuff laying around in their basement that they only bring out periodically. Dump those.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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