The Future of the Museum: In the war between Directors and Boards, it’s the Art that Pays.

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE.

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE.

 

To the long list of stripped gallery walls will now unfortunately be added the Delaware Art Museum. Though the state it represents is small, its collection boasts one of the largest selections of Pre-Raphaelite art (outside of the U.K.), important pieces from Brandywine River School artists Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, and a large number of paintings of the New York Ashcan School. In short, this collection offers visitors a window onto influential American and English artists and illustrators of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that is both varied and focused in its depth. Those donors who gave to the Museum after it opened in 1912 were committed to their own individual collecting practices as well as to promoting the well-being of arts education and appreciation in their state. However, as has been the case with many large and small cultural institutions in recent years, boards of trustees are less and less willing to sacrifice new construction to protect the original collection.

 

The Delaware Art Museum announced March 26 that it intends to repay its $19.8 million in bond debt by the sale of four (as yet unnamed) works from its permanent collection. This sale, projected at $30 million, is also aimed at “[replenishing] the Museum’s endowment, which will place the Museum on a firm financial basis for the future.” The Museum also states in its press release that: “No works of art acquired through gift or bequest will be part of the sale.” How is it, may we ask, that the Museum came to acquire $19.8 million in debt? Beyond stock market woes from the 2008 crash are lingering bond debts exacerbated from its 2005 building expansion.[1]

 

This was, according to new CEO Mike Miller, the only other option beyond completely shuttering the Museum’s doors.[2] The decision to sell four works from the collection has brought on scolding from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), though Miller seems to have acknowledged this was worth it. Miller, to be clear, has no background in the arts. He came in, as a replacement for the Museum’s former director Danielle Rice, with a background as CFO of a pharmaceutical company. President of AAMD Timothy Rub (Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) has conveyed a good deal of criticism towards the Delaware Board’s decision.  They failed to take his advice to go public with their debt and approve the sale after their director had left for a better opportunity:  “Who was the advocate at the museum now from the curatorial or directorial side to make the case for maintaining the integrity of the collection?”  The professional staff at the Delaware Art Museum will now be the ones to bear the brunt of the consequences from this unsanctioned sale. It must also be noted that only one sale in the past 10 years has been sanctioned for the sake of financial crisis. Exhibition loans and other types of collaboration between Delaware’s collection and the several hundred museums that are members of AAMD can be halted all because of their Board’s decision. [3]

 

Rub has also conveyed disappointment that the Board failed to look into other options for recovering their finances: “The stewardship of a collection is one of our paramount responsibilities and when we begin to look at pieces of a collection as fungible resources that can be monetized we are starting down a very slippery slope.” [4] Both the AAM and AAMD have issued strong statements against the Delaware Art Museum’s Board for their actions. President Ford Bell (of AAM) has not revoked their accreditation, but the finger wagging they received still has a good deal of potency:

“The Delaware Art Museum’s announcement that it will sell four works from the collection in order to pay its debts and support its endowment is a flagrant violation of the AAM standard for U.S. museums, succinctly embodied in this enduring principle of our field: the museum is there to save the collection; the collection is not there to save the museum.” [5]

Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875. Collecton; Delaware Art Museum

Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875. Collecton; Delaware Art Museum

CEO Miller has remained silent to recent accusations that a painting by landscape artist Winslow Homer, Milking Time (1875), might be one of the four to be sold. This piece is known to be one of the masterpieces of the collection. When it was noticed that the painting had been removed from the Museum’s wall as well as its online collection database, Miller told the press “You can make your own speculations.”[6]

 

Lee Rosenbaum’s interview with the Museum’s former director Danielle Rice is quite eye-opening. Essentially, Rice reveals what a jaded museum professional would unfortunately learn to expect from a board of trustees feeling the financial pinch.[7]

ROSENBAUM: Did you know this was coming?

RICE: Of course I did! Every single trustee of every single museum board always thinks, “We can always sell art.” So from the minute I stepped into the place, I was saying to them, “No, you can’t do that.

RICE: What I think happened was that my leaving opened up the door for them to take this path, which was to say: “We won’t get a new director. We’ll do this in this interim period, and when a new director comes in, they won’t have the financial problem. They’ll have an image issue and a sanction issue to deal with, but at least we will have done the deed, in between professional directors. Any professional director worth his salt could not have embarked on this kind of thing…I think selling art is one of those magic bullets that all trustees fantasize about. They don’t understand the more abstract and difficult concept of public trust.

