2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Veletrzni Palac Prague

Mucha’s “Slav Epic” On Tour: What Story Will the Canvases Tell after Two Years of Traveling?

Ruth Osborne
2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Slavs in Original Homeland

The Slav Epic No. 1: The Slaves in Their Original Homeland (1912). Courtesy: Mucha Foundation.

In one month, an exhibition of turn-of-the-century Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic (1910-1926) will open to the public at the National Art Center in Tokyo.

The artist’s grandson, John Mucha, has been fighting this action for the past several months.  The contracts have been signed, the decision gone to court, and the massive works will now likely be flown from their home at the Veletrzní Palác (leased to Prague’s Czech National Gallery, where the works have been housed since 2010) to go to Japan, then China, then possibly Korea, and afterwards America. These twenty massive canvases (largest measuring nearly 20′ x 26′) could be traveling for up to two years. So why does this still matter to ArtWatch?

Because the decision made by the owners of these artworks will cause irrevocable damage to them without promise of securing a permanent home for them, as was stipulated upon the artist’s gifting the works to the city of Prague with American philanthropist Charles Crane in 1928. When canvases this large are rolled up, transported on airplanes (despite whatever preventative measures of safety are taken), then unrolled again for several shows over the course of two years, the works will no doubt experience alterations in their makeup. The works themselves are composed of both oil and tempera paints applied to canvas, which will react uniquely to the change in temperature and humidity from Eastern Europe to Asia to the North America.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Installation 2011

Mucha’s Slav Epic during installation in 2011. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper.

Paintings restorer at the Slovak Academy of Sciences Zuzana Poláková states that “The more Mucha is handled, the less Mucha there is […] Works from Mucha’s Epic have been exhibited abroad several times in the past [during Mucha’s lifetime] and they have always needed restoration. Damage is caused by the repeated rolling and unrolling of the canvases and changes in climate.” Not only are conservators making appeals for the works’ well-being, but so is the Association for the Conservation and Development of Cultural Heritage in the Czech Republic. This nationally-recognized group of conservators has noted one piece of the Epic‘s history that the city of Prague would like to forget: a 1936 investigation by the city council recommending the works not be permitted to travel abroad after having been seriously damaged. While Alphonse himself was still around to restore damages in the 1930s, he is no longer should anything come of this new tour. The works were reportedly hidden during WWII and resurfaced afterwards to be displayed at a chateau in the Moravian town of Moravsky Krumlov in 1963, where they were housed until being wrestled from the town in 2010 and sent to Prague. According to Czech news sources and grandson John’s interview last year with Radio Prague, there are already damages incurred during their installation at the Prague City Gallery.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Veletrzni Palac Prague

Mucha’s Slav Epic installed at Veletrzni Palac in Prague. Courtesy: The Naked Tour Guide Prague.


2017-02-13 Mucha golden donut gallery Prague

Visualization of the proposed golden donut gallery. Courtesy: Radio Prague/Arpema/

John has further stated that : “[Alphonse] gave it to the city of Prague on condition that it build a pavilion in which it could be exhibited to the public. But the city has not fulfilled that condition.” This issue is a whole other kettle of fish on its own, as the city council’s desire to rehouse the works in a new “golden donut” gallery building without consulting the wider public has been criticized – by one of its district’s own mayors. The works were, in John’s words, “given to Prague, but only as a vehicle, as a gift to the people and the Nation,” NOT to the city Gallery, and “crown jewels don’t usually travel. It was reported by The Economist that, while the city of Prague is arguing they own the works and therefore they have the ability to do with them as they please, that they are also arguing that they cannot be held to account for the artist’s stipulation that the works are provided a permanent exhibition space. Documents from the city’s archives are serving to support the city’s argument that it Crane, not Mucha, who gifted the works. Essentially, they want every benefit that owning this art provides – money from visitors to their gallery, money from exhibit loans – without actually caring for their ongoing preservation if they are to be enjoyed. None of the long-term duties of caring for the works as their original creator thought he had secured. What a surprise! Representatives from the city of Prague (owner of the Prague City Gallery) as well as the National Center for Art in Tokyo have still refused to give comment.

It can be obvious when those in positions of “ownership” of a building or a work of art will have their way, despite the opinions of others in society who care. It can feel pointless to work against one side in favor of having its way because the other side is working against the current of “just the way things are”. But maintaining awareness of wrongs done is not pointless. Opening up dialogue on what is truly the best way to care for art is not ineffective. To say that is to assume that one person’s actions need not be held accountable because they are not impacting another group. To say that is to assume complacency, and take a naïve view that there are no serious wrongs done to things that matter and have an impact on people. To deny dialogue about proper care for works of art is to deny their impact on society.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Apotheosis of Slavs

The Slav Epic No. 20: The Apotheosis of the Slavs, Slavs for Humanity (1926). Courtesy: Mucha Foundation.

We’ve covered the case of another massive – and extremely unique – canvas being taken from its long-time home to travel around the world, and then be installed just down the road; in this instance, it was a large Matisse installation from the Barnes Collection being rippled and torn while in transit. For details on Barnes’ Matisse – painted in-situe in the collector’s original home in Merion, PA – before and after it was transported to its new home in Philadelphia, see herehere, and here. More recently, the Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY had decided it would be better to replace its original Thomas Cole – commissioned specially for the house’s owner and given a place of honor in his parlor – with a replica that would supposedly be easier to care for. And, perhaps, so that the operating Foundation could benefit from the sale of the original? While staff at the Seward House have confirmed to ArtWatch that the original has still not returned to the House nor appeared at auction, the staff also remain unaware of what the Board’s intentions might be in the future.

The city of Prague’s ability to rationalize sending Mucha’s Slav Epic on a two year tour also echoes the attitude of the Delaware Art Museum’s Board, when it decided a few years ago to leverage some of its works in order to pay off loans from a recent building expansion. It seems neither the artist nor his/her surviving works have much say in how they are treated less than 100 years after their creation.

If the court decides in favor of the city of Prague, the works will be on display for just two months at the National Art Center in Tokyo (8 March-5 June 2017), before traveling to China, where the works will be shown for just shy of three months at the Nanjing Museum (14 July-8 October), the Guangdong Museum (November-January 2018) and the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha (February-May 2018). Venues in South Korea and the US are reportedly being negotiated.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic

Alphonse Mucha with the Slav Epic in the 1920s. Courtesy: Mucha Trust.

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

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.