2016-12-19 Victoria & Albert Museum Poster Saatchi & Saatchi
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Stewardship of Art in the Face of Museum “Sprawl”.

Ruth Osborne
2016-12-19 Zayed National Museum

Rendering of future Zayed National Museum. Courtesy: Foster + Partners.

 

 

 

 

 

Our recent post addressing corporate sponsorship and crowdfunding questions the funds behind the support of our artistic and cultural heritage in the past few decades. In that same vein, we felt it important to call to light where major collections are either dividing themselves across continents or are getting swallowed up by larger institutions. ArtWatch has been vigilant to address issues of collections stewardship and donor’s bequests since it became aware of the debate over the disruptive treatment and eventual move of the Barnes Collection from its original housing in Merion, PA in the 1990s. Our recent coverage has included such issues of museum “sprawl” as the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi (on which construction has yet to begin), as well as the British Museum’s promised loans to the Zayed National Museum (for which “[The British Museum] will receive a significant fee for the loan, which it needs to offset the impact of Government cuts.”). The following, we hope, helps paint a truer picture of how the art and museum world has been taking shape in recent years.

The issue at hand is: how is a collection being stewarded well, according to the original aims of its founders, when funds in the 21st century are more and more being diverted for large expansion projects and long-term loan relationships? Furthermore, what is the true aim behind such massive moves of artworks and exorbitant spending for new spaces by the latest trendy architects? What happens to collections that are forced to be broken up because of financial misconduct and over-spending on expansions? This has come into play in recent years with the Delaware Art Museum’s deaccessions (to shore up their finances after millions were shelled out for a 2005 expansion) and break up of the Corcoran Gallery of Art & College of Art + Design (when they lacked the $100 million needed to maintain their historic Beaux-Arts home in D.C.).

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

In the case of the Corcoran, both the collection and its historic building were acquired by mega institutions that, despite their professed best intentions, will likely end up simply swallowing the unique history of the Corcoran. This is already being seen in the great secrecy and mistrust that has characterized the first year of the College of Art + Design under helm of George Washington University. New administration has reportedly not let long-standing faculty in on important decisions regarding restructuring, and students (both old and new) are feeling ostracized as well, with enrollment down from 404 to 294 students. That’s a 24% decrease since the takeover two years ago. The effects this lack of transparency with professors and students is already being seen in those who are the beating heart of the school, those most dependent on its future and who care most about their school’s impact on the arts world.  With the Barnes Collection years ago, there was a similar – if more vocal – division between the vision of the new administration and the people on the ground actually being affected by their decisions.

While this isn’t expansion and sprawl on behalf of the now-defunct Corcoran, are visitors to the huge National Gallery of Art really aware of the unique origin of these works? Even recent remarks from NGA staff demonstrate that the Corcoran collection, established long before, is still renowned for its works that can now only “fill gaps” in the NGA’s own display. Works too similar to what the NGA already had, though important, were dismissed and offered to other national collections. Besides the small print in the label next to the artwork in whichever gallery building it ends up in, how else is the Corcoran’s history recognized? We hope the plans for the Corcoran to keep its congressional charter to operate as a unique non-profit with the mission to “encourage American genius” will help somewhat to continue its unique heritage. But that is still to be seen.

2016-12-19 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park London

Rendering of the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London featuring a 7-story museum with exhibit space for the Smithsonian. Courtesy: University College London.

Elsewhere in Washington, a merger was announced this year that promises to bring items from the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection over to London’s former Olympic Park alongside pieces exhibited from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. This occurred despite Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton’s hesitancy expressed to the public when it came to making a final decision on the project. The Institution ultimately confirmed plans to create a permanent collaborative exhibition space with the V&A, University College London, London College of Fashion, and other cultural institutions. Besides increased travel activity of artworks in the Smithsonian’s collection, this will also involve another risky factor: a requested nearly 10% increase to its 2017 budget to facilitate the new series of loans.This increased strain on Smithsonian’s budget that could be put towards its current needs, which include the hundreds of millions in infrastructural repairs needed on its Air & Space Museum, as well as the hundreds of millions more it cost to construct the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (just opened Sept. 2016). It nearly established its own independent wing at the Olympic Park, but that was put to a halt earlier this year, due reportedly to “annual operating overhead” that would expectedly “cast a big shadow over the primary objective” of increasing the Smithsonian’s international audience.

2016-12-19 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expansion Renzo Piano

Gardner Museum with recent expansion by Renzo Piano. Courtesy: Boston Magazine.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA also recently announced their $650 million initiative for a huge expansion of their public galleries and conservation spaces for a “new type of museum experience”. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum over in Boston may be proving an alluring example to the PEM, having proudly opened its new Renzo Piano-designed 70,000 sq ft wing, atop a demolished 1907 carriage house, in 2012.  So what is this new museum we have created in the 21st century? James Panero asks this same question in his recent article “The Museum Industrial Complex Is Thriving (But Did The Art Get Lost?”. He highlights major shifts in the attitudes of the public and museums themselves that move away from the art that was the reason for founding any museum in the first place.

2016-12-19 Victoria & Albert Museum Poster Saatchi & Saatchi

V&A Poster by Arden and Stark, for Saatchi & Saatchi, 1988. Courtesy: V&A Collections Online.

Some of this is an attempt to make the arts less “stuffy”, such as the V&A’s brazen 1980s advertisements as “An Ace cafe with a nice museum attached”. In the past few years, as outlined above, museums are increasingly spending billions on visitor services (dining, special events, etc.). What we don’t see in the press is how museums are investing in the fragile art within its walls by investing in preventative measures and curatorial staff. What we do see a lot of is art handled and interfered with more as it is shipped in traveling exhibitions around the world after which conservators are paid to touch up any damages that may have happened while in transit. Historic buildings like the Corcoran are crumbling and forced to give up their works to other institutions; or in the case of the Gardner, are being razed to make way for a perceived better space for visitors to experience.  The art that was placed in galleries decades ago is now having to prove why it should be there in the first place, and why we should take time to look at it.

In this respect, museums are now also turning towards promoting a museum as a space to encounter and participate in social change and self-reflection. Rather than looking at the art, visitors are now told they should come to look at the art as a mirror back onto themselves, something the author argues “it does not learn from history but to show the superiority of our present time over past relics”.  The present is more important. How you see yourself in the work of art is what advertises the museum to more new visitors on social media. But what about the art itself? The “socially oriented museum”, according to Panero, thereby stands in a “non-profit profit motive that seeks ever larger crowds, greater publicity, expanding spaces, ballooning budgets, and bloated bureaucracy – a circular system that feeds on itself – has turned the American museum into a neoliberal juggernaut.”

2016-11-08 Terracotta Warrioers British Museum exhibition
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How Much is that Rembrandt on the Gallery Wall?

Ruth Osborne

How Much is that Rembrandt on the Gallery Wall?

