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November 16, 2006

Dumping Classical Art

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Why on earth should a well-known art museum keep a bunch of fusty old Greek and Asian objects cluttering their galleries when they can trade the junk in on shiny new stuff by ... oh, whoever seems hot his week.

That's pretty much the subject of an article that appeared in yesterday's (15 Nov.) Wall Street Journal Personal Journal section by Tom L. Freudenheim titled "Shuffled Off in Buffalo." Freudenheim is identified as "a former museum director who serves as assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution."

Since I probably can't link to the article, I'll have to quote and paraphrase more than I like: bear with me.

The museum in question is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Freudenheim's home town. He notes that as a child and youth he became inspired to enter the world of art history and museums by the many times he spent roaming the Albright Art Gallery (its name then).

It seems that the Alright-Knox recently "announced it plans to sell some 200 objects from its permanent collection."

Included on the hit list are a Greco-Roman bronze statue of "Artemis and the Stag," an ancient Chinese bronze wine vessel that the Buffalo News reports is one of only a handful in existence, and a 10th-century life size statue of the god Shiva that a Sotheby's specialist told the Associated Press is "without question the most important Indian sculpture ever to appear on the market." In addition, African, Pre-Columbian and Egyptian objects and Old Master paintings are to be sold.

The sale, which Sotheby's will hold next year, is expected to bring in more than $15 million for the purchase of modern and contemporary art. The museum is best known for its collection of seminal works by Abstract Expressionists such as Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky.

Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos argues that the works to be sold fall outside the the institution's historical "core mission" of "acquiring and exhibiting art of the present."

Grachos' point does make some sense. And the items sold won't vanish from the face of the earth (though they might not be available for public viewing for a time). Moreover, it's not likely that every single one of those 200 objects is top-notch. So what's Freudenheim's problem with the sell-off?

It's a problem that's become endemic to the [museum director] profession. Museums are devoting more and more resources to acquiring large amounts of contemporary art, work about which the judgment of history--supposedly what museums are all about--is far from settled. Such acquisition policies may be acceptable, but not when done by getting rid of masterpieces whose importance has been validated by time and critical opinion and that provide a context for the work of the present. Ironically, this plan is driven by perceptions about the notably erratic and currently inflated contemporary art market, rather than by any dire financial crisis.

He notes that there was an advisory committee on the sale comprised of other museum directors, but "[M]useum folks are notorious for covering up each others' missteps"...

Freudenheim concludes

Many museums lack the resources to be encyclopedic; nevertheless, their often sporadic range of works assists in forming a sensibility about art's endless scope and roots and possibilities. What sort of message does a community museum present in suggesting that everything begins and ends with modernity, arbitrarily defined? Pity the Buffalo kids of the future, deciding you have to leave town to see anything that predates the 19th century after finding out that the foxes were guarding the henhouse.

His points, like those of Grachos, make sense. It depends on one's point of view and priorities: (1) provide a balanced (as best you can) presentation of art to your locality, or (2) be true to the organizational mission. Both positions can be valid, yet contradictory.

I haven't been to Buffalo in 25 years, so I don't know the museum scene there. Ideally, a major metro area can support more than one art museum (my town, Seattle, has three significant museums and there are others nearby). So I suppose my position is that if the Albright-Knox is the only game in town, then Freudenheim's position prevails. But if there was another art museum with a different mission, then Grachos has the edge.

I agree with Freudenheim that buying contemporary art -- especially if prices are high -- is a risky game. Might it not be wiser to buy works of unfashionable artists at rock-bottom prices, store the stuff, then wait to see if the art becomes valued later? Aside from storage costs, this strikes me as being a cheap, low-risk strategy. If some duds are acquired, the cost of the error was minimal. But if the acquisition proved not to be a dud...

Consider: A J.M. Waterhouse could have been acquired for a couple thousand (or less) in 1950; today a Waterhouse can sell in the millions, and buying one would be a big hit on the acquisition fund. Ditto other Victorian-era art.



posted by Donald at November 16, 2006


This sort of thing is a continuing scandal. As one prof of art remarked, "A museum is really just a threshing floor." A notorious example was in Washington state but back a few years. The Maryhill Museum on the Columbia River had an invaluable collection of Native American baskets -- not much for the average tourist to gaze on, but terrifically important for scholars. A curator came along who sold them all to buy huge super-realistic canvasses by an artist he liked. He was raked over the coals for this but in time, due to the fact that the paintings were there and impressed visitors, they became accepted as valuable art.

This is especially a problem with historical societies, where major gifts are brought in the front door with the understanding that they will be perpetually protected, while valuable objects are quietly sold off the loading dock. It's only a matter of time before the "gift" is cashed out.

Boards do not supervise and the public never quite realizes what is going on. This is called "de-accessioning," and there are formal policies at most institutions but they are full of loopholes. It's possible for a person in the right position to make a tidy little fortune off knowing what is coming and going.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 16, 2006 6:07 PM

I read this story today. It reminds me of something my Aunt Helen (bless her soul) stitched on a pillow:

Make new friends, keep the old...
One is silver, the other is gold.

What a shamefull loss for Buffalo.

Very Respectfully,

Posted by: Joe Moran on November 16, 2006 11:52 PM

The whole thing is most amusing. Partly it seems to be driven by the admirable tax treatment of art in the US (but especially by fractional donation, which has tuned out to be a bit of a wheeze).

