2014-06-12 - Delaware Art Museum

Calder Mobile Disappears: Will this be the next item sold by the Delaware Art Museum?

Ruth Osborne
2014-06-12 - Alexander Calder Delaware Art Museum

Alexander Calder’s Black Crescent, as it hung in the East Court at the Delaware Art Museum. Courtesy: Matt Freeman/The News Journal

The Delaware Art Museum may be best-known for its nineteenth-century works (by the Pre-Raphaelites, Brandywine River School, and Ashcan School), but their modern collection may also take a hit from the recent budget crisis. Recent speculation by local news sources suggests the disappearance of an Alexander Calder mobile from installation and the Museum’s online database heralds this will be the next of the possibly four items to be sold.

“Black Crescent” (1959), purchased by the Museum in 1961, will need to bring in upwards of $10 million to help cover the $30 mil. needed to replenish its endowment and pay off construction costs from the previous decade. As recent sales have shown, Calder pieces have certainly gone for as much, if not more (most notably, last month’s “Poisson Volant” for $26 mil. at Christie’s).

While we await the June 17 sale of William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, even more criticism has emerged from a national public whose trust has been deceived by the Delaware Art Museum. Former AAMD President and Director of the PMA Timothy Rub recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

“This is not a matter, as is often claimed, of protecting the public trust, as important as that may be. Rather, it is about common sense. You don’t cut out the heart to cure the patient; and yet this was the remedy chosen by Delaware’s trustees to restore their institution to good health. Regrettably, they seem not to have understood their broader responsibility to care for all of the museum’s assets—most significantly, its collection.

It is precisely in such circumstances that the trustees of the Delaware Art Museum should have stood up—and stood together—to champion a broader and more compelling vision of cultural stewardship by protecting their collection rather than monetizing it. That they did not do so is unfortunate for their institution and has set a dangerous precedent for the field.

As we pointed out last week, such activity in the museum world in response to the recent economic crisis has unfortunately forced several museums to make such ill-advised decisions. The true character of a Board is shown when their museum is faced with financial strain. ArtWatch hopes that, while these actions by the Delaware Art Museum demonstrate one type of reaction, museum trustees elsewhere will take such opportunities to care for the collection first, and a reputation-bolstering expansion second.


2014-06-05 - NEH Funding Chart

Museum Budgets & an Anxious Arts Community: What does this say about the next 15 years?

Ruth Osborne

Last month, we received update on a historically significant painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt set to be sold at Christie’s to pay of a portion the Delaware Art Museum’s $30 million debt.

In the ensuing weeks, ArtWatch has picked up on an increasing degree of anxiety from art historians and journalists keeping abreast of the story as it unfolds. Even more unease has appeared in the arts world from updates on the status of the Corcoran Gallery’s demise, also from lack of funds.

From The Ruskin Society comes the following comment on the W.H. Hunt sale, to take place later this month:

“I am deeply concerned about the forthcoming sale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

It is my belief that museums and galleries should be the custodians of paintings and other items in their care. these things are not assets to dispose of at will, but important cultural capital.

Museums and galleries should have good management and be able to balance their books without having to sell ‘the family silver’ to pay off debts.

This particular Pre-Raphaelite painting Isabella and the Pot of Basil is a historic work of art, to be compared to its ‘sister’ in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.”

Dr Cynthia Gamble


The Ruskin Society


From an updated estimated lot on behalf of Christie’s (that the Hunt painting could go for upwards of $13.4 mil.), Delaware journalist Margie Fishman has just hinted at the Delaware board’s possible selling strategy: parting with fewer but more valuable works is better than parting with more works at lower individual figures. Independent journalist Judith Dobrzynski has further suggested that the Hunt painting, alongside the possible sale of Winslow Homer’s Milking Time (1875), could be all that is required to take care of the $30 mil in need. But if this is to be Delaware’s strategy, will they not be risking parting with two of their most treasured works? Just how much will these unfortunate sales depreciate the overall value and integrity of the collection?

Museum professionals nationwide remain deeply concerned with what these sales imply for the future health of the Delaware Art Museum, stating their anxieties about current happenings and “misplaced” art works and loans in the past: “With their history of mismanagement, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were in this position 20 years from now.” (Richard J. Kelly, secretary of the national Museum Trustee Association).[1] Issues pertaining to museum funding, board management, and (inevitable?) deaccessions all lend themselves to a reconsideration of whether or not American collections are appropriately valued and supported by wider society.