Do we question the money – and the hands holding the money – behind all the art world’s headline-grabbing exhibitions, restorations, and museum expansions? Furthermore, do we consider exactly how that money is being acquired? It may surprising to some that in the very act of fundraising for such projects that will supposedly help prolong an artwork’s lifetime and educational capabilities, the physical condition of said artwork is actually put at risk! Consider the following…

CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP

2016-11-08 Raphael Deposition

Raphael’s Deposition (1507), restored.

Throughout ArtWatch’s 25 years of intervening on behalf of art, we have seen much done hastily with the support of corporate sponsors. Take, for instance, Jaguar’s funding of Raphael’s Deposition in the Borghese Gallery (2005), which removed a not-so-old 1960s-70s varnish only to apply a new coat of “protective varnish” (which will of course yellow as well and have to be removed and replaced in another 50-60 years). Other well-respected restorers heavily questioned the treatment, insisting the work was actually in perfect health already. This is simply one example of restoration being done on a work of art without first establishing a consensus of experts on that artist, who would be able to more thoroughly consider the precise needs of the work in question. Each work of art is a unique living organism unto itself – and it must be treated as such.

It should also be noted that this Raphael restoration work involved the ENEA (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development). It is an Italian Government-sponsored research and development agency which, according to its mission undertakes research for the purpose of developing and enhancing Italian competitiveness and employment.

In some cases, an emergency repair is indeed required – such as Prada’s recent support for restoration of Vasari’s The Last Supper (which had been destroyed in the Florence flood of 1966). But oftentimes, treatment is taken not with the aim to improve the health or integrity of the artwork. For instance, the Estée Lauder-sponsored treatment of paintings by Tintoretto, Raphael, and San Giovanni at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence between 1999 and 2000.

2016-11-08 Tintoretto Exhibition Palazzo Pitti

Tintoretto Exhibition at the Palazzo Pitti.

Funds from Lauder did not prioritize care for works needing minor treatment that might go unseen by the public eye, which would actually be  appropriate, as any conservator’s handling of a painting should better reflect the original author’s hand rather than make obvious the conservator’s hand. Rather, the works selected for treatment were those the “erotic intrigues” of Venus that, according to former minister of culture Antonio Paolucci in the small catalogue for the exhibition of these completed restorations, served as a “deliciously effective public relations message.”

In 2007, Morgan Stanley sponsored a significant traveling loan from China to the British Museum: that of a squad of terracotta warriors from the excavated mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The warriors were included among over 100 fragile, and rather priceless, objects shipped from Xi’an, China to London. This exhibition was intended to draw more attention to on-going excavations at the site, even though the presence of increasing numbers of visitors since the discovery in 1974 has drawn greater concern over environmental damages to the works in situ. Concerns center on the deterioration of pigments on clay sculptures, in addition to other delicate materials such as silks, woods, and bronzes, with the corrosive elements, bacteria, mold, and other foreign pollutants in the environment  around the enclosed tomb. The British Museum show, which would also travel to the High Museum in Atlanta, ended up spinning off a second exhibition, “Terra Cotta Warriors”, which brought the ancient sculptures even farther afield – to Santa Ana, CA, Houston, Washington, D.C., and then New York City.

2016-11-08 Terracotta Warrioers British Museum exhibition

Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum exhibition. Courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images.

2016-11-08 Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum 2007

Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum exhibition. Courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images.

But the question remains to be asked: why are major companies and donors sponsoring millions in art conservation and loan exhibitions where the money goes in the door and back out again? Millions are being drawn on for temporary treatments that will only last till the next generation of conservators changes their minds, or temporary exhibitions that will only last a few months or years. The Bank of America Art Conservation Project, on which we have posted in here and herecontinues to be praised for the great impact and reach it has across many museums in the U.S. Meanwhile, many historic collections are drastically losing general operating support from donors and grant agencies that goes into the long-term care of works of art. Indeed, the breaking up of the Corcoran collection, the National Academy’s move, and the Thomas Cole painting in limbo in the Seward House Museum’s collection all point to the consequences of operating support going out the window.

2016-11-08 Credit Suisse National Gallery London

Credit Suisse at National Gallery 2015. Courtesy: National Gallery.

Other issues come along with major corporate sponsors of restorations or loan exhibitions, including the demand that their marketing campaign cover the historic facade and gallery walls of a museum. Last year’s exhibition of Goya portraits at the National Gallery (London), sponsored by Credit Suisse, also brought prominent marketing opportunities for the Swiss banking group. The banner that ran around the outside of the Gallery in Trafalgar Square featured Credit Suisse nearly as prominently as it did examples of Goya’s portraits for intrigued passersby.

2016-11-08 Albright-Knox Gallery Buffalo NY

Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. Courtesy: Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Exhibitions and restoration is not all that is getting funded where operating and research are left in the dust. Major building expansions are also carrot that pulls donors’ hands out of their deep-pockets. Take, for instance, the $100 mil Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery managed to squeeze out for an ambitious expansion.

The press release highlights four major points this huge gift will address:

  • “Provide much-needed space to exhibit the collection of masterworks […]
  • Create first-rate facilities for presenting special exhibitions
  • Enhance the visitor experience with new and better space for education, dining and special gatherings
  • Integrate the museum’s campus within Frederick Law Olmsted’s Delaware Park”

As to the specific ways in which the funds will improve curatorial and registrarial care for the works now going out on display, the press release continues with a more ambiguous statement below: “the museum is also seeking to increase its endowment funds to broaden organizational capacity and ensure that an expanded Albright-Knox can thrive in the twenty-first century.”
Sponsors certainly prefer to support the restoration of major mastorworks, rather than ones that might go unseen on the gallery walls. They like to put their name beneath traveling exhibitions that draw millions from around the globe, and in so doing put the artworks at greater risk to exposure or damage. The epidemic of promotional restorations, exhibitions, and expansions is one in which museums market their collection and their cultural relevency like one markets products. How is this trend in sponsorship impacting the care of collections for the future? We would like to pose a few questions as our readers consider other examples of corporate sponsorship today:

  • What are the strings attached with corporate sponsorship? How much restoration is now being used as a “come-on” for financial support?
  • How is a sponsor’s desire to stick their name brand on the walls of a gallery balanced with the actual work done on the art they are “supporting”?
  • How greatly is a company’s sponsorship of art restoration or a traveling exhibition diverting public attention away from some less scrupulous activities they are simultaneously involved in?

 

CROWDFUNDING RESTORATIONS

Historic collections are also increasingly given to crowdfunding from local residents for conservation projects, creating a sort of conveyor belt-type of system for ongoing work. In many instances, this involves an up-close and personal tour or event in the space or gallery with the collection. But what also occurs at these events are the heavy passed hors d’oeuvres and drinks that get added to the same space with the collection and that can, paradoxically, encourage the objects’ deterioration.

 

2016-11-08 Vatican Museums Wishbook Patrons

2016 Wishbook. Courtesy: The Patrons of the Arts in The Vatican Museums.

The Vatican Museums’ “Patrons of the Arts” program, which has been going on for over 30 years, sponsors restoration projects throughout its collections that are listed in the annual “Wishbook”. We reported on recent festivities to honor the support of these patrons – a five-day VIP treatment at the Vatican Museums, including “lectures on museum restoration projects, catered dinners in museum galleries, a vespers service in the Sistine Chapel … and even a one-on-one with Pope Francis himself.”