The other problem is the Bilbao effect - every small town wants to put itself on the map by getting a McTate or McGuggenheim franchise. Since there are only about 10 art geniuses per generation, this leads to a silly spiral in the prices of all contemporary art, as each collector and institution buys the same stuff to make money on or to donate. No-one knows how it will fare in art historical terms, so we have a level playing field so to speak (or at least a market with an equally distributed information deficit). We should not discount the effect of the art market equivalent of insider trading, which Mary Scriver notes.

The other major factor in the McGuggenhiem issue is that contemporary art is easy for the public to understand on a superficial level, which is probably less true of classical stuff (which requires the sort of knowledge that knows the story of Judith and Holofernes or Anacreon or in the alternative one of those awful ear pieces).

So, you have a combination of new wealth (hedge funds) escaping the strictures of public finance laws, middle brow audiences secretly wanting bread and circuses but pretending it to be high culture, do-gooders like Tony Blair and his ilk demanding that art galleries be "accessible" to the uneducated (eg Teller's photo portraits of Kate Moss and Madonna), and a tax system that leads to apparently guaranteed returns on investments and price spirals, versus art that requires serious involvement and education. Are you surprised Murakami and Yuskavage win?

Posted by: Toby on November 17, 2006 1:24 AM

"It's possible for a person in the right position to make a tidy little fortune off knowing what is coming and going."
Ah, PM, there have been hints of similarly dirty deeds in Britain. It's not just pictures that need hanging.

Posted by: dearieme on November 17, 2006 7:43 AM

Who are museums for? Was there a clamoring in Buffalo for "more modern art"? I doubt it. Is there a clamoring anywhere for "more modern art"? Except in academe and maybe curators? And modern artists, of course. I mean---will this art gallery reach more people or be more well-attended if they dump the classic stuff and bring in "more modern art"? A lot of people try to skip those galleries, or else only tour them as a part of the bigger panoply of a museum. But maybe there's a big donor who's ego is assuaged by believing they are so knowledgable that they know the art world has outstripped this museum and wants to "update" the collection and put their name on a gallery. A gallery that most people will hurry past...but oh well.

Posted by: annette on November 17, 2006 9:28 AM

Recently, I visited the Albright-Knox. I had heard that it had an impressive painting collection with special emphasis on 20th century American art, and was hoping to see a Hopper or two and several Burchfields (practically a Buffalo area native son). Not a one. Admittedly there were some first rate abstract-expressionist works on view. But the rest of the permanent collection - what of it that was on view given that most of the museum space was taken up by special exhibits - was either peculiar or minor. And there wasn't a single example of 19th century American art on display.

Above and beyond that there was a sense that the Museum's first priority was providing a ladies-who-lunch venue for the local gentry. That's okay. But relative to the spiffy restaurant with interior sculpture court view, the galleries had a neglected air about them.

The upstairs galleries, given over to special exhibits, were, of course, half closed off; as there is always an exhibit being installed or dismantled nowadays when you visit any museum.

Lastly, the exhibit rooms in the old original neo-classical building were of noble proportions. But, of course, again, a new minimalist modernist wing had been added on, with lots of hallway rooms rather than 60/40 or square galleries.

Altogether, a dispiriting visit.

Posted by: ricpic on November 17, 2006 9:59 AM

On the actual subject of the post, my sentiments run pretty well along the same lines as Annette's.

Now that I've gotten* that out of the way**, I wanted to call attention to a phrase from the quoted story:

" size statue of the god Shiva..."

Really? How big is that statue? Was the original sketch done from life? Were any worlds destroyed during the making of the statue?

* I try to use "have gotten" (and variants) as often as possible, because British reactions to the phrase are so quaintly amusing.

** 8-)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 17, 2006 12:09 PM

Oh, I don't mind "gotten"; it vaguely reminds me of reading Chaucer. But I always recoil from "fit" and "spit" used as past tense.

Posted by: dearieme on November 17, 2006 3:43 PM

Damn. Missed my chance. Doug made the comment I was going to make. Although, of course, Shiva could choose to "be" the same size as that statue or any other - so the phrase, although entirely without meaning, is at the same time also true.

Posted by: Alan Little on November 17, 2006 5:18 PM

Please provide some practical suggestions for those of us whose museum may be considering the deaccessioning of long-held treasures.

Objects of particular interest to the Irish and Scottish community in Detroit were removed from display a few years ago during an extensive museum remodeling. We were assured that they would not be deaccessioned.

Last year, someone in Dublin heard that Detroit's museum decision-makers decided that these rare, 4000 year old pieces of gold jewelry would be placed in "permanent storage". A phone call to the museum confirmed this.

After telling curators over four years that Michigan's Irish and Scottish community would be on hand to welcome the pieces when they returned to display in Sept 07, you'd think they would have let us know. Instead curators conducted at least one focus group since remodeling started (Irish/Scottish not represented) and were featured in a prominent local-area magazine stating that they are making a great effort to offer what the community wants. As they've never even taken my name at any of the many times when I've called and visited, this seems a ruse.

If they have an interest in showing what the community wants access to, then aren't they stewards of OUR collection. If true, then why are those interested in the Irish and Scottish pieces being denied access? (It is the largest collection of its kind outside of the British Isles and once owned by Wm R Hearst.)

Anyway, please help us with your comments.

Posted by: Celtic on November 23, 2006 7:39 AM

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