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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?

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

Ruth Osborne

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

Washington, D.C.

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

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

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

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

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

Wilmington, DE

2016-10-15 Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum

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

2016-10-15 Winslow Homer Milking Time

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

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

Auburn, NY

2016-10-15 Seward House Museum

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

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

2016-10-15 Thomas Cole Portage Falls

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

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

 

New York, NY

2016-10-15 National Acadamy Museum New York

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

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

 

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

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

2014-08-01 - 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.

 

2014-05-15 - 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).

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

Ruth Osborne
2014-04-18 - Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE.

To the long list of stripped gallery walls will now unfortunately be added those of the Delaware Art Museum. Though the state it represents is small, its collection boasts one of the largest selections of Pre-Raphaelite art (outside of the U.K.), important pieces from Brandywine River School artists Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, and a large number of paintings of the New York Ashcan School.

In short, this collection offers visitors a window onto influential American and English artists and illustrators of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that is both varied and focused in its depth. Those donors who gave to the Museum after it opened in 1912 were committed to their own individual collecting practices as well as to promoting the well-being of arts education and appreciation in their state. However, as has been the case with many large and small cultural institutions in recent years, boards of trustees are less and less willing to sacrifice new construction to protect the original collection.

 

The Delaware Art Museum announced March 26 that it intends to repay its $19.8 million in bond debt by the sale of four (as yet unnamed) works from its permanent collection. This sale, projected at $30 million, is also aimed at “[replenishing] the Museum’s endowment, which will place the Museum on a firm financial basis for the future.” The Museum also states in its press release that: “No works of art acquired through gift or bequest will be part of the sale.” How is it, may we ask, that the Museum came to acquire $19.8 million in debt? Beyond stock market woes from the 2008 crash are lingering bond debts exacerbated from its 2005 building expansion.[1]

 

This was, according to new CEO Mike Miller, the only other option beyond completely shuttering the Museum’s doors.[2] The decision to sell four works from the collection has brought on scolding from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), though Miller seems to have acknowledged this was worth it. Miller, to be clear, has no background in the arts. He came in, as a replacement for the Museum’s former director Danielle Rice, with a background as CFO of a pharmaceutical company. President of AAMD Timothy Rub (Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) has conveyed a good deal of criticism towards the Delaware Board’s decision.  They failed to take his advice to go public with their debt and approve the sale after their director had left for a better opportunity:  “Who was the advocate at the museum now from the curatorial or directorial side to make the case for maintaining the integrity of the collection?”  The professional staff at the Delaware Art Museum will now be the ones to bear the brunt of the consequences from this unsanctioned sale. It must also be noted that only one sale in the past 10 years has been sanctioned for the sake of financial crisis. Exhibition loans and other types of collaboration between Delaware’s collection and the several hundred museums that are members of AAMD can be halted all because of their Board’s decision. [3]

 

Rub has also conveyed disappointment that the Board failed to look into other options for recovering their finances: “The stewardship of a collection is one of our paramount responsibilities and when we begin to look at pieces of a collection as fungible resources that can be monetized we are starting down a very slippery slope.” [4] Both the AAM and AAMD have issued strong statements against the Delaware Art Museum’s Board for their actions. President Ford Bell (of AAM) has not revoked their accreditation, but the finger wagging they received still has a good deal of potency:

“The Delaware Art Museum’s announcement that it will sell four works from the collection in order to pay its debts and support its endowment is a flagrant violation of the AAM standard for U.S. museums, succinctly embodied in this enduring principle of our field: the museum is there to save the collection; the collection is not there to save the museum.” [5]

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

Winslow Homer, Milking Time (1875). Courtesy: Delaware Art Museum.

CEO Miller has remained silent to recent accusations that a painting by landscape artist Winslow Homer, Milking Time (1875), might be one of the four to be sold. This piece is known to be one of the masterpieces of the collection. When it was noticed that the painting had been removed from the Museum’s wall as well as its online collection database, Miller told the press “You can make your own speculations.”[6]

 

Lee Rosenbaum’s interview with the Museum’s former director Danielle Rice is quite eye-opening. Essentially, Rice reveals what a jaded museum professional would unfortunately learn to expect from a board of trustees feeling the financial pinch.[7]

ROSENBAUM: Did you know this was coming?

RICE: Of course I did! Every single trustee of every single museum board always thinks, “We can always sell art.” So from the minute I stepped into the place, I was saying to them, “No, you can’t do that.

RICE: What I think happened was that my leaving opened up the door for them to take this path, which was to say: “We won’t get a new director. We’ll do this in this interim period, and when a new director comes in, they won’t have the financial problem. They’ll have an image issue and a sanction issue to deal with, but at least we will have done the deed, in between professional directors. Any professional director worth his salt could not have embarked on this kind of thing…I think selling art is one of those magic bullets that all trustees fantasize about. They don’t understand the more abstract and difficult concept of public trust.

 

According to last month’s press release from the Museum: “This is a singular event.”[8] And yet, once an unsanctioned sale of artworks to cover a Museum’s debt  occurs, it sets a terrifying precedent. The Delaware Board’s action can open the floodgates for boards of other museums facing similar financial crises that do not see any other options in sight. Beyond neglecting to protect the artworks that do go off to auction, one must consider how this will impact the care given to the pieces that remain (for now) in the collection. Will a board’s responsibility to safeguard artistic heritage all too easily succumb to financial pressures when funds from other donors dry up? Does money come first, and art second? Is a museum no longer a cultural institution, but now a business to develop and streamline for efficiency? What will now be expected of the Delaware Board since the lines have been crossed? Even the giant Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed itself to recently balance out its $4.4 million deficit from 2013 with the sale of 3,290 artworks this very month.[9]

As has been expressed in the Times‘ coverage of Delaware’s situation, the sale of collection items to make up for capital or operational expenses is seriously considered as an “ethical violation, a betrayal of a museum’s role of holding art in public trust.” [10] One member of the Museum’s collections committee, but not a trustee, recently spoke out with disdain: “A lot of us in the community, myself included, were blindsided by this.” This same committee member has also brought to light the fact that other Delaware cultural institutions (Delaware Theatre Company, Delaware Symphony Orchestra) had gone through similar post-recession crisis, but still came out on the other side without such great losses on the horizon.[11]

 

2014-04-18 - Dante Gabriele Rosetti Veronica Veronese

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Veronica Veronese, 1872. Collection: Delaware Art Museum.

Donn Zaretsky, of the UK-based art law blog, brings Delaware’s situation into wider context by comparing it to lack of fuss given when the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s recent deaccession and sale of a masterpiece Hopper painting in order to purchase pieces of contemporary art in August 2013. [12]  An unfortunate reaction from a major Delaware news source demonstrates the lack of conviction held by some members of the local public impacted by this sale:

“Let’s be realistic though. No one likes the idea. But the suggestion from the association and other critics that museum distribute its collection to other museums to keep the art out of private hands is foolish. The sale of the four pieces would keep the museum open here. More than 60,000 people visit the museum each year. They would be deprived of a Delaware treasure if that were to happen.” [13] Is there not a more respectful, diligent way for the Board to responsibly protect their “Delaware treasure”?

What is this disconnect happening between museums and the public where failure to see a collection’s broader cultural value leads to a disavowal of these great resources? When boards fluster under the weight of crippling debt, and the public seems to have not seen this coming, where do we start rebuild the bridges between the modern public and the artistic heritage of the past?

 

 

 

[1] “Press Statement: Delaware Art Museum Board of Trustees Vote to Retire Debt,” 26 March 2014. Delaware Art Museum. http://www.delart.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Press-Statement.pdf (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[2] Randy Kennedy, “Delaware Art Museum Will Sell Works to Pay Off Debt,” 26 March 2014. New York Times. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/delaware-art-museum-will-sell-works-to-pay-off-debt/   (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[3]”Museum to sell art to pay debt,” 27 March 2014. Delaware Online. The News Journal. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/entertainment/arts/2014/03/26/delaware-art-museum-sell-four-works/6913117/ (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[4]Kennedy.

[5] Lee Rosenbaum, “AAM Condemns Delaware Art Museum’s Deaccessions,” 27 March 2014. CultureGrrl.  http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2014/03/aam-condemns-delaware-art-museums-deaccessions.html (last accessed 17 April 2014).

[6] Margie Fishman, “Is Winsow Homer painting headed for sale?,” Delaware Online. The News Journal. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2014/04/12/sunday-preview-winslow-homer-painting-headed-sale/7637959/ (last accessed 16 April 2014).

[7] Lee Rosenbaum, “Delaware Art Museum’s Deaccession Debacle: My Q&A with Its Former Director, Danielle Rice,” 2 April 2014. CultureGrrl. Arts Journal. http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2014/04/delaware-art-museums-deaccession-debacle-my-qa-with-its-former-director-danielle-rice.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+artsjournal%2FXHaF+%28CultureGrrl%29 (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[8]”Q&A,” November 2013. Delaware Art Museum. http://www.delart.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/PublicQandA_2.pdf (last accessed 4 April 2014).

[9] “Museums: Balance,” in AMA Newsletter. No. 146 (3 April 2014). Art Media Agency, 7.

[10] Kennedy.

[11] Fishman.

[12] Donn Zaretsky, “How to be ethical in the art world,” 27 March 2014. The Art Law Blog. http://theartlawblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/how-to-be-ethical-in-art-world.html

[13] “Preserving art in a changing world,” 29 March 2014. Delaware Online. The News Journal.

http://www.delawareonline.com/story/opinion/editorials/2014/03/29/preserving-art-changing-world/7036289/ (last accessed 4 April 2014).