 

Do we really think we are helping aging works of art live longer by these activities? Issues of the frescoes’ deterioration acknowledged in recent years has brought forth a new call for funding that, instead of working towards a sustainable operating environment and visitor [maintenance] that could slow down deterioration, would enable the millions of annual visitors to view the frescoes enhanced by new LED lighting in the chapel. Instead of seeing a work close to the way it would have been experienced originally as an organic part of the larger structure of the chapel, this new lighting proposes we experience, as Michael Daley has reported  “ ‘a completely new diversity of colour’  […] the product of artificially selective sources of lighting, quite unlike anything found in nature and unlike previous systems of artificial light used in churches and chapels.”

2016-11-08 Vatican Museum Patrons

Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum.

Italy in particular has become known in recent years for unapologetically reaching out into the pockets of other countries. Major grants have been provided in the past nearly 20 years by the Washington-based organization Friends of Florence. This group of American funders provided $910,000 for the re-opening of the “Botticelli Room” at the Uffizi in Florence in just a few weeks ago on October 18th, where 19 works by the Renaissance master (listed here) were said to be restored before re-installing in two newly lit gallery spaces. As far as we know, there has yet to be published the thorough reasoning behind the restoration of all 19 works at once.

Another organization that provides Italian works of cultural heritage with funding for restoration is the International arm of FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano, founded in 1975), organized to promote American and English, as well as broader European, support. Its New York chapter states on the website that it aims at: “safeguarding of that culture through the organisation of events, trips, conferences, seminars, exhibitions and concerts throughout the States.” As American art appreciators and donors are increasingly approached to sponsor restoration, exhibition, and expansion projects at museums both at home and abroad, we would encourage a heightened level of awareness for the long-term impact their support can have on the works themselves.

 

2016-10-20 Sistine Ceiling Secret of Michelangelo Alexander Eliot
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Sistine Ceiling, Before and After Restoration: Looking Back In Order To Look Forward.

Ruth Osborne

Several years ago, ArtWatch helped produce a film on the changes that occurred when the Sistine Chapel ceiling underwent restoration in 1980-1994.

It considers the frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarroti before and after the massive restoration treatment. We would like to share with you some outtakes of the film that we believe may enlighten viewers to the importance of considering how a work is treated when restored, as well as paying attention to its care post-restoration. ArtWatch UK has recently provided studies on these new developments here and here. For the full film, click here: “ArtWatch: The Scandal Behind Art Restoration” (2005)

What is most compelling are the interviews of those who had seen the frescoes up-close and personal before 1980 – artist Frank Mason and writers Alexander and Jane Eliot. Have a look at the clip posted above, as well as the Eliots’ 1967/68 documentary The Secret of Michelangelo below, which provides unique coverage of the ceiling before treatment. Artists may not have been consulted before the 1980s-90s restoration, and no condition reports were done to address the particular needs and options for treatment. But now, though it’s taken 20 years, the artistic and broader public are now more aware of how significantly restoration can alter and damage a work of art irreversibly. Perhaps, with the current concerns over increasing atmospheric pollution, overcrowding, and visibility amidst deterioration, those responsible for this expansive work will reconsider such reckless techniques. For the book that takes an extensive look at this and other restoration damages, Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and The Scandal (1996), copies are available via our New York office or here.

 

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art
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Remembering the Consequences of Mishandling Art.

Ruth Osborne

Every so often it is useful – indeed, instructing – to take a glance at the current environment in the art world and see what recent developments show about what the future holds. For ArtWatch, this means considering again the consequences of collections across the country that we have seen dismembered or mishandled over the past few years. We cannot remain in the dark about the damages done to art when its appointed stewards forsake their responsibility. Keeping one eye always open and aware is the key keeping in check the mishandling and greed that always has the potential to consume what unique artistic and cultural heritage has been handed down to us.

Washington, D.C.

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

The former Corcoran Gallery and College of Art + Design has been reeling since its dissolution two years ago when the collection was handed over to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the art students and faculty were brought under the mantle of George Washington University. Both have suffered at the hands of the behemoth institutions that now own them. Corcoran College faculty and students are experiencing a culture clash as GW, a primarily research-led university, enforces curriculum changes and struggles to connect with the non-capitalist-driven founding principles of the College. Faculty did not even review student portfolios for its first admissions  process with GW. Relates one student: “At one point, a career counselor went into a Corcoran class and told students that art was a hobby and to look for real jobs.”  And just this May, after only 1 school year under GW’s wing, Corcoran professors experienced massive layoffs – over half its faculty – including several department heads. This not only left many students concerned for who would come on next to continue guiding their artistic education, but it also left course listings for this fall’s semester looking rather without direction, as they lacked any named professors for some time. Said one student of the faculty cuts: “This is atrocious on the part of the GW administration and it is not something that should be swept under the rug.”

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

Corcoran Collection installed at the NGA 2015. Courtesy: Molly Riley / AP.

Meanwhile, the 17,000 piece Corcoran collection was removed from its historic landmark Beaux-Arts home of 117 years and sifted through by NGA staff with much secrecy as to what made the cut for accession into their collection and why. Many in the arts world have questioned the NGA’s aims to “fill gaps” in their own collection; while the larger issue has been raised of what it means that one of the first independent museums in the country, with its own unique collecting history under its founder William Wilson Corcoran, to be removed from its unique context and stuck within a larger federally-owned collection. The context of late 19th century American art and collecting, with Corcoran’s own relationships with artists and dealers, is lost. The personality of the collection, its social and economic context, is harder and harder for the viewer to grasp at.

Wilmington, DE

2016-10-15 Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum, founded in 1912 with the one of the nation’s most extensive Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood collections, in addition to that of Brandywine River School and Ashcan School artists, has gone through several deaccession sales and a blacklisting by the American Associations of Museums in an attempt to pay debts on their 2005 expansion.  Ironically, an upcoming fundraiser for a local non-profit being hosted at the Museum is titled “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”; the evenings program will have guests solve the mystery of a “masterpiece” that has gone missing from the Museum’s walls. Now, the curatorial staff must work under a Board whose respect for the stewardship of a collection and its founding mission is questionable. Meanwhile, the dismissal from the AAM network is not boding well for their line-up of exhibitions and loans from other AAM-accredited institutions, whose previous agreements for collaboration are now invalid. Meanwhile, the pay-off for selling the selected works – one by Alexander Calder, one by Andrew Wyeth, another by Winslow Homer, and another by William Holman Hunt – wasn’t ideal. While the Calder fetched its estimate, the Hunt fell far below what was expected and the Homer and Wyeth were forced to sell privately. Though it has been over a year since the last two were sold, their prices remain undisclosed, even after inquiry by ArtWatch. Their most recent financial report relates that the second two deaccession sales yielded $9.5 mil in proceeds, so, considering the $4.25 ($4.9 with premium) brought in by the Hunt and the $10.6 mil brought in by the Calder, the Museum still falls at least $5 mil short of their over $30 mil+ deficit. The Museum also received a new CEO and Executive Director this April, Sam Sweet, who, unlike the former CEO and CFO Mike Miller, actually possesses an art history degree (from Columbia). Miller will return to his formerly held position as part-time CFO.

