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Michelangelo’s Taddeo Tondo.
Michelangelo’s Taddeo Tondo.

Royal Academy Weighs Selling Michelangelo Tondo Against Loss of 150 Employees

London’s cash-strapped Royal Academy is contemplating the sale of a Michelangelo masterpiece, the 515-year-old Taddeo Tondo, as a means of raising funds and staving off the otherwise inevitable layoffs of 150 staff members, the Guardian has reported. It is estimated that the sale of the marble work—the only sculpture by Michelangelo held by a British institution—would net over $127 million, enough to get the tottering institution back on its feet.

The Royal Academy was in dire straits prior to the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, having overextended by borrowing to build a $74 million expansion to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2018. Now, unable to bring in money through the usual routes—ticket and shop sales, membership fees, and donations—the gallery must contend with a $10.3 million shortfall. Last week, officials announced that they expected to have to lay off 40 percent of staff, or some 150 employees, to cut costs.

The issue has not unexpectedly proven divisive, drawing a line between those Royal Academicians who believe that the gallery would be abandoning its mission by selling the work, and those who argue that the work, an anomaly within the gallery’s collection, would find a more suitable home in an institution such as the National Gallery and that a sale would make the Royal Academy “financially secure for years to come.”

The Royal Academy is not alone in its dilemma; New York’s Brooklyn Museum announced last week that it would deaccession a dozen little- or never-shown works in order to make up for a budget shortfall. Director Anne Pasternak told the New York Times the decision to do so was “hard” but in the best interests of the museum and its contents. “What’s more core,” she asked, “having an appropriately sized conservation team or works that don’t see the light of day in a collection?”

The fate of the Michelangelo tondo is to be discussed this week at a virtual annual general meeting of the Royal Academy’s members.