When the Field Museum sold more than 30 works of 19th-century Western art for millions of dollars in 2004, it eased controversy by announcing plans to spend the proceeds on new artifacts and by holding on to four of the best paintings from the collection.
But within seven years, the museum had sold off the four remaining works by famed artist George Catlin and used some of the money to create a fund whose earnings would go toward certain staff salaries.
Since then, records show, some scientists and executives at the Field have considered selling other treasures.
In late 2010, on the recommendation of a financial consulting firm, the museum went through its collections to determine whether any items could be sold. And this year, a committee of scientists and executives tasked with evaluating the museum's financial situation suggested in a report to the president that the museum's rare book collection could fetch up to $50 million.
Such moves often are a signal that a museum is under financial stress, museum scholars say. Several said using collections sales to fund salaries skirts the edge of preferred museum practice.
The Field reported in December that it is planning significant budget cuts — including slashing millions from scientific research — after a decade of capital projects and expansions left the institution heavily burdened with debt.
Field spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea said in written responses to questions that the museum has acted in accordance with "all applicable ethical principles" concerning its collections and that the sale of the Catlins was not initiated for budgetary reasons. No sales of collection items are pending, she said.
"The museum has made careful decisions as to how to use its assets to best steward its collections overall," O'Shea said.
She said the Field's decision to put collections income toward salaries of staff who care for artifacts and specimens was the result of "careful contemplation" and that it is an appropriate use of collections funds.
"Care and conservation of collection items is an integral part of the maintenance of a natural history collection," O'Shea said in a statement. "And in fact, such care is essential to allow the museum to fulfill its obligations to the public with regard to those collections."
Selling items from collections is not uncommon at U.S. museums as a practical way to weed out less-critical works and free up resources for new purchases. But such sales often lead to controversy because preserving paintings and artifacts is so central to a museum's mission.
"The big idea, the public trust, (is that) you don't have these things to buy them and sell them to make money off them," said Julie Hart, senior director of museum standards and excellence at the American Alliance of Museums.
Sometimes works put up for sale are scooped up by private collectors, putting them off-limits to the public forever. Several Catlin scholars said they had not seen any of the 35 Catlin paintings resurface since the Field sold them.
Sales of items from the collections can also alienate donors; former Field Museum trustee Edward Hirschland said the 2004 auction motivated him to resign from the board and cancel plans to donate his extensive library collection to the Field.
"Museums are about collections," said Martha Morris, assistant director of the museum studies program at George Washington University. "If you continue to sell them off and not replenish them, then you're squandering your critical asset, which is related to the core mission of the organization."
Sale funds care
The Field Museum acquired its Catlin paintings soon after it opened in 1893. According to a statement by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where his work is also displayed, "Catlin was the first major artist to travel beyond the Mississippi to record what he called the 'manners and customs' of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life."
When the Field decided to sell most of its Catlins in 2004, the Tribune reported that anthropologists at the museum had determined that the paintings did not fit within the Field's mission and that its mission would be better served by using proceeds from the sale to buy more recent cultural artifacts and more work by non-Western artists.
A Field news release said the money raised at auction would be used to fund new purchases.
"Proceeds from the sale will allow the Museum to establish a special endowment that will allow the Museum to acquire new objects and specimens," then-Field Museum President John McCarter said in the release, a statement reaffirmed in the museum's 2005 audited financial statements.