2016-10-15 Winslow Homer Milking Time

Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875. Private Collection (formerly, Delaware Art Museum).

*Interesting side note: Sweet also served as the Corcoran Gallery of Art/College of Art + Design’s COO from January 2008 thru June 2009, a rather short stint just before the cracks in the armor of the now defunct institution were beginning to show in 2011-2012. In fact, the deaccession and sale of 10 paintings from the Corcoran’s collection was announced under his directorship as the first “rare move” in a series of steps “toward refining the museum’s focus and providing funds for purchasing future works.” This announcement came after failed attempts to raise funds for repairs, to rise above its recurring $1 mil+ deficits, and, of course, an “ambitious” $200 mil expansion by Frank Gehry.

Auburn, NY

2016-10-15 Seward House Museum

William Seward House in Auburn, NY. Courtesy: Preservation Association of Central New York.

The Seward House Museum in upstate New York had kept a central painting in the collection – Thomas Cole’s Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) – in storage for over two years after new owners of the museum, the Emerson Foundation, began to consider its sale in favor of the millions with which it could help spill over into its own pockets. This resulted in a replica of the original painting being left on display in the museum while the original languished in storage while being considered for sale.

2016-10-15 Thomas Cole Portage Falls

Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, 1839. Courtesy: Emerson Foundation / Seward House Museum.

News of its sale has not yet emerged, but a recent inquiry to the Museum staff revealed that it is still in storage and there are no plans to return it to its historic setting in Seward’s home. Meanwhile, one of its popular tours, called “The He(art) of the Seward House”, continues to be offered to visitors, though a central piece in the collection has been potentially forever replaced by a “museum-quality” replica”. According to their website, the tour promises guests a view into “the fabulous and fascinating artwork of the Seward House moves from the backdrop to the foreground in this art-centric tour. Learn how aesthetics framed the world – and home – of the Seward family, as well as which artists and art movements caught their eyes.” Meanwhile, a grassroots group committed to returning the Cole painting to the Seward House reported in March that the New York Attorney General’s office (who had been active in prohibiting the sale of the painting back in 2013) was still ” ‘actively’ involved in the discussion regarding a ‘solution’ to this issue.” We encourage you to write Asst. AG James Sheehan, Charities Bureau Chief (Office of the Attorney General, The Capitol, Albany, NY 12224-0341) in support of returning the original painting to its historic home.

 

New York, NY

2016-10-15 National Acadamy Museum New York

One of the two National Academy Museum buildings on 5th Ave. Courtesy: National Academy Museum & School via Facebook.

The National Academy Museum went through its own deaccessioning crises back in 2009 to pay for general operating expenses and owed debts. That fiasco ended in a loss of two important Hudson River School works, works that marked the basis for the Academy’s founding in 1825 New York City, in addition to sanctions from the American Association of Museum Directors. But only recently was it forced to sell its historic townhouses on 5th Ave. in favor of putting its works in storage until they can settle in a supposedly less-expensive new home. This simply looks like a black hole for the historic collection, which points to a crucial point in the development of the arts in the young United States and which, if broken up like the Corcoran was when it couldn’t support its own up-keep, would lose this value.

 

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain
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Architectural Restoration & the “Blank Space”

Ruth Osborne

What is a restorer to do when only a fragmented portion of a historic building, or work of art, remains?

2016-06-14 - Sebastiano del Piombo Adoration of the Shepherds Fitzwilliam Museum

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Adoration of the Shepherds, 1510, before & after restoration. Courtesy: Fitzwilliam Museum.

News reports this month have been lauding the 10-year long conservation on a terribly wrecked picture by 16th century Italian artist del Piombo at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. But what happens when the work is a building that is missing significant parts of its infrastructure?

Spain appears to be having a bit of an identity crisis on its hands when it comes to architectural preservation. First, a 1,000 year-old Moorish castle tower was “restored” with white walls beneath its stone walls. Then, in keeping with using modernist additions to treat a centuries-old structure, aluminum windows were installed by the owners of a 400 year-old tower in the town of Ombreiro in the northwestern region of Galicia. This also was done by the same architects who worked on the Moorish castle tower, Carlos Quevedo Rojas and the Carquero Architecture firm.

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain

Newly-restored Matrera Castle. Courtesy: Architzer.

One critic in particular has said of the project: “They’ve got builders in rather than restorers and, like we say round here, they’ve cocked it up.” But the finished project, it seems, has begun to be accepted by some, even going so far as to win the prestigious international architectural prize from Architzer A+ awards in the restoration category. According to the statement from the firm:

2016-06-14 -Ombreiro Tower Spain

Ombreiro Tower restoration May 2016. Courtesy: Altas España /The Local ES.

“It tries to approach the work in recognition of the ‘memory’ in its physical consistency and its dual polarity, aesthetic and historical, in order to transmit the future. Therefore, the proposal aims to avoid the aesthetic mimicry that involves falsification or loss of value of authenticity…”

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain restoration

Matrera Castle before and after restoration. Courtesy: Architzer.

What supporters of this modernist pastiche approach to architectural restoration have insisted is that the work of Quevedo is in keeping with recent trends. But how exactly is a “trend” an appropriate response to preserving the materiality of a structure from its own distinct moment in history? Do these blank modernist additions not appropriate it into the aesthetic preferences of those who restored it? Going back to the firm’s statement on the award-winning project, “the essence of the project is not intended to be, therefore, an image of the future, but rather a reflection of its own past…” How does one accomplish this with white Bauhaus-like right angles jutting out from the historic fabric?

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation website

Menokin website showing projected vision of restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Meanwhile, a small historic house museum in Virginia – the Menokin Museum – has recently become known for its vision to restore the shell of the 18th century home by replicating what’s missing with a glass covering. The Menokin, which retains 80% of its original structure, will feature a new glass roof that will reveal the inner workings of the building fabric and design. You can see by the drawings that, while this is indeed a modern building material, the intended effect will be to reveal a more detailed vision of the original 18th century building. According to one of the conservators and the Manager of Architectural Collections (also involved with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation): “If you were to reconstruct the house, you’d cover up some of the most interesting parts. With glass, we can actually see how an 18th century building comes together.”

2016-06-14 - Menokin cross section

Cross Section of the Manokin plan, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Does this differ from the approach of the restorations in Spain? Or will it have the same unfortunate impact?

2016-06-14 - Menokin interior restoration

View of interior restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation dining room restoration

View of the Dining Room restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned
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The Uncertain Future of Local History & Preservation.

Ruth Osborne

Last week, we saw a significant decision that will shape the future of architectural preservation and local history in New York City. And perhaps not for the better.

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GVSHP member at the City Planning Commission hearing last week. Courtesy: NY1 / GVSHP.

On Wednesday, the City Council held its final hearing on Mayor de Blasio’s “Zoning for Quality & Affordability” (ZQA) plan, which last week was approved (9-3-1) by the City Planning Commission. As of Wednesday Feb. 10th, the City Council had approved the ZQA, thus allowing more oversized developments throughout the city’s varied historic neighborhoods – neighborhoods that have seen tall buildings go up in recent years without the city requiring any affordable housing units. This is not just an issue in New York – debates over height restrictions and historic district preservation are also occurring over Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue.

Our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) have been tirelessly working to demonstrate that the ZQA will in fact not help either quality or affordability, but will surely have detrimental impact on the fifty years of progress made in preservation in the city’s neighborhoods, and in so doing will “[turn] back the clock on years of progress to protect community scale and character.” Their work, as demonstrated by this recent testimony, is not based on conjecture or opinion, but on data from City Council and site-specific studies as well as a thorough understanding of real housing needs. Interestingly enough, GVSHP also reports that: “Many [City] Councilmembers have expressed serious reservations about the plan, but as has been widely reported, the Mayor has been doing quite a bit of horse-trading to try to secure the votes necessary for passage.” What this plan could put into place is the lifting of height restrictions to allow for new development in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has also recently spoken out against the Mayor’s ZQA, saying that the City Planning Commission has “[ignored] community concerns” with their vote in favor:

We support the goals of increased affordable housing, but “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) amounts to a “bait and switch.” It doesn’t guarantee affordable housing but it does overturn local planning. It will toss aside agreements that communities have forged with the City over decades. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH) will result in units that remain unaffordable for residents in many part of New York.

What this new development is reflective of, in addition to the renewed proposed landmarks legislation we are sure to hear about in months to come, is that efforts against preserving history and local character are only increasing. This is all happening despite the Landmarks Law having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – something commemorated at many events in 2015. But commemorating Landmarks Law is not just about patting the city on the back for having done a good job at not tearing down places like Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, etc. It should demand a response to the immediate seen and future unseen needs to continue conscientious development and historic preservation in the city. Or else, wouldn’t we just look like a bunch of hypocrites?

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Loopnet Realty ad showing the collapsed section of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany. Courtesy: Loopnet Realty.

Speaking of preserving local history, the capital city of Albany is in a bit of a mess over one of its historically and artistically significant houses of worship. The Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, built in 1850 on a major thoroughfare for the local Episcopalian congregation, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. It has also been on the list of Albany’s most endangered buildings for the past ten years. Now, it risks not only rapidly increasing structural damage as a result of its lack of upkeep and maintenance. There is also, as history demonstrates, the potential for the church to be ripped from its historic setting by a larger institution that boasts the finances to preserve it in a new location. This is just one example of the growing trend of local history reluctantly yielding to bigger conglomerate collections or wealthier cities that have the concentrated funds that smaller sites simply don’t have. We saw this with the Corcoran Gallery in 2014 and the Barnes Foundation in 2003.

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Interior of the Church of the Holy Innocents as it appeared in The Annals of Albany, Vol. X, 1870. Courtesy: Robarts / University of Toronto.

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Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, NY, late 19th century. Courtesy: Paula Lemire / Albany History Blogspot.

As our colleague, Albany historian John Wolcott, provides insight into its historic and artistic significance:

The Episcopal Church was designed in 1850 by architect Frank Willis. In 1866, a chapel was built by lumber baron William DeWitt as a memorial to his children. It was designed by architects William L. Woollett and Edward Ogden. The church (with adjoining chapel) features a small garden and the interior work of John Bolton in its stained glass windows; it is an example of the mid-nineteenth century early Gothic Revival style that so proliferated not only in New York City but throughout upstate New York and gives much of the state’s nineteenth century landscape its enduring character; to attempt to list the number of related structures in upstate New York’s history of Gothic Revival architecture would be overzealous, but suffice it to say that this structure holds much aesthetic and cultural significance for the members of the area.

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Collapsed part of the Church, captured by local news in Albany last May. Courtesy: WNYT.

The church is currently owned by Hope House Inc., a residential recovery program next door. As Hope House a non-profit organization not designed to care for a historic structure, it isn’t surprising that news report of its collapsed roof and corner arrived last May.  Once its immediate stabilization was accomplished, the Historic Albany organization has been monitoring the church’s maintenance. Our colleague in Albany has also written to “Partners for Sacred Places” on the importance of its preservation and maintenance as a historic landmark in Albany, and has been in contact with Historic Albany regarding the urgency of this work:

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Church of Holy Innocents as of May 2015. Courtesy: John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union.

This entire matter here has been something of an awful mess for years and became worse than ever of late in spite of constant spin doctoring, but please hang in with it.  If you have received a copy of the Realty ad [see above photo]; the main photograph shows a view looking from the nave toward the chancel.  Though not too clear here; the chancel arch is completely collapsed. This means that the lettering of a portion of the 23rd Psalm along the lower edge has also been destroyed. One of the most key spiritual artful and historic features of the church. However, in studying recent photos of the debris; it appears that with careful tedious, painstaking sorting the letters could be reassembled to either cement back together but probably to replicate on new stonework that would  faithfully replicate that which collapsed. 

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Interior of the abandoned church, c. 2015. Courtesy: Chuck Miller.
A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000.

A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000. Another option is, unfortunately, to remove the artistic structure and put it back together at another location or museum that boasts the funds to display salvaged architectural remains. Places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have certainly worked wonders in this respect. But if we take a step back from the nineteenth-century cast-iron staircase or bank facade that we’re looking up at in amazement, can we ask ourselves a more serious question?: How can this be beneficial to the stewardship of our local artistic heritage? To tear a historic structure from its original context and setting, which demonstrates its connection to the local community and the cultural and artistic development of an area that has lost many other buildings from this period? To place it in the hands of a museum that would likely have an over-abundance of other significant items from this period? Are we forgetting about the authenticity of place? Authenticity of place is exactly what was lost when Albany saw another of its unique nineteenth-century churches collapse (and subsequently be demolished) due to neglect. Trinity Church (1848) had been designed by renowned architect James Renwick, Jr. – the same who worked on Saint Patrick’s and the Smithsonian Castle.

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Trinity Church in Albany, which collapsed in 2011 and was subsequently demolished. Courtesy: (c) Chuck Miller / TimesUnion.

Its stained glass windows, however, were the only pieces salvaged, and which may or may not return to Albany.

Former Met director Philipe de Montebello himself has stated on the importance of authenticity in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust:

For museums, this should derive from their collections and comprise an absolute commitment to authenticity and to the museum’s authority, which should never be compromised […] It goes without saying that probity should be expected of the museum […] But probity should be found deeper still embedded in our mission, in our thoughts, and in our intellectual approach. For starters and quite simply , since what we promise is authenticity, that is what the public expects to find within our walls. So there must never be any question of a reproduction, a simulacrum, taking the place of a work of art […]

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Church of the Holy Innocents, 1918. Courtesy: Coll. Mrs. Weldon J. Vail / Albany Group Archive.