 

Exhibition Gallery at the Delaware Art Museum. Courtesy : In Wilmington Magazine

Exhibition Gallery at the Delaware Art Museum. Courtesy : In Wilmington Magazine

According to last month’s press release from the Museum: “This is a singular event.”[8] And yet, once an unsanctioned sale of artworks to cover a Museum’s debt  occurs, it sets a terrifying precedent. The Delaware Board’s action can open the floodgates for boards of other museums facing similar financial crises that do not see any other options in sight. Beyond neglecting to protect the artworks that do go off to auction, one must consider how this will impact the care given to the pieces that remain (for now) in the collection. Will a board’s responsibility to safeguard artistic heritage all too easily succumb to financial pressures when funds from other donors dry up? Does money come first, and art second? Is a museum no longer a cultural institution, but now a business to develop and streamline for efficiency? What will now be expected of the Delaware Board since the lines have been crossed? Even the giant Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed itself to recently balance out its $4.4 million deficit from 2013 with the sale of 3,290 artworks this very month.[9]

As has been expressed in the Times‘ coverage of Delaware’s situation, the sale of collection items to make up for capital or operational expenses is seriously considered as an “ethical violation, a betrayal of a museum’s role of holding art in public trust.” [10] One member of the Museum’s collections committee, but not a trustee, recently spoke out with disdain: “A lot of us in the community, myself included, were blindsided by this.” This same committee member has also brought to light the fact that other Delaware cultural institutions (Delaware Theatre Company, Delaware Symphony Orchestra) had gone through similar post-recession crisis, but still came out on the other side without such great losses on the horizon.[11]

 

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Veronica Veronese, 1872. Collection: Delaware Art Museum

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Veronica Veronese, 1872. Collection: Delaware Art Museum

Donn Zaretsky, of the UK-based art law blog, brings Delaware’s situation into wider context by comparing it to lack of fuss given when the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s recent deaccession and sale of a masterpiece Hopper painting in order to purchase pieces of contemporary art in August 2013. [12]  An unfortunate reaction from a major Delaware news source demonstrates the lack of conviction held by some members of the local public impacted by this sale:

“Let’s be realistic though. No one likes the idea. But the suggestion from the association and other critics that museum distribute its collection to other museums to keep the art out of private hands is foolish. The sale of the four pieces would keep the museum open here. More than 60,000 people visit the museum each year. They would be deprived of a Delaware treasure if that were to happen.” [13] Is there not a more respectful, diligent way for the Board to responsibly protect their “Delaware treasure”?

What is this disconnect happening between museums and the public where failure to see a collection’s broader cultural value leads to a disavowal of these great resources? When boards fluster under the weight of crippling debt, and the public seems to have not seen this coming, where do we start rebuild the bridges between the modern public and the artistic heritage of the past?

 

By Ruth Osborne

 

[1] “Press Statement: Delaware Art Museum Board of Trustees Vote to Retire Debt,” 26 March 2014. Delaware Art Museum. http://www.delart.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Press-Statement.pdf (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[2] Randy Kennedy, “Delaware Art Museum Will Sell Works to Pay Off Debt,” 26 March 2014. New York Times. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/delaware-art-museum-will-sell-works-to-pay-off-debt/   (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[3]”Museum to sell art to pay debt,” 27 March 2014. Delaware Online. The News Journal. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/entertainment/arts/2014/03/26/delaware-art-museum-sell-four-works/6913117/ (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[4]Kennedy.

[5] Lee Rosenbaum, “AAM Condemns Delaware Art Museum’s Deaccessions,” 27 March 2014. CultureGrrl.  http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2014/03/aam-condemns-delaware-art-museums-deaccessions.html (last accessed 17 April 2014).

[6] Margie Fishman, “Is Winsow Homer painting headed for sale?,” Delaware Online. The News Journal. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2014/04/12/sunday-preview-winslow-homer-painting-headed-sale/7637959/ (last accessed 16 April 2014).

[7] Lee Rosenbaum, “Delaware Art Museum’s Deaccession Debacle: My Q&A with Its Former Director, Danielle Rice,” 2 April 2014. CultureGrrl. Arts Journal. http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2014/04/delaware-art-museums-deaccession-debacle-my-qa-with-its-former-director-danielle-rice.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+artsjournal%2FXHaF+%28CultureGrrl%29 (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[8]”Q&A,” November 2013. Delaware Art Museum. http://www.delart.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/PublicQandA_2.pdf (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[9] “Museums: Balance,” in AMA Newsletter. No. 146 (3 April 2014). Art Media Agency, 7.

