Sunday, November 29, 2020

Our Museums are in Trouble

If you have been reading my Missives, I must assume that you have interest in the art world.  I recently read a very disturbing article in the Artnet News about the struggle that museums are going through.  Already at the beginning of last April there was a headline saying that the pandemic had already cost American arts organizations 4.5 billion dollars.

Quite a number of museums are in dire straits and could very well close for good if they do not get financial aid. In fact, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) predicts that 12.5% of all museums will be closing permanently.  The AAM, the American Alliance of Museums (formerly known as the American Association of Museums) did an international survey of 850 institutions.  Having lost 35% of their operating budget this year, they expect to lose another 28% in 2021.

I do not think we have to worry about the survival of museums like the Metropolitan since they have donors with very deep pockets, still, a loss of 150 million dollars for their 150th  Anniversary year gives one pause.

The Metropolitan Museum, Photo by Cindy Ord

According to UNESCO the number of museums in the last 8 years has grown by 60%. There are not only closures because of COVID, there will be  increasingly limited public funds for the arts, so many of these newer and/or smaller institutions will not survive.

Coupled with COVID restrictions is the decline in tourism affecting attendance income even when museums reopen. But here is a statistic I would not have thought of, -- replacing galas with virtual events, which two-thirds of museums have done, had a revenue shortfall of 34%.

The Prado Museum in Madrid

The American Alliance of Museums has been around since 1906 bringing museums together and developing standards and best practices.  As you might have read, together with the American Association of Museum Directors  (AAMD),  The AAM has relaxed its rules on deaccessioning.  Formerly they would only allow the sale of works of art in order to upgrade the collection, but never for operating expenses.  On April 15, 2020, The Center for Art Law reported, “Due to COVID-19, the AAMD announced that museum’s will not be censured, sanctioned, suspended, or expelled as they usually would. The AAMD reported that the museum’s good faith use of deaccessioning proceeds to pay for “direct care” of the museum’s collections is permitted.”

In the case of one British institution, the Royal Opera House in London, a painting by David Hockney consigned to Christies yielded them £13 million.  It turned out that the unannounced buyer was David Rose, billionaire co-founder of British cellphone retailer Carphone Warehouse and Chair of the Opera House’s Board of Directors, and it will return to the Royal Opera House on long term loan!  Granted that art collection does not represent an opera house’s primary function, but would that museum deaccessions would have such a happy result!

David Hockney's Portrait of Sir David Webster, 1971

After reading the various reports I gave something to all our local museums as well as a few other institutions.  I do hope you will follow suit!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Family Sayings

For many reasons I have been thinking of my parents and the things they used to say.  More and more have come back to me while our movements have been severely restricted.  My parents were from Germany and I was born during World War II so my parents did not want me speaking German at school so only spoke English with me.  Of course, when they spoke to each other they spoke in their native German.  I used to say jokingly, that I learned German in self-defense so I could know what they were saying about me.  Though my German is severely limited by a lack of vocabulary, and a whole lot else, maybe someone can explain to me why so much of the language has come back to me lately.  They do say that you remember more from your youth as you get older.

 “I wake up in the morning with nothing to do and by the end of the day, I have finished half of it” is a comment I have read about the shutdown.   That is my state of mind too!  However, I am reminded of what my father used to say to me when I complained about having too much schoolwork: “The more you do, the more you can get done.”  So true. Though these days  really have to push myself, I sometimes amaze myself with what gets accomplished. 

As a corollary to that my father said in German, “Wennshon denn schon” (If you are going to do it, give it your all). That is my translation, but I like what I found online, “You might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb” or “Go whole hog”

My parents were born in 1911 and 1913 when Germany still had an Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918).  One of their favorite sayings was, “Wo der Kaiser zu Fuss geht” (where the Kaiser goes on foot). That should be obvious, -- to the privy. I can imagine my grandparents saying that to my father when he was a little boy… and it stuck.

My family art dealership was founded in Frankfurt am Mein where they had a client who could never find his hat upon departure. He would run through the gallery saying over and over again, “Meine hut meine hut, wo ist meine hut” (My hat, my hat, where is my hat).  Whenever, I am missing something, I walk around repeating that.  It is kind of soothing, especially these days, to remember that you are neither the first, nor alone, in this predicament!

If my mother was really angry with me, she would say, “Mach disch nicht dummer wie du bist”. (Don’t make yourself dumber than you are).  That one really hurt.  I tried it once on my wife ... Never Again!

To end on a lighter note, at breakfast every morning my parents and I had fresh orange juice which my father squeezed.  To this day I continue to have the fresh orange juice but the shop down the street squeezes it for me.  Anyway, my parents always said “Prost” (Cheers) and we clicked glasses before drinking up.  Their Frankfurt accent, which I always equate with a southern drawl in this country, made it sound like “Brost”.

Fast forward some 50 years and my wife is doing an exhibition of the art from the collection of Moritz, Landgraf von Hesse for the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.  When we had a dinner with the Landgraf and raised our wine glasses I said, “Prost”.  Mistake, big mistake.  The Landgraf understood me just fine but gently corrected me: “Prost is something you say in the beer hall. In fine company you say, “Zum Wohl” (To health).  Now Penelope and I say Prost at breakfast and Zum Wohl with wine at dinner. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

What Happened at Bonwit Teller?

When the Biden victory was called that Saturday morning, my wife started crying and for many hours couldn’t stop.  I had to explain to one person at the hospital that she was not in pain but they were tears of joy.  I was wrong!

Penelope told me later that when she heard trump (I will never capitalize his name) was on his way out she was reliving what he did to her and her institution 40 years earlier.

It was June 5, 1980 and Penelope called me totally frantic, “get your camera and meet me at the Robert Miller gallery." My colleague’s gallery was  right across the street from Bonwit Teller department store which was being demolished to make way for Trump Tower. 

Built in 1929 by the Stewart Company it was meant to be the last word in elegance in the French-inspired Art Deco style. Bankrupted following the Wall Street crash, the Stewart store was purchased by Bonwit Teller who engaged the well-known architect, Eli Jacques Kahn to redo the building in an updated American style.  The entrance was modernized with a 20x30 foot bronze grill, but two 15-foot tall figural Art Deco relief sculptures remained at the top of the façade. Penelope felt that  the two elements were a wonderful illustration of New York’s architectural transition from 1920’s Art Deco to what was to become known in the 30’s as the Moderne style.

At that time, Penelope was the curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of 20th century arts, building the decorative arts (today known as Design) collection. When she learned that Bonwit Teller was going to be torn down by the new owner donald trump, she contacted his staff.  Getting him a serious appraisal of $200,000 which could have served as a tax deduction she also offered great PR for his debut as a developer in Manhattan. She vividly remembers the personal meeting where he agreed to donate the grill and reliefs to the museum saying, “It will be a great deal!”

The entrance grill disappeared first. Penelope was told that it had gone to a salvage yard in New Jersey so the Met sent out a truck and registrar’s crew but the salvage company knew nothing about it. Lately it has been rumored to be in donald’s, trump tower dining room which, at a couple of stories high, could accommodate it.

Then, on June 5 Robert Miller, the art dealer whose gallery looked out directly on the Bonwit Teller reliefs and who had made the appraisal, called Penelope at the Met to say he believed that they were about to jackhammer the stonework. Penelope, 9-months pregnant, (our son was born on June 14) jumped into a cab only to get caught in a typical Fifth Avenue traffic jam. “She “got out and ran”, as well as a pregnant woman can, the 10 blocks to the Miller gallery. I joined her at my colleague’s gallery as Penelope declared, “I am going over there” but Robert cut her off saying “They will recognize you. I will go”.  Gathering all the cash in the gallery, he rushed down to find the foreman of the crew, offering to pay if they would preserve the reliefs.  When he came back fuming, he said “They won’t do it.  The foreman said that the young donald told him personally that the reliefs must be destroyed because some crazy lady from a museum up town wanted them”.

Art Deco relief, detail

The story received several articles in the New York Times and on television at the time.  A photograph I took was panned over by ABC making it look like a video, but Robert Miller’s gallery director got most of the photographic play!

The story is included in a book by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher called “Trump Revealed” published by Scribner in 2016. It was revived in  the NY Times and Washington Post and  even made it to our local paper the New Mexican when trump posed as a defender of history and culture after Charlottesville.

