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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.”

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

Ruth Osborne

2015-08-27 - Thomas Cole Portage Falls on the Genesee Seward House Museum

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.

 

 

2014-08-21 - Corcoran Gallery of Art
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Another One Bites the Dust: Corcoran to Dissolve and Collection to be Dismembered

Ruth Osborne
2014-08-21 - Corcoran Gallery of Art

Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Courtesy: Lee Sandstead.jpg

How can one of the Capital’s oldest art museums die out after nearly 150 years of existence? How can it be “as near as possible” to the original donor’s intentions that his collection be dismantled by an array of larger local institutions?

One would hope this would not be possible, that those who care for and support the arts in America would not allow this to happen. But it seems almost inevitable, considering what’s been happening both here and in the U.K. over the past few years after the recent economic crisis, that the arts are the first to get shafted.

Now that D.C. Superior Court Judge Okun has pronounced Corcoran’s merger, and subsequent dissolution, as acceptable within the bounds of cy près doctrine, the National Gallery of Art in D.C. will have its pick of the 16,000 works in the collection, while  GWU will take over the College of Art + Design and its historic building on 17th Street. While it is unclear just how this “collaboration” will “make the Corcoran collection more accessible to more people in the nation’s capital,” this is nonetheless the NGA Director Earl Powell III’s energetic statement on the merger. Lee Rosenbaum has reported thoroughly on the matter, and in so doing drawn an interesting comparison between this and another important ruling from 2004 on the severing of the Barnes Collection from its original home in Merion, PA:

“Interestingly, the Judge Okun cited both the Barnes decision and the Fisk decision as precedents for his determinations, so we now have a growing body of case law that weighs against honoring donor intent in cases where the current leadership, however inadequate, throws up its hands and cries, ‘Impracticable!’ In his conclusion, the judge suggested that he had faced an either/or choice of granting cy prèsor allowing the Corcoran “to face its likely demise.” But with more time and enhanced leadership, there might have been a third way.”

 

The Corcoran Trustees cleverly presented this merger as the only option beyond deaccessioning works to help the budget deficit, an action that would warrant harsh censure from the AAM & AAMD. As Nicholas ODonnell points out on his Art Law Report blog, this ruling of deaccession as a “non-starter” is sure to make an impact for any future court disputes involving museum collections. As other recent museums in peril have considered deaccessioning all too willingly, including the Art Institute of Chicago as of this week, public opinion of late has been opened to the dangers of this brand of mismanagement. In the end, this effectively steered the ruling away from seriously considering any financial mismanagement on the part of the Trustees. One surely does not encounter a multi-million dollar deficit just overnight.

2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC
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The Cost of Caring for Art: Art Law’s Role in the Corcoran Case.

Ruth Osborne
2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

Corcoran Gallery in D.C. Courtesy: New York Times.

Several similar battles have emerged this year in the museum world; battles over the mismanagement of important art collections and the unfortunate consequences for the artworks involved.

In the case of the Delaware Art Museum, a collection has begun to disintegrate in the interest of keeping the doors open to the public after owing millions in bond debt after a major building expansion. Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. is struggling to maintain its collection by joining with the National Gallery and abandoning its historic 1897 Beaux-Arts building just steps from the White House.

In each of these instances, items of cultural and artistic significance are being forsaken due to responsibility falling on the shoulders of those unwilling or unqualified to provide strong enough support. Caring for art is not – nor has ever been – a simple task. But as the beginnings of the Corcoran court case have illustrated this week, it demands highly discerning Board leadership and financial management. The Delaware Board using deaccessions as an answer to refilling a museum’s budget goes against the fundamental purpose of a museum to care for and preserve works of art for the public. Works are treated like fluid assets and bargaining chips, not priceless cultural artifacts to be cared for. Owners are neglecting their call to be stewards of these collections, instead treating them like cultural capital to be traded.  In the on-going struggle between bankrupt Detroit’s creditors and the DIA’s supporters, art is being asked to clean up after a city government that could not keep itself afloat.

2014-08-01 - Merchant's House Museum Manhattan

Merchants House in Lower Manhattan. Courtesy: The Villager.

Across the Atlantic, the Maeght Foundation in France has a new Director looking to make up for its budget deficit by auctioning off works from its collection, which he believes would not be much affected by deaccessions. Director Olivier Kaeppelin “wants the foundation to be free to sell works. The collection is valuable.”  Furthermore, a study by France’s Ministry of Culture this July identified the shortcomings of more than 1200 museums nationwide in caring properly for their collections. From the curator’s and collection manager’s perspective, this comes down to having the right storage and staff to care for the objects. But that all depends on a museum’s money being spent in the right way, and on fundraising that keeps collections preservation as the ultimate goal, rather than new gallery expansions.

But who is to answer if the governing board in question fails to account for their lack of good stewardship? Where a museum’s trustees fail, other major donors and supporters can step up (as in the case of the DIA and Corcoran). But what happens when outside support systems fail as well? Here in New York, the month of April signaled the final nail in the coffin of the Merchant House Museum’s fight against damage from new construction next door. The state institution charged with defending the interests of art and historic preservation was unable to prevent a new hotel from going up. Now, with 6-1 approval from New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the 180 year-old landmarked building and superior interior plasterwork will now suffer greater damage for the sake of a new hotel that surely could have been built elsewhere in the trendy NoHo neighborhood.

The law is the last system in place to defend the interests of a collection. The role of art law often ends up being essential in deciding how museums and historic sites fight to preserve their collection. It sets parameters for what should be expected of a museum board or director; it determines what should be expected from those in such positions and creates an arena in which they can be called to account for their actions. For the Corcoran, the question of what will happen remains to be answered by the D.C. Superior Court. The battle over the Corcoran’s proposed dissolution will be sure to set precedent for (inevitable) future struggles over museum collections. Questions of board mismanagement, the appointment of an unqualified director, and an inability to fundraise have thus far been raised. Representing the “Save the Corcoran” group, lawyer Andrew S. Tulmello has even gone so far as to argue: “the museum trustees have long operated as if the Corcoran had no future.” ArtWatch will be keeping tabs on what is sure to be a serious debate over board and directorial ethics, items coming under greater scrutiny in today’s changing non-profit development and donor climate.

 

2014-06-12 - Alexander Calder Delaware Art Museum

Two Major Blows to the Delaware Art Museum: Loss at Auction & Official Sanction from AAMD

Ruth Osborne

It turns out the Delaware Art Museum’s Board of Trustees may have to dig even deeper into their collections to make up for their $30 million budget deficit.

Yesterday at Christie’s in London, the first work of art given up in exchange for cold hard cash went for half the lower estimated sale price: $4.8 mil instead of $8.5-$13.6 mil. Other items thought to be in line for the chopping block include an Alexander Calder mobile and a painting by Winslow Homer. To add to this financial catastrophe was today’s sanction of the Delaware Art Museum by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). President Timothy Rubb has not failed to make his disapproval extremely clear in various press statements over the past few months. The sanction from AAMD, posted earlier today, states:

“With this sale, the museum is treating works from its collection as disposable assets, rather than irreplaceable cultural heritage that it holds in trust for people now and in the future…we ask our members to suspend any loans of works of art to, and any collaborations on exhibitions with, the Delaware Art Museum, until notified by us that the sanctions have been suspended or removed.  While each of our members needs to consider this request individually and make its own decision, it is AAMD’s strong belief that the actions of the Delaware Art Museum are contrary to the long term interest of each and every art museum.”

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

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.