Lee Rosenbaum’s coverage of the New York National Academy’s recurrent budget crisis relates yet one more story of serious museum staff restructuring in the face of lagging financial support. The Director’s recent statement insisted that this move was not due to budget cuts, but also referred to the staff as “streamlined” and confirmed it would help save the Academy funds “in the mid-six figures,” as they had been experiencing operating budget issues since 2008. No surprise there. The Academy undertook “stealth” deaccessions that fateful year to help with budget deficit, causing it to be ostracized from the AAMD and placed on probation.

2014-06-05 - NEH Funding Chart

NEH Funding Chart. Courtesy:

All institutions will make their own decisions, it seems, when a budget crisis places them between a rock and a hard place. What the past ten years has showed us is that these decisions are only increasing in this troubled financial environment. The startling proposal to slash the NEH budget in half for the upcoming fiscal year is just one more obvious sign that priorities towards the arts are slipping and responsibilities the government took up fifty years ago are falling through the cracks.



[1]Margie Fishman, “First painting auctioned by museum could bring $13.4 million,” The News Journal. 20 May 2014. (last accessed 22 May 2014).

2014-05-15 - William Holman Hunt Isabella and the Pot of Basil

Delaware Art Museum Deaccession Update: W.H. Hunt Painting to be Sold at Auction

Ruth Osborne
2014-05-15 - William Holman Hunt Isabella and the Pot of Basil

William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1868. Former Collection of the Delaware Art Museum.

The latest update in the story of the Delaware Art Museum’s deaccessions is a quite unfortunate one. It was announced last week that an item from their prominent collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings would be one of the four sold at auction.

William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868) is to be sent off to Christie’s in London for their June 17th auction[1], whilst the Board sits back and waits for the proceeds to roll in.


London’s The Daily Telegraph announced just a few days ago that this item from the Delaware collection was expected at Christie’s. The record to date is $1.8 million for a Hunt painting, set in 1994 by the Manchester Art Gallery.[2] The painting now in question features Hunt’s wife Fanny as the model in a scene from a poem by English Romantic poet John Keats. Here, Hunt captures the moment of the lovelorn Isabella covering herself over a potted basil plant, in which she has buried the ashes of her lover Lorenzo. Hunt had begun the work while the couple were in Italy, but completed it after her death. It thus stands as a memorial portrait of the artist’s wife, certainly not insignificant to the study of his oeuvre.


The Delaware News Journal has reported on strong criticism from Mark Samuels Lesner, a senior research fellow in late nineteenth-century art history and literature at the University of Delaware, Mark Samuels Lesner. He has used the words “sacrilege” and “extraordinarily significant” to describe the painting and its upcoming sale. CEO Mike Miller, however, reportedly claimed it is “no more important than any others,” and was thus chosen for sale “because of its limited impact on the overall collection.”[3]


Contradicting Miller’s assertion is the emphasis placed on another Pre-Raphaelite painting coming up at auction May 22 at Sotheby’s in London, Dante Gabriele Rosetti’s Pandora (1871). It has been promoted as the highlight of the sale, with a feature video and article on Sotheby’s website and an expected hammer price of £5-7 million ($8.4-11.7 million).[4]    Also of note is the major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art opening this month, “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy” (May 20-Oct. 26, 2014). This renewed attention to Hunt, Rosetti, and others from the group is sure to have a certain amount of impact on raising the sale price. Quite advantageous for Miller and the rest of the Board, no?


Another argument for the sale of contemporary works from Delaware’s collection has also been made by the above-mentioned Lesner. Skewed as his opinion may be towards nineteenth-century works, he does have a point. Works from late twentieth-century artists like Richard Cleaver and Chul Hyun Ahn are not the pieces that formed the foundation of the Museum’s collection and have less connection with the institution’s history. He has made sure to point out that Pre-Raphaelite works like Hunt’s, as well as those by the Brandywine River School of American illustrators, stand at its “core, the reason for the institution’s very existence.”[5] If the Delaware Art Museum is to promote itself proudly for its founding collection, as it has for the past century, should it not respect the integrity of that collection?

Independent arts journalist Judith Dobrzynski has remarked upon the difficulty of museums selling contemporary works that carry less weight in the realm of arts scholarship:

Most museum directors I’ve discussed this with won’t go there. Some would like to sell contemporary art works they feel will not stand the test of time. But there are two problems: they don’t want to offend living artists — not only the ones whose works would be sold, but also others who might take offense at the practice. Second, they’re afraid that the works aren’t worth much — and that their sale would be a signal of an artist’s insignificance, depressing prices even more.”[6]

ArtWatch’s concern is that the steps now being taken by the Delaware Art Museum’s Board of Trustees confirms yet another added to the list of those who have compromised the integrity of their collection, and thereby their institutional history, in the face of financial crisis. As Stephen Salisbury at The Philadelphia Inquirer writes, Delaware has now fallen into the very same fate as others in the mid-Atlantic region. Former head of the Barnes Foundation, Derek Gillman, further prods the issue, as the Delaware Art Museum was founded as a collecting institution and the proceeds from these sales will not go, as the AAM regulates, back into the collections budget: “They’ve broken the rules…Their issue is, ‘OK, we accept that there will be costs to the museum.’ ” [7] There is a danger to this sudden disconnect between institutions and the works of art held on their walls for decades. Art is becoming increasingly commodified as a financial asset. What risk does this pose to the future of cultural stewardship?