[10] Kennedy.

[11] Fishman.

[12] Donn Zaretsky, “How to be ethical in the art world,” 27 March 2014. The Art Law Blog. http://theartlawblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/how-to-be-ethical-in-art-world.html

[13] “Preserving art in a changing world,” 29 March 2014. Delaware Online. The News Journal.

http://www.delawareonline.com/story/opinion/editorials/2014/03/29/preserving-art-changing-world/7036289/ (last accessed 4 April 2014).

 

Sistine Ceiling 2.0: Restoration of the Carracci Gallery Frescoes.

Carracci Gallery, 2014

Carracci Gallery, 2014

This past February, announcements were made concerning the restoration project planned for the frescoes adorning the Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. This is no new thing for Annibale Carracci’s monumental cycle The Love of the Gods (1597-1606), which had already undergone “consolidation” only a few decades after completion under Baroque painter Carlo Maratta later in the seventeenth-century. [1] Since the beginning of the twentieth-century, the frescoes have undergone patched cleaning in 1923, 1936, and 1994 (though it is not clear just how much was accomplished during this latest effort beyond a general assessment of the issues).

Erkki Maillard, French Deputy Ambassador (right), and Bertrand du Vignaud, President of WMF Europe (right), in the Carracci Gallery. Courtesy - ANSAmed, 2014

Erkki Maillard, French Deputy Ambassador (right), and Bertrand du Vignaud, President of WMF Europe (right), in the Carracci Gallery. Courtesy – ANSAmed, 2014

The French government, which has inhabited the historic building since 1874, first opened the gallery and palazzo to the public in 1936. Today it houses both the French Embassy and the Ecole Française de Rome, with reportedly small groups of visitors coming to see the Carracci frescoes only by appointment. According to the project’s Press Release from the New York-based non-profit World Monuments Fund:

“Today conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling. The campaign of 1994, realized under the direction of the French Service des Monuments historiques, assembled information on the condition of the vault that led to some proposed solutions to conservation issues, but it was not possible at the time to secure sufficient funding to carry out the proposed treatments. The previous analysis will be helpful in developing the conservation program for the painted decorations, stucco, and gilding that adorn the room. Work is scheduled to begin this year and will be coordinated by WMF in collaboration with local heritage authorities and international experts.”

Besides WMF, the other groups that have joined together to help get the project off the ground are the French Embassy in Italy, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and the Foundation de l’Orangerie (connected with French banking giant BNP Paribas). [2]

 

 

Cracking of Carracci's  depiction of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. Courtesy - Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Cracking of Carracci’s depiction of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. Courtesy – Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Restorers will first go about cleaning off layers of dirt and old overpainting from areas that had been restored in previous years. They will then work to fill any extensive cracks and repair water damage. [3]  According to WMF, this is the first time in the gallery’s history that the side walls, in addition to the ceiling in its entirety, will be treated. No doubt there is much restorers hope to glean from this work, more so than a simple stabilization of Carracci’s 400 year-old masterpiece. It is also understood that this year-long project will likely uncover some secrets about the frescoes’ condition. As Italian culture ministry official Rossella Vodret said to the New York Times in 2012, the work of the restorers will hopefully aid in “determining which hands painted which section” – Annibale’s, Agostino’s, or others from their workshop. She added emphasis on the “scientific endeavor” of this project. Meanwhile, scholars who have shown concern towards this massive overhaul are deemed “purists.” [4]

Objections arise not because of any “purist” impulses but because of (well-founded) concerns about the complex nature and (intended or un-intended) aesthetic consequences of comprehensive, long term, high cost, high-profile, heavily sponsored programs that aim at a single definitive comprehension to a cluster of real, feared or assumed problems. And why should the matter be decided by scientists alone? In the Times’ coverage of this project two years ago, an interesting statement was made by Vodret: “We are certain that if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out.” [5]  But precisely which experts? What kind of one-sided expertise? Ancient works of art are primarily artistic and historical artifacts. Any proposed treatment must take those factors into consideration – and, certainly, scientists alone are not competent in those vital areas. For example, removing all previous (historic) repairs will likely expose injuries that gave rise to the repainting in the first place. If it does, will those injuries be repainted again to the standards and tastes of the twenty-first century or left as wrecked passages? There is talk of a threat from water infiltration. Is that a substantive threat? Does the roof leak? Do gutters need to be replaced? Is the building affected by rising damp?

More damage over illusionistic corner frescoes. Courtesy - Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

More damage over illusionistic corner frescoes. Courtesy – Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Is it just a scare? Alleged conservation threats that were cited in the past on other major projects can prove unfounded when challenged – as was the case with the claimed “glue pox” that was said (on no evidence) to be devouring the Sistine Chapel ceiling at a dramatically escalating rate.

The project, which is underway as of the beginning of March, was set in motion by a new committee of 30 scientific restoration specialists formed in 2009 to consider the ceiling’s treatments and make recommendations for future work. [5] The conglomerate of international non-profits mentioned above have chosen the reputable Italian restoration group ATI Farnese as the  to carry out the project. $200,000 of the 1 million euros this project will entail has been allocated to preliminary studies of the ceiling (a portion provided for specifically by the Italian government). [6] A sense of immediacy to protect pervades discussion of the work to be done: “The value placed on the gallery meant that it has been restored at times in the past, including an urgent fix ordered in 1994 when the ceiling threatened to collapse. Now, new cracks and leaks that threatened the masterpieces inside have demanded an immediate response to protect what many call a significant piece of cultural heritage. ” [7] French Deputy Ambassador Erkki Maillard lists issues of cracking along the side panels and the vault, concern for infiltration of water damage and lifting of paint, and “paintings obscured by time that also need to be cleaned.” [8]  These delicately and poignantly illusionistic frescoes run the risk of experiencing a traumatic face-lift. Restorers will likely uncover unfortunate remnants from the partial cleanings of the 1920s and 30s. This could, in turn, either lead them back to page one, or set them off on a path from which there is no return.

The grandiose treatment is projected to last at least until spring 2015, when the gallery will finally reopen to the public. One must also not fail to take into consideration the impact of the growing tourist industry on the newly-cleaned frescoes, once revealed. According to Maillard, the current policy for outside visitors is previously-reserved small weekly tours. [9]  While these will be put on hold during restoration over the next year, what might be the result of the frescoes unveiling next spring? Will it bring in a greater demand for viewings? How will the French Embassy respond to an increased interest in this monumental piece of Italian artistic heritage? The sharp rise in visitors to the Sistine Chapel in recent years has undoubtedly placed a new fear in the Vatican for the well-being of their own crowning masterpiece (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). The final statement from WMF as to the Carracci project’s importance: “Once completed, the current conservation project will allow the Palazzo Farnese and the Carracci gallery to be accessible to the public more regularly, following years of restricted access to this cultural treasure.” [10]

By Ruth C. Osborne

Guided tour through Carracci Gallery in February 2014. Courtesy - Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Guided tour through Carracci Gallery in February 2014. Courtesy – Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

 

——–

 

[1] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF Program: Field Project. World Monuments Fund. http://www.wmf.org/project/carracci-gallery-palazzo-farnese (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[2] Press Release: “World Monuments Fund & its Partners Announce Project to Restore The Famous Carracci Gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese,” http://www.wmf.org/sites/default/files/press_releases/Palazzo%20Farnese%20Release.pdf (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[3] Frances D’Emilio, AP, “French Embassy’s glorious ceiling in Renaissance palazzo to be rescued by modern day ‘Medicis’,” 26 February 2014. Newser. http://www.newser.com/article/5a9be14133f74636886aa0f1dde7e4e6/french-embassys-glorious-ceiling-in-renaissance-palazzo-to-be-rescued-by-modern-day-medicis.html (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[4] Elisabetta Povoledo, “Restoration Planned for Carracci Gallery in Rome,” New York Times. 10 October 2012. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/restoration-planned-for-carracci-gallery-in-rome/?

_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sandra Cordon, ANSA, “Palazzo Farnese’s Carracci gallery to shine anew: Restoration begins on Baroque masterpieces in French embassy,” 27 February 2014. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. http://www.lagazzettadelmezzogiorno.it/english/palazzo-farnese-s-carracci-gallery-to-shine-anew-no698007 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[7] Guillemette de la Borie  “À Rome, les Carrache sous bâche,” 27 February 2014. La Croix.

http://www.la-croix.com/Culture/Actualite/A-Rome-les-Carrache-sous-bache-2014-02-27-1113125 (last accessed 14 March 2014).

[8] Cordon.

[9] Borie.

[10] D’Emilio.

[11] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF.