Sunday, July 26, 2020

It’s a Topsy-Turvy World!

I really do not know which end is up anymore when a Museum Director can get the loan of an El Greco and a painting from the circle of Poussin for his museum, from the collection of a member of his family, and this is called self-dealing.  Works by Poussin, and even his circle, are so prized by museums that I once lost a sale to the National Gallery in London because they had to use the money to buy their eleventh Poussin.  Personally, I though a museum did not need more than 10!

This was the headline on ArtNet and a number of other sites: “Current and former staff at the Detroit Institute of Arts are lodging complaints about director Salvador Salort-Pons.”  I may have met the man but never knew him and I cannot judge if he is a good director or not but, the article continues, “Among the more serious allegations against Salort-Pons is that he abused his authority to bolster personal relationships and the value of his family’s art collection.”

The museum has exhibited two paintings owned by Alan May, Salort-Pons’s father-in-law—El Greco’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata and a painting attributed to the circle of Nicolas Poussin, An Allegory of Autumn—leading a whistleblower to file a conflict-of-interest complaint with the IRS and the Michigan attorney general. (Showing a work at a prestigious museum can enhance its market value.)”

If we were speaking of a minor, or even a middle of the road, artist museum exhibition might help the value, but El Greco is one of the most important names in art history. If the circle of Poussin painting was exhibited as a Poussin, maybe one could make a case. Buying the paintings for the museum from a family member would be considered a conflict but obtaining their loan is to the benefit of the museum.

Then two of the best curators in the country, Keith Christiansen at the Metropolitan Museum and Gary Garrels at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have both been hauled over the coals recently. Mr. Garrels has even volunteered to resign over a few words considered to be not acceptable in today’s climate.  Statements that a few years ago would not have been given a second thought.  Mr. Garrel's unfortunate remark came after the acquisition of a work of art by a black artist, ““Don’t worry,” he said. “We will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” Failing to do so, he quipped, would be “reverse discrimination.” Not that funny in the best of times, but a joke in poor taste is not worthy of condemnation. 

Now if these two had a history of racial bias that would be valid but there is no such evidence.  I also know Keith rather well and never heard a prejudiced word out of him.  Objections were raised over his personal Instagram post of a drawing of an archeologist trying to save historic tombs of St. Denis during the French Revolution, and his thoughts centering on the observation “How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve.”

Another example of the world being turned upside down is, in my opinion, a positive one.  The Supreme Court has decided in a 5-4 decision, that the disputed area covering roughly half of the state of Oklahoma and most of the city of Tulsa belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.  What was the case?  A criminal attorney has been working on an appeal in one of his sexual assault cases for years — arguing that his client, a Native American, can’t be legally prosecuted by the state of Oklahoma because the crime occurred on what has historically been Indian land.  The ramifications are far-reaching.  If you want to make a lawsuit do you sue in a state court or in a tribal court.  Who has the right to tax?  Can Indians in jail get a new trial? Who can regulate oil and gas production in the area?

Whether this is cause and effect or not I have also read that an Oregon arts organization has voluntarily given its building to a Native American group in recognition of historic tribal ownership of the land.  The Yale Union Building in Portland is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic places and has now changed hands and will become the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in 2021.

No matter, how you feel about these matters you have to admit our world is topsy-turvy!

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