*UPDATE* Monday June 9, 2014

From a member of ArtWatchUK comes an interesting remark on the expected valuation of the painting by Miller and the rest of the Delaware Art Museum Board:
“…it seems to have been overlooked that the full-size finished oil painting of this subject is in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Delaware painting is only a later version, one third of the size of the original and begun by someone else; and only finished off by Holman Hunt. I believe the Delaware trustees are expecting somewhere in the region of five million pounds for the painting: but for the reasons given above, I can’t see it happening. But I do hope the painting will be described in the catalogue and offered for sale for what it really is.”

Alan Halliday, Ph.D. (Oxford)

2014-05-15 - Delaware Art Museum catalogue Waking Dreams

Delaware Art Museum catalogue from 2004 exhibition “Waking Dreams.”














[1] Delaware Art Museum. Press Release: Q&A. 6 May 2014. (last accessed 13 May 2014).

[2] “Market News,” The Daily Telegraph. 13 May 2014.

[3] Margie Fishman, “Delaware Museum to Auction Iconic Painting,” The News Journal. Delaware Online. 6 May 2014. (last accessed 13 May 2014).

[4] “Sotheby’s to sell Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pandora; Last seen at auction 50 years ago,” ArtDaily. 11 March 2014.–Last-seen-at-auction-50-years-ago (last accessed 15 May 2014).

[5] Fishman.

[6] Judith H. Dobrzynski, “Keep The Pre-Raphaelite, Sell Contemporary Art, Expert Says,” Real Clear Arts: Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture. 11 May 2014. (last accessed 14 May 2014).

[7] Stephen Salisbury, “When Institutions Sell Artwork to Raise Funds,” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 12 May 2014. (last accessed 13 May 2014).

2014-03-07 - Corcoran Beaux-Arts lion

Corcoran Fiasco: Troublesome Plans for the Capitol’s Oldest Art Museum

Ruth Osborne
2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website.

It seems there will be no end to the ravaging of great collections by museum boards without any other hope in sight. Just as the financial distress with the Barnes yanked this famous collection from its roots in Merion, PA, to a pretentiously zen warehouse in Philadelphia in 2012, so too does impending financial doom threaten to tear apart Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design.

Economic distress began in 2012 when the Corcoran issued a statement reporting their intentions to “implement plans to ensure its long-term stability and attain a new level of vitality and excellence.” Without the aid of federal funding, their need for $100 million in renovation and maintenance costs had presented them with an insurmountable challenge. Responding to this, they announced the possibility of relocation:

“So, to move toward a robust and successful future for the Corcoran, we are evaluating all of our options for the building. Just as the Corcoran moved in 1897 to accommodate its growing collection, one of the clear options now is to consider relocating to a purpose-built, technologically advanced facility that is cost-effective to maintain.”[1]

As Lee Rosenbaum (CultureGrrl) reported, the main issue at hand is the imminent breaking up of the collection. The Corcoran had already been through several series of major deaccessions since 1979, which were renewed in recent years.  There were even suggestions that some items had been sold against no-sale restrictions from their benefactors, though this was ultimately proven a false accusation. The dismembering of such a collection, or the disjoining of a collection from its historic setting, is extremely unsettling for ArtWatch.

2014-03-07 Corcoran Gallery interior

Inside the Corcoran Gallery’s 1897 building.

Not only does it bring to mind collections that have suffered damages in forced travel from their long-standing home. It sets out the possibility of a precious collection being forever divorced from its original donors’ wishes and set forth on a new trajectory of blockbuster exhibitions, when the public has always had the opportunity to visit the collection and to experience it within its magnificent 100+ year-old home setting. What is to become of these works that will now be removed from the walls of their Beaux-Arts dwelling, just steps from the White House? Will their history within the Corcoran, and the historic moment of American collecting it represents, simply be dissolved?


2014-03-07 - Picasso Le Tricorne Seagram Building

Picasso’s Le Tricorne at the Seagram Building.


Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago it was also reported that Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” mural was in danger of being removed, at great risk to its fragile condition, from the landmarked Seagram Building in New York City. All this simply because the building’s current owner real-estate developer Aby Rosen, thinks this Picasso is a “rag.” Even more than with the Corcoran’s collection, one must consider the holistic visual experience that will no longer be experienced by future generations. The assault on historically housed works of art is reaching epidemic proportions. Visiting the Barnes collection at its new home on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, there is now a clear “dis-connect” between the works and their collector’s original arrangement, and the new replica building itself, with its interrupting spaces of blank  walls and glassed-in gardens.


2014-03-07 - Barnes Foundation exterior Philadelphia

Barnes Foundation exterior 2012.

After the Corcoran’s initial press release in June of 2012, alternatives were suggested so that the collection need not relocate. The Gallery’s former head of public relations and marketing, Roberta Faul-Zeitler, recommended that either the College housed at the Corcoran (since 1890) should move to a new building, or that the collection be affiliated with another premier National Museum. Among those suggested as new affiliates for the Corcoran collection were the National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery, and Smithsonian American Art Museum, all in D.C.[2] As of recent news, it turns out the works will succumb to the massive appetite of the National Gallery of Art. [3] The collection will now be brought into the centralized system of museums along the Mall as if there were not something to be treasured in the fact that the Corcoran is in fact Washington, D.C.’s oldest private art museum.

2014-03-07 - Barnes Foundation hallway

Hallway at the new Barnes Foundation building, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Corcoran College of Art + Design is to be absorbed within George Washington University. As discussions over who would “take” the College swung back-and-forth between the University of Maryland and GWU over the past few years, it would be remiss to say that this portion of the Corcoran’s closure has been without its battling giants.[4] The motivation for the Corcoran to select GWU may have been unclear at first, but in the end has turned out to be founded on just what one might expect: “money, risk and control.” The Washington Post further reports that “The Corcoran also will seek to be released from its founding purpose as a gallery — chartered by financier and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran in 1869 and now to be redefined in 2014.”[5]  The flip-flopping negotiations over the past 3 years surely must not generate trust from the 550 students being tossed about in the middle of it all.

A student organization, “Save the Corcoran,” has sprung up around this fiasco:

 “Proposing a more open and honest dialogue about the institution’s future, the group is rooted in a sincere effort to collaborate with Corcoran leadership on a solution that will address the gallery’s needs while maintaining its historic home and identity.”

In a letter on their website, the donors, artists, faculty, students, and alumni state that:  “we as a community first stood together, united in our concern, confusion and outrage over the proposed sale of the historic Ernest Flagg building that houses our beloved Corcoran.” Their last effort in this hapless struggle was to prevent the sale of the landmark Corcoran building on 17th St. with a petition in 2012. Signers have protested against what they refer to as the “suicidal sale” of one of the Capitol’s “most valuable historic and cultural assets.”[6]


2014-03-07 - Corcoran Beaux-Arts lion

2014-03-07 – Corcoran Beaux-Arts lion

This imminent threat to the Corcoran recalls what happened to the Barnes Collection in Merion, PA when the Board encountered financial troubles. It is also difficult to ignore the permanent damage to works of art caused by relocation, even by the most capable and knowledgeable hands. The Burrell Collection in Scotland is also facing this issue once the building’s four-year renovation begins and its pieces are shuttled around the world to raise funds for its costly venture. The selling and abuse of heritage collections has, unfortunately, seemed inescapable in recent years. Lee Rosenbaum has most recently brought to light a question that should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind: now that the Corcoran will cease to build their collection, where will the proceeds (in the tens of millions) go from sales of recent deaccessions?[7] Where is the master scheme behind the haphazard dissemination and dissolution of the Corcoran? How many more venerable institutions will now face dismemberment and asset-stripping in the present spell of financial austerity?


[1] Fred Bollerer (Director and President) and Harry Hopper (Chairman, Board of Trustees), “Statement from the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design,” 6 June 2012. Corcoran Gallery of Art – Corcoran College of Art + Design. (last accessed 21 February 2014).

[2] Lee Rosenbaum, “Corcoran Uproar: Desperate Gamble to Rescue a Foundering D.C. Museum UPDATED,” 6 June 2012, CultureGrrl. (last accessed 21 February 2014).

[3] David A. Smith, “Arts: Washington D.C. lose great art museum,” 6 March 2014. Waco Tribune. (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[4] Nick Anderson, “George Washington University plans for merger with Corcoran College,” 21 February 2014. The Washington Post. (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[5] David Montgomery, “When Corcoran’s partnership didn’t work out as hoped, thoughts turned to a takeover,” 1 March 2014. Washington Post. (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[6] Petition – “Vote NO on the sale of the Corcoran building,” (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[7] Lee Rosenbaum, “Corcoran Dissolution: Whither the Art-Sale Proceeds?” 4 March 2014. CultureGrrl. (last accessed 6 March 2014).