After 38 years of operation, the Powers Museum closed its doors last year. The small museum in Carthage, Missouri featured period clothing and furniture, newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs to depict life in this rural southwestern Missouri town from 1870 to 1940.
Immediately after deciding to close due to insurmountable budget concerns, the Powers Museum board members found themselves faced with a new challenge: what to do with their collection.
This 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 money was running out, says the museum’s last chairman of the board, Kavan Stull. Young people “just didn’t care what a butter churn looked like or what kind of shoes a person wore in 1900,” says Stull.
When a museum closes, where to find new homes for its often unique content is a challenge that many councils have faced in recent years, as the budgetary constraints and additional financial constraints of Covid-19 and its protocols and lockdowns are taking their toll.
Typically, the value, size and significance of a closed museum’s collection dictate what happens – whether it is transferred in whole or in part to other institutions or whether it is dismantled and sold. to individual buyers. The Philadelphia Museum of History, which closed in 2018 after years of declining attendance, is handing over its 130,000 artifacts from the city’s history to Drexel University. The collection of 2,000 pieces of arms and armor once found at the Worcester, Mass.-based Higgins Armory, which closed in 2013, went to the nearby Worcester Museum of Art. In 2009, much of the now-defunct Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri was sold at Christie’s for just under $3 million.
Lesser-known collections are often sold or given away piecemeal. The Powers collection, for example, was dismantled and donated to other institutions in the region. The furniture went to a nonprofit organization in Joplin, Missouri, which restores old homes. Clothing was transferred to the Joplin Mining Museum. An entry counter was donated to the Harry S Truman Birthplace Historic Site in Lamar, Mo. The display cases and shelves were donated, respectively, to the Freedom of Flight Museum in Webb City and the County Library of Neosho Newton. Photographs and newspaper clippings went to the Carthage library.
“There was also a piano,” Mr. Stull says. “I have sold it.”
Before selling or dispersing anything, it is important to establish who the coins actually belong to. In a for-profit institution, the founder is probably the owner and can do with the items as he sees fit. In a non-profit museum, objects are more likely to belong to the institution itself. There may be complications, for example, if a given object entered a museum collection with restrictions (eg the piece must be on permanent display or never be sold). A restricted object is not considered to belong entirely to the museum. To remove any restrictions, museum officials should contact the donor or go to court if the donor is deceased.
Who is the owner?
Susana Smith Bautista, who became director of the Pasadena (California) Art Museum in 2017, began closing it permanently the following year. She says she “has been quick to look for papers” showing how and when the pieces entered the museum’s collection. “For works of art for which we could not find documentation, or the documentation did not require us to return it to the artist/donor,” she says, “we tried to think of museums that would benefit the more of these works, and so we approached them with the offer.
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When museums put collections on sale, it can be an opportunity for individual collectors. The Museum of Pinball in Banning, California closed in 2021 and sold most of its collection at auction. Ms. Bautista recommends that collectors “stay close to the collections that interest you and maintain personal connections with curators and others connected to those museums” to stay ahead of competitors for the same items.
Private buyers can sometimes buy items directly from a museum that is closing, especially if they owe money and need to sell items to settle their debts. “A buyer could call the executive director to request the purchase of one or more items,” says Jason DeJonker, a bankruptcy attorney in the Chicago office of law firm Bryan Cave.
Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Mass. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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