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Albert Bierstadt Giant Redwood Trees of California

Master Plan? Or Master Disaster? The Nation’s Arts Community Reacts to the Berkshire Museum’s Plan to Sell 40 Works.

Ruth Osborne
2017-08-04 Berkshire Museum Facade

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA

The argument for museums and cultural institutions established by generations past to be more relevant to the needs of communities has been going on for years.

It appears when museums find themselves without the resources to keep the lights on or repair major structural damages to their historic buildings. When philanthropy and funding patterns change dramatically, and cultural institutions can’t keep up, do we say that we’re to blame for mismanaging a collection or its finances? Or do we make the art the scapegoat and throw it out instead of opening our eyes to its ability to connect with different areas of society – scientific discovery, warfare, political revolutions, racial discrimination, etc. – and visually magnify one’s understanding of society and of human development.

Another collection has recently come under fire – and rightly so – for planning to sell off FORTY works of art in its galleries in favor of a $20 mil renovation and $40 mil for its endowment. For this, the Berkshire Museum has received an appropriately negative reaction from the American Alliance of Museums for deaccessioning works of art in order to sell; AAM’s measure follows policies we’ve outlined in past posts regarding similar unfortunate occurrences at the Delaware Art Museum and the former Corcoran Gallery. If the art is noteworthy enough to produce that much expected revenue, how can it be thought beneficial to remove these works from their public? This recent story of the Berkshire has been covered in both local and national outlets, including news that the Museum has hired more outside consultants to deal with probing questions on its new plan.

Albert Bierstadt Giant Redwood Trees of California

Albert Bierstadt, Giant Redwood Trees of California (1874). Courtesy: Google Art Project.

But ArtWatch would like to ask its readers if the sale of art by cultural institutions does not send the message that art – a visual expression of a cultural experiences – is not relevant to us today? The Berkshire Museum reportedly plans to shift their mission to focus on science and natural history. But what about the representation of human’s interaction with science and natural history as represented in works like Thomas Moran’s The Last Arrow, Albert Bierstadt’s Giant Redwood Trees of California, or even Saint-Gaudens’ bronze Diana of the Tower? Do not these landscapes convey to viewers the natural history of the American East and West, and the characters who lived in, battled with, studied, and fought to battles to preserve it? Or what about the ways sculptors throughout history learned about the scientific properties of metals and manipulated them into form? Laura Norton Moffatt, director of the Normal Rockwell Museum for 30+ years, concurs, saying in a recent op-ed in the Berkshire Eagle that “artworks and natural artifacts are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching”. What about the ways Pieter de Hooch’s Music Party or Rockwell’s Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe convey lively scenes of everyday life that capture human culture and craftsmanship in ways a violin or blacksmith’s anvil standing alone cannot?

2015-11-04 - de Young Museum San Francisco facade
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The Business of Museums: Mismanagement at the de Young in San Francisco.

2015-11-04 - de Young Museum San Francisco Dede Wilsey

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

2014-04-18 - Delaware Art Museum
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The Future of the Museum: In the war between Directors and Boards, it’s the Art that Pays.

Ruth Osborne
2014-04-18 - Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE.

To the long list of stripped gallery walls will now unfortunately be added those of 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]

2015-07-10-Winslow-Homer-Milking-Time

Winslow Homer, Milking Time (1875). Courtesy: 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.

 

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]

 

2014-04-18 - Dante Gabriele Rosetti Veronica Veronese

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?

 

 

 

[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).