How can we presume to celebrate the authentic and original while at the same time stealing it from its authenticity of place or destroying historic context with disjointed developments? The case for historic preservation presented at Albany’s Church of the Innocents is an example of the fight to retain an important piece of local history in its setting. What makes something historically, artistically, or culturally significant to the point of necessitating its preservation for future generations? Or even to simply retain a visual reminder of a past moment in that region’s history? The character of a historic environment, a historic architectural setting, or a historic neighborhood in New York City is important – it is unique, it tells the story of a community or a people or an artist that makes up a larger culture and society. Those who don’t care to deal with the financial and legal burden of caring for local history and neighborhood character simply attempt to gloss over its importance.

While saving architectural remains from what would otherwise be lost to time is sometimes the only option, ArtWatch would like to ask readers what this means for the future of preserving our local history and cultural heritage? What does this mean for neighborhoods in New York that will in 10 years be unrecognizable after historic structures have been torn down, local merchants removed, and all our architectural history is relegated to sit in fragments against the clean walls of a large gallery? These once were real and thriving buildings and streets, and if we consider ourselves at all connected with their history, there should be conscientious development into the future.

Should all our heritage end up at huge institutions that leave the works disjointed from their original environment? Nevertheless, this what is happening with collections management as well as funding for the arts and history – larger institutions that get the grants and the big donors are financially equipped to subsume smaller collections, which leaves less diversity in museums and less physical presence for local historic collections. 

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Overwhelming Support as Landmarks Works Through the Backlog of Proposed Sites.

Ruth Osborne

Last Thursday morning at the Municipal Building at No. 1 Centre Street. dozens more supporters of landmark designations in New York City demonstrated their care for historic preservation in the city as well as their respect for the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s noble mission.

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GVSHP representative speaking at LPC hearing, Nov. 5, 2015.

This was another in a series of public hearings and viewings begun this July as part of the LPC’s “Backlog Initiative”. Reports on last month’s hearings have demonstrated just how greatly communities back the Commission’s initiative to designate and protect historically significant properties and neighborhoods.

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33-43 Gold Street. Courtesy: MakeSpace.

The buildings up for consideration this time around included:

* no. 801-807 Broadway, one of the few remaining 19th century cast-iron facades in the city and one that has played a significant role in the historic commercial development of the area and survived destruction by fire over 40 years ago

* no. 33-43 Gold Street, an 1840s Romanesque Revival style building now known as the Excelsior Power Company Building

* no. 2 Oliver Street, an 1820s Federal rowhouse

* no. 57 Sullivan Street, an 1810s Federal wood-framed rowhouse

* no. 850 12th Avenue, the McKim, Mead & White Beaux-Arts IRT powerhouse, now used by ConEd

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ames McCreery & Co. Building at 801-807 Broadway in 1895. Courtesy: Tom Miller.

The above-mentioned structures were the ones that seemed to receive the most attention from speakers. The arguments made for the designation of these buildings were very prudent and practical, despite what many detractors may say about extremists that want to freeze the city in time. Those who gave their testimonies in favor of designation (which was everyone who spoke over the course of the hour and a half that we observed) stated that current residents have not been inhibited by Commission oversight, therefore making landmark status not detrimental to their future well-being. Then why not grant designation after all?

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IRT Powerhouse by McKim, Mead & White. Courtesy: NYC.GOV.

While the overwhelming support for protection of these sites as landmarks was obvious to everyone in the room, it was also painfully obvious just how little consideration the Commission is given as a city agency. The room itself was bursting at the seams with residents seeking to state their positions before the commissioners. There were just over 50 seats for press, participants, and observers. The rest were forced to overflow outside to the adjacent room, standing alongside walls, in doorways, and in an extra corner they could find. Is there any wonder why an argument has been made to provide the Commission with more resources to accomplish its mission?

Those represented before the Commission were a smattering of long-term neighborhood residents, students, tour guides, preservationists, architects, and politicians: the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (a mighty advocate in recent years), the Victorian Society of New YorkBIG architecture, the Society for the Architecture of the City, the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, Councilman Corey Johnson, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Nearly all of these speakers went over their allotted three minutes, demonstrating their strong sense of duty in declaring the significance of these sites as city landmarks.

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57 Sullivan Street. Courtesy: Tom Miller.

According to one speaker’s experience, travelers coming into the city express shock that such significant structures have gone unprotected for so long. Not only was the argument made to preserve buildings as emblems of important design and architectural periods in New York, but also as markers of significant technological, commercial, and immigrant population change that formed the backbone of the city’s character and impacted the rest of the nation throughout history. Supporters of preservation do not care solely for structures as lavishly ornamented monuments to wealthy families past – they care deeply for their city’s rich history, something they find personal connection with in some form or another. The preservation of these buildings in question, as was made evident by the speakers’ testimonies, would serve to validate the value of the immigrants, artists, architects, merchants, and transit workers who worked and made their home in New York in centuries past. Historic structures offer diversity in the architectural landscape of the city – not uniformity.  And, as borough president Brewer pointed out, the place of public discourse on New York’s ever-development landscape is an essential element in good stewardship of this city that millions call home. We at ArtWatch greatly appreciate the time and energy the Commission has provided for these public hearings and their thoughtful consideration as they work through proposed designations.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the topic of heritage preservation is being revisited with the re-launch of historian David Lowenthal’s renowned book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985). The Warburg Institute will host an event on November 11th to commemorate Lowenthal’s significant effort in investigating the 20th century culture of conserving heritage. His work has been a cornerstone for contemporary study of how the past is preserved, re-enacted, remembered, and celebrated. Additionally, the upcoming ArtWatch UK Journal will feature an article by art historian Florence Hallett on issues of heritage preservation in England. What British preservationists are finding is that their architectural heritage is being mixed up with competing social policy trends. When the motives behind spending and support for historic preservation get caught up in policy and legislation, on both sides of the Atlantic, these complications interfere with the care available for the buildings themselves in the future; in the end, resulting in damage that cannot be recovered from easily (if at all in some cases).

Finally, later today, ArtWatch will join others again at an LPC hearing to provide support for the continued preservation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District in downtown Manhattan. The GVHSP has sustained a brilliant campaign against the proposed overdevelopment plan for the historic market buildings on Gansevoort. According to their website: “If approved, the development would not only destroy Gansevoort street and the surrounding historic district’s unique sense of place, but set a terrible precedent regarding the type of construction allowed in landmarked districts.” Stay tuned for reports!

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The Business of Museums: Mismanagement at the de Young in San Francisco.

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de Young Museum CEO Dede Wilsey. Courtesy: Panache Privée.

Ruth Osborne

We often forget that museums are a big business. They draw in millions annually, contribute billions to the national economy, transport major works of priceless artistic value miles around the globe, and provide jobs for hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone.

 

Most of this work is done behind gallery walls – from conservation labs to accounting offices to research libraries. According to an AAM study, museums are also believed by visitors to be “one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information.” If we are to uphold the character of the museum as an expectedly trustworthy institution, then the public must also know what goes on behind the scenes.