Back in 1980 trump,  using a technique we have unfortunately come to know well, contacted the press as a “Mr. Baron” of the Trump organization, making up stories that ranged from their having had had the sculptures appraised by three  art experts who had found they had no artistic merit, to it would have cost too much to take down the reliefs, to  someone on the street below might have been hurt during their removal.

Today it is just more of the same! 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Quirky Objects

I like this idea of making observations in our own collection and so I started looking around for what I would call quirky or unusual works of art, i.e. they don’t fit in to the normal art vocabulary of the artist or the type of object.

In our former life we collected Art Nouveau objects. When we left New York, we donated our Jugendstil metalwork collection to the Cooper Hewitt and sold 99% of furniture. Even though we knew that our umbrella stand would not “fit in”, in Santa Fe we wanted a souvenir of a previous life. It was probably made in Eastern Europe, possibly Austria.  It is certainly a little different from the norm and frankly I have never seen another one.

Adapting to our New Mexico home, this Jewish boy found himself acquiring several crosses, though he objected when his wife suggested putting one on the front door!  In 2008 we discovered the “found art” of Pablo Flores quite by accident when we visited the Silver Sun Gallery in Santa Fe in 2008 known for its  Native jewelry. Pablo Flores creates religious sculptures he calls "Revotos (rather than exvotos) from objects he finds on his restorative walks. Although each cross cost under $100 they have become meaningful to us.  This might make more sense if you know that the artist is a reformed alcoholic, who, before he became an ordained minister and father of 3, had a life of booze, drugs, gangs, guns and as a result, prison. For illustration purposes I am picking “Walk the Walk” where you see the sole of a shoe fixed in place by the rusted lid of a tin can.

Another cross was a natural for me to accept.  We acquired it from Charlie Sanchez, a specialist in straw work, at Traditional Spanish Market in the summer of 2018.  It is signed on the back and titled, "Cruz de los Sepharditos de Nuestra Tierra Sagrada".   The straw inlay of the cross represents a Star of David above a Menorah (the eight-candle holder used on the holiday of Chanukah) in the center making it a truly Judeo/Christian object. When we were buying this fascinating object, I could not resist asking the artist, Why?  His reply was that his DNA test proved him 66% Sephardic Jew. He is the descendant of Jews who fled Spain with the Reconquest . They came to New Mexico where a group settled along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque in Sanchez’ village of Tomé.

I will end with a table by an artist that my wife “discovered” when she was curator at the Metropolitan Museum.  It is by the artist Albert Paley who became the outstanding exponent metalwork of the Studio Craft Movement. He started out making pieces of jewelry that he wanted to form to the body he was making them for. (These incredible works looked great on his statuesque wife, Frances.)  He subsequently moved on to steel furniture, architectural ornament and monumental sculpture. His metamorphosis occurred in 1974 when he won the Renwick Gallery’s national design competition to create decorative metalwork doors for the gallery shop. His Portal Gates opened the door to a new career. For an excellent lecture by Albert about his work go to

 I remember when Penelope took me to Albert’s studio in Rochester, New York where he forged his steel and I saw there a lectern, which I loved but we had absolutely no use for.  When I had to ask if I could by it, Albert’s responded, “There are 6 people ahead of you”.  A few years later when we were in a new apartment, I longed for a coffee table to go between 2 couches opposite each other, but my wife did not want one.  I was inspired to ask if we could get a coffee table, if Albert would make one for us.  She agreed but then I heard her on the phone with Albert saying that he should make a table on which I could not pile on large coffee table books!  Here is the result of one of our quirkiest and favorite works of art that has been the centerpiece of our homes in New York and New Mexico.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Bronze Mystery

I have had reason to visit the infusion center at our local hospital, Christus St. Vincent, on a daily basis bringing my wife for antibiotic infusions. Due to Covid restrictions I must wait for her outside the center which is at the back of the hospital. In a nearby enclosed staff “picnic area” I discovered a sculpture that I told my wife has become my new girlfriend!

Who’s that woman under the tree?

At first, looking at it against the sunlight, I just saw a life size bronze of a crouching woman with voluptuous breasts, but then I noticed a protrusion from her underside.  Was this a hermaphrodite?

When I described it to my wife, she said this was a classic position for giving birth and I should look at it from the bother side. So, the next day I visited, and went to the back of the sculpture. With the sun shining directