Pollock MuralIn the wake of the worldwide financial crisis, is art still an investment worth holding onto? Or is the payout from selling a valuable work too tempting to refuse? As the economy teeters and budgets constrict, museums and institutions around the country are considering the dilemma of selling art to pay the bills—setting off heated debates about  the moral and social pitfalls of viewing art as an untapped financial resource instead of a priceless public good.

Such was the case this summer, when, just weeks after flooding destroyed much of the University of Iowa’s campus, Iowa Board of Regents member Michael Gartner asked for an appraisal of Mural, Jackson Pollock’s 8’x20’ painting and the crown jewel of the school’s museum. (The piece was donated by Peggy Guggenheim herself.) Media outlets from the Des Moines Register (article not available online) all the way to Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal caught wind of the affair and sounded the alarm. Could a sale be on its way? How dare university officials sniff around this magnificent piece as if it were a piggy bank waiting to be smashed open! Were they seriously considering selling part of the public’s property when insurance and FEMA funds were already on their way?

After almost two months of silence, the Board of Regents finally stated once and for all that the painting would not be sold; no further explanation was given. It could have been that the administration was merely curious about the painting’s value, and looked into it at the most inopportune time possible—or that the condemnation was so vehement that the regents retreated, tail tucked between their legs.

The idea of selling, trading, or auctioning parts of a collection—a practice known as deaccessioning—is more common than we think. Museums often look to clear out lower-quality works in order to purchase new ones or to simply free up space for the rest of their collections. As art buyer Lisa Hunter said on her blog, “If you could trade four mediocre Renoirs for one great Matisse, wouldn’t you do it, too?”

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which establishes moral and ethical standards for its 190 member museums, has set down guidelines for museums wishing to trim or adjust their collections. Art should be sold or auctioned only for the benefit of the rest of the collection, and proceeds from that sale should be used only for the augmentation of the current collection. These practices ensure that mutual benefit is extended to the museum and the public, for whom the art and the museums exist.

The association is adamant that deaccessioning not occur “in reaction to the exigencies of a particular moment”—a moment like, say, flood damage to the museum’s governing institution.