Last month, news emerged surrounding a new financial scandal at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The origin of the scandal was a complaint by the CFO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the umbrella over the de Young and the Legion of Honor, proudly self-proclaimed as “the largest public arts institution in the City of San Francisco”). According to the CFO Michele Gutierrez, CEO of de Young and FAMSF Board President Dede Wilsey initiated an order to pay a retired staffer $450,000 for a “disability severance payment” sanctioned by the City Charter. This retiree, reportedly, already collects a $56,580 annual pension from the city. The payment was signed off by the Gutierrez but, she supposedly found out later, was not given final approval by the entire board before the check was issued. Mind you, the FAMSF is an institution that receive $16 million in city funding each year.

This was not the first time that the FAMSF have been in the news for mismanagement. In the past few years, the museums have gone through a series of high-profile firings, a wrongful termination lawsuit, a deaccession and sale against a living donor’s bequest, and another scandal involving items from Wilsey’s personal collection being handled and prepared for shipment during business hours on museum property and with museum personnel. For a museum that receives millions in public funds annually, especially in a climate in which arts funding is increasingly rare and precious, one would hope that such an institution is being run in an ethical manner.

Just a few days after news of this new scandal involving Wilsey hit the newsstands, the FAMSF issued a statement denying any wrongdoing on behalf of their CEO or the disapproval of her actions by the board at large. Their defensive statement appears to gloss over the large staff turnover that has occurred over the past year, arguing that as the result of recent evaluation by management consultants they have “[reorganized] the institution and [changed] personnel and job responsibilities.”

It should also be pointed out that, since Wilsey has been Board President two decades ago, sudden changes in its bylaws enabled the new president to remain without a term limit. These don’t seem like ideal procedures for a well-run public art collection.  And yet, the FAMSF remained on the American Alliance of Museums’ list of accredited institutions in 2014.

Another accredited institution that has recently seen itself through financial mismanagement and shaming (it actually did receive an AAM sanction) is the Delaware Art Museum. News of the board’s bad stewardship over the collection – by means of selling art to make up for a bond debt – developed over the course of last year. The $19.5 million in debt was no doubt assisted by the $32.5 million the Museum shelled out for a 2005 expansion. As a result, the Museum took a blow to its artistic legacy as well as to future precedent for collections management practices.

With museums spending millions on expansions, additions to their collection, traveling exhibitions, transparency is not to be taken for granted. There is a higher and higher demand for institutions to be constantly spending in order to draw attention and relevance in an increasingly competitive art world.  At the same time, those funding art institutions are failing to see their benefit to the local community and society as a whole, thus causing museums to strive to keep what little funding they have and remind people that art and history is relevant.  The same week that this (most recent) scandal in SF emerged, the AAM announced it was putting the Illinois State Museums on probation as a result of their closure on September 30th after state budget decisions reached a stalemate. AAM Commission Chair Burt Logan took issue on how this closure would “impact […] the long-term viability of the museum, including affecting its ability to retain a professional staff and operate at the highest professional level […]”. The closure has caused museum staff to seek refuge for their collection during the interim, certainly not ideal care for the works being shuttled back and forth.  The State Museum’s director of science Eric Grimm has commented on the situation that caused the closure: “It’s a travesty […] I think it’s political corruption and malevolent anti-intellectualism.”  In an atmosphere like that of the past fifteen years, the need for greater oversight in the arts is becoming more and more evident.

By Ruth Osborne

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Punishing Preservationists for their Lack of Resources? The Dangers of the Proposed “Intro 775” Landmarks Legislation.

Ruth Osborne

 

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The Empire State Building, one of the landmarks that took longer than 1 year to secure.

I recently attended a lecture on the survival of one of New York City’s landmarked sites (now a professionally-staffed museum), and the speaker was very reluctant to answer mine and others’ questions about the politics behind historic preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s authority. He did, however, acknowledge that public opinion and testimony truly is the most effective thing in his experience of advocating for preservation.

Public outcry was the reason New York City Landmarks Law was enacted in the first place, and the LPC was created for the fundamental purpose of providing a voice for the historic integrity of a neighborhood or building that would otherwise be overlooked and forever wiped out by new development. But now, in the same year that we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Landmarks Law and the rich history it has helped preserve – places like Grand Central Station, 30 Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State building – proposed legislation now threatens to put a muzzle back on that voice.

Major news outlets this week have finally turned to acknowledging the Intro 775 bill, which will be scheduled for public hearing next week on September 9th. This bill is both unnecessary and unreasonable, as many preservation advocates have argued. It will essentially serve only to punish historic landmarks and the LPC for having been provided inadequate resources with which to do their job of thoroughly researching and considering potential landmarks. It could create an environment in which developers again have more say, and preservationists are no longer able to effectively do their job. Intro 775 proposes to implement a strict timeline on the designation of landmarks (both interior and scenic), as well as historic districts. It will, in effect:

(1) Impose a shorter calendaring timeline of for the LPC to hold a public hearing (180 days for individual landmarks, 1 year for historic districts).

(2) Impose a follow-up timeline after the public hearing within which the LPC must take final action (180 days for individual landmarks, 1 year for historic districts).

(3) Require the LPC to make determination on current items on the calendar within 18 months (that is, 95 total properties and districts).

(4) Barr a property or district unable to pass designation by the LPC from reconsideration of landmark status for another 5 years.

This is essentially imposing unrealistic time limits on the Commission for doing their work well and thoroughly. It acts almost as an inadequate performance review, but without any true understanding of what it really takes for the Commission to do their job properly. An interview earlier this summer with Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation,  gave ArtWatch some insight into the dangers this legislation could pose to the future of historic preservation in New York.

RO: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about something both the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and ArtWatch is passionate about: proper stewardship of our cultural and artistic heritage. As ArtWatch is New York-based, we are currently expanding to cover issues regarding historic preservation of the city’s cultural landmarks and neighborhoods and are therefore interested in connecting with organizations like yours that work tirelessly towards such efforts. You spoke of a major issue of current concern for GVSHP: Intro 775 and the landmarking process. Can you elaborate briefly on GVSHP’s position on this?

AB: We’re definitely very concerned with Intro 775. It’s being portrayed as aiming to ensure there aren’t these delays or backlogs at the preservation commission but it doesn’t really do anything to ensure the commission would move forward in a timely fashion. It just penalizes the public if they don’t. Ninety-percent of recent designations do move within timing the bill proscribes. And in cases that don’t, there are understandable reasons why. This bill would essentially throw the baby out with the bathwater. It creates pocket veto: if the LPC doesn’t act within this tight time frame, the proposal will be rejected automatically. The bill doesn’t do anything to help get rid of some things that can be reasons why designations can take so long. The LPC is the smallest of all the city’s agencies – but the bill doesn’t improve funding or staffing. What it would really do is encourage developers resistant to their sites being landmarked to come up with as many ways as possible for delaying designation. Designation can drag out and be prohibited from happening for an extensive period of time. We’re also concerned because it’s been introduced by chairs of landmarks committees who we hope would have a more balanced approach. There are also instances in which developers have tried to prevent landmarking from taking place. This would just give them another tool to do that.

