Earlier this year, the museum's board voted to sell up to four works in its 12,500-piece collection to raise $30 million toward the repayment of $19.8 million in bond debt from a 2005 expansion and to replenish the museum's endowment. In June, after the museum sold William Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil for $4.25 million — roughly half of the low-end estimate auction house Christie's had appraised the painting at — the museum was censured by the Association of Art Museum Directors, losing its accreditation and ability to receive works on loan from other museums.
Undeterred, the museum plans to auction off Winslow Homer's Milking Time and Alexander Calder's Black Crescent in the fall, said board chair Gerret Copeland. Given the low price the Hunt fetched at auction, however, museum officials are now considering holding on to the fourth work they had planned to auction, although they may change their minds if the other two works fail to bring in enough to repay the debt, Copeland told the News Journal.
According to critics, the museum's plight demonstrates how spending lavish sums to renovate and enlarge art museums is no guarantee the projects will pay for themselves. Membership at the Delaware Art Museum, for example, is down to sixteen hundred households, from a peak of about three thousand households in 2001. At the same time, selling artwork to fund a museum's operations, as opposed to acquisitions, is widely viewed as self-defeating.
"We just want to get rid of the debt," Copeland told the News Journal. "The pipe dream was that we could turn around and replenish the pot."