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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

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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.

 

 

2015-07-20 - Penn Station demolition
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To Protect and Preserve: A Discussion on the Ethics of Caring for Art & Historic Landmarks.

Ruth Osborne

Last Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to present on past, present, and future wrongs done to art, before an engaged and impassioned audience at The Coffee House Club in midtown Manhattan.

Historic preservation and issues of transparency and careful stewardship of the arts are inherently linked with the original aims of ArtWatch International, an organization founded when a renowned art history scholar was taken to court for “aggravated slander” against a harmful conservation treatment upon a significant work of the Italian Renaissance. That scholar was Professor James Beck, and the work was the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia. Beck ultimately came out the victor, but the opposition was strong and well-connected.

Beck’s final statement at the trial read:

“The possibility that the considered observations of art critics and art scholars should not be aired, or that their judgments need to be cloaked in palliative euphemisms if they are expressed at all, is a dangerous precedent for the principle of free speech and free criticism. If such rights, which are guaranteed by the world charter of the United Nations and by the constitutions of both the United States and Italy, among others, were qualified, the effect would be chilling, and certainly the true losers would be the art objects of the past and future generations who have every right to expect to enjoy and learn from the treasures of the culture, conserved and preserved, in the best manner possible.”

The ultimate goal of the Ilaria case and other such struggles ArtWatch International has subsequently undertaken is not only to argue for the care of these sites and objects in the proper way, and thus ensure the history they represent is not carelessly swept away. It is also our aim to heighten transparency and create a dialogue about the treatment (or damage) done upon works of art, something often amiss in public statements by those placed in roles of protecting and preserving our cultural heritage. When there exist such individuals as Beck and others who are willing to speak out against wrongdoing and injury, the memory and enjoyment of our cultural heritage has hope of protection.

The issues of the Barnes Collection (1990-2012), Corcoran Gallery of Art (2012-2014),  the Merchant’s House Museum (2012-2015), and the Delaware Art Museum (2014-2015) relate the disconcerting fact that there is a growing need to fight against damage to art and history. From these examples, one can also see how the law protecting art, collections stewardship, and historic preservation has attempted to help, but unfortunately in many cases has lost the battle. Awareness about the dangers posed to historic preservation and good collections care and management is a necessity. Collections are being separated from original donors’ intentions, from their historic environments, sent around the world incurring damage in transit. Historic structures are being discarded and treated as second-class citizens of a city’s landscape in the face of new development. There must be individuals who remind those in power – board trustees, directors, museum professionals, city planners – that they also have a responsibility to provide protection for our artistic and cultural heritage. By disregarding it, they are doing their work without heart. They are doing a disservice to both their industries and themselves. These paintings, sculptures, and historic sites are delicate and require careful stewardship and attention in order to be honored and preserved for discovery by present and future generations.

The hope of ArtWatch is that we can provide a platform on which concerns can be aired and best practices championed and maintained

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.

 

2014-06-05 - NEH Funding Chart
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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

Chairman

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: www.neh.gov

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. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2014/05/17/first-painting-auctioned-museum-bring-m/9233453/ (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. http://www.delart.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/dam_qa_may2014.pdf (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. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2014/05/06/delaware-art-museum-sell-pre-raphaelite-painting/8760189/ (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.  http://artdaily.com/news/68674/Sotheby-s-to-sell-Dante-Gabriel-Rossetti-s-Pandora–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. http://www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts/2014/05/keep-the-pre-raphaelite-sell-contemporary-art-expert-says.html (last accessed 14 May 2014).

[7] Stephen Salisbury, “When Institutions Sell Artwork to Raise Funds,” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philly.com. 12 May 2014. http://articles.philly.com/2014-05-12/news/49773584_1_eakins-portraits-archbishop-james-frederick-wood-art-market (last accessed 13 May 2014).