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Merchant’s House Museum in NoHo, a landmark now endangered by construction next door. Courtesy: Herrmann Fan.

A letter recently sent to City Council Members from GVSHP and other preservationists does well to call out the inconsistencies of the proposed bill and why it should not be passed:

“Our research shows that the LPC has a solid track record of timely designation, if not within the strict litmus described by Intro 775, then nonetheless within a reasonable period of time. […] In the instances where LPC has failed to act within the proposed time

limits, this failure has been in part a result of the Commission’s limited resources. Designations require heavy investment of staff

time towards extensive research, in-depth examination of boundaries, a full airing of all information and viewpoints on a subject,

and the production of highly-detailed reports. […] it would force LPC to make decisions before all information has been

contemplated and all discussions have taken place.”

Does the City propose that their smallest agency do their work with an eye for speed and quantity instead of quality and thorough consideration of all parties involved and affected? How does it expect the LPC carry out their mission without having adequate time and resources to bring full attention to the task at hand? Or would it prefer they were less effective in considering a conscientious approach to city planning that often gets in the way of developers’ interests? Would it prefer the Commission had less and less power as if it weren’t even part of the dialogue in the first place? How would this help create discussion amongst all parties and interests involved? Would it not simply allow developers to have less restrictions and checks on their actions?

A recent New York Times article quoted Michael Slattery, senior VP for research at the Real Estate Board of New York: “The problem is it’s open-ended and indefinite if your building is calendared. […] If you want to sell your building or develop it, it makes that very hard. Property owners deserve to know what is in their future.” But then, don’t the residents of New York also deserve to have the cultural and historic integrity of their city’s landscape properly cared for and taken into account when a change is about to occur? This was the whole basis for the founding of the Commission in the first place – that the growth of the city should be a conscientious, thoughtful effort; one that recognizes the impact a building has on the city around it, and how it fits in with the character of that city. It was about growing respect for what has gone before and taking responsibility for new progress. Buildings – both old and new ones – have character and heart to them, and if we forsake that, then will we even recognize our city anymore?

By Ruth Osborne

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Betraying Bequests and Selling Art to Pay…Nonexistent Bills?: Thomas Cole’s “Portage Falls” Still at Risk.

Ruth Osborne

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Thomas Cole, “Portage Falls on the Genesee,” 1839. Courtesy: Emerson Foundation / Seward House Museum.

An important Thomas Cole painting (valued recently at appr. $20 million) owned by the Seward House Historic Museum in Auburn, NY is still under risk at being sold against the donor’s bequest.

The culprit is the Emerson Foundation, a private family charitable trust whose philanthropy focuses on education, arts cultural institutions, health and human services, and other similar civic and youth-oriented efforts. The foundation received the Seward House and its contents in a bequest from William H. Seward III, the original Seward’s grandson, in 1951, under which they were charged with the preservation and maintenance of the entire collection. However, in a clever move, when they transferred the property and collection back to the newly renovated museum in 2008, they retained ownership of the Cole painting. Were they expecting to use it as a liquid asset in case they decided they needed more money in the future? It seems quite likely, as 2013 news of its proposed sale would reportedly give the proceeds to “the Seward House and the Emerson Foundation” (emphasis mine).

 

The foundation decided in February 2013 to first remove Cole’s “Portage Falls on the Genesee” (1839) from view after statements of concern about the painting’s wellbeing and security in the small staffed museum. Lee Rosenbaum reported on this in September of 2013, when NY state attorney general sought to prohibit the sale of this painting on the grounds that it would go against donor William H. Seward III’s will. The painting was originally commissioned from Cole as a special gift to the original Seward, after which it was given a central place of honor in his home in Auburn. Its place up until two and a half years ago, in the home of the former governor who oversaw the construction of the Genesee Valley Canal that the painting commemorates, connects it with the history of the house and its illustrious resident, as well as with a significant moment in local and national history. Just how often is it that a work of art with such thoroughly known provenance and historic connection remain in its original housing for future generations to see and remember and learn? And how could it be argued that the “museum quality replica” with which it was replaced (and which likely also cost a pretty penny) could do this justice? Does that not strip away the very value of an original work of art and the artist’s hand altogether? Does that not throw a proverbial slap in the face of those tasked with caring for the House, whose responsibility it is to remind the public that history through objects is significant and unique and worth preserving? Is not the discovery of the original artist’s hand and brushwork the central reasoning through which museums all over the world garner millions of visitors to see the unique and authentic works in their collections?

 

This is a rather interesting predicament, because most cases of boards going against donor’s bequests are made with the argument that the collection needs those proceeds to survive. However, according to a 2013 review of the Emerson Foundation’s most recent tax return, the attorney general’s office found that:

“the Foundation is financially able to continue to provide the necessary financial support for the memorial.  Accordingly, we do not see any justification for the sale of the Painting or why the Painting has not yet been transferred to the Seward House Museum.”

Imagine that! What could the foundation possibly be interested in doing with the millions in proceeds? Is it not a bit ironic that the museum board’s reasoning for its removal from public view (it is now in a private, undisclosed location) was that the small museum – which the foundation was still tasked to provide resources for – did not have enough resources to ensure “its long-term security and proper care”? The Board provided this statement in 2013 as to its support of the foundation’s proposal to sell the painting via Christie’s:

(1) Concerns over the safety and security of the painting as its value became more publicly known, and the liability of the Seward House if it could not properly maintain the painting; and

(2) Proceeds from the sale of the painting would contribute to the long-term financial viability of the Seward House and advance its mission of preserving the Seward legacy.

 

Where will this money go? Will it actually go to possibly helping securing the museum’s financial future? Or will it go to the Foundation at large? There is no certainty with which the board nor the foundation has stated this. However, we hope that this will not turn out to be like the disasters that happened to the Barnes or Burrell Collection. Is not the motive quite clear?

 

As of June 2014, the lawsuit against the museum and foundation’s administration of the Seward Estate was dismissed in NY Appellate Court. The decision has yet to be made, however, regarding the return of the painting to the museum and until then, the foundation is apparently holding it in limbo. Has the foundation been waiting years for the fury to die down so they can get the sale approved without public knowledge? A recent news story in Auburn proves otherwise. Local residents are still infuriated and are calling for an end to this stand-off:

 

“[…] as we approach the two-year anniversary of that filing, the same sad state of affairs is in place. “Portage Falls on the Genesee” is in an undisclosed, non-public location. A reproduction hangs in its place. And the public is being deprived of the ability to see a piece of art that holds a high place in our city, state and nation’s history.

The status quo cannot be allowed to stand any longer. Judge Thomas Leone should grant the attorney general’s September 2013 request.

And the Seward House Museum and Emerson Foundation should be planning for how it can put the painting back on display in a secure manner.”

We have recently contacted the staff and board president at the Seward House with questions, but have not yet heard back.

2015-08-27 - Seward House postcard

Postcard of the Seward House, 1905. Courtesy: Seward House Museum.