TAM’s sale of Chinese items is justified

The News TribuneMarch 5, 2013 

Ever received a gift that was great at first, but down the road just didn’t fit into your decor or closet?

Your options: Throw it away, donate it to charity, regift it or sell it.

The Tacoma Art Museum has found itself in that predicament with some of the items donated to it over the years. It has chosen to sell several gifts made to its permanent collection to reach its goal of $2.5 million for acquisitions in line with its focus on Northwest art. This practice – called deaccessioning – is common with museums.

But the sale of a collection of Chinese robes and jades has raised some hackles. They were donated in 1976 by the late John and Mary Young, children of Chinese immigrants. The last time any of the collection was shown at TAM was in 1996.

The gift was made with no strings attached, so TAM was under no obligation to maintain the collection in perpetuity. Some of the items sold at auction in December for much higher than their appraised value, and more are slated for sale March 12. Newly wealthy Chinese buyers have been acquiring items of cultural value to their country and bringing them home – and that was reflected in the prices.

Some critics of TAM’s decision to sell the items say that it’s akin to a second expulsion of the Chinese from Tacoma in 1885. That hyperbole trivializes the tragedy of a truly shameful event and ignores the fact that the museum has pledged to use proceeds from the sale to buy works by Chinese-American artists of the Northwest.

This region does have a historical link to China through the many Chinese who came here to work. But their history can’t be illustrated by displaying robes and jades worn by nobles of the Qing dynasty. Doing so would be akin to honoring the region’s Nordic heritage by showing gowns and jewelry worn by aristocrats back in Scandinavia in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Although the museum probably could have been more sensitive to the Youngs’ children in the way it handled the sale, it should not be faulted for deciding that the items have a higher purpose than sitting in storage. Better that such exquisite robes and jades go somewhere they can be enjoyed the way the Youngs enjoyed them – as touchstones of their cultural past – and help finance the museum’s future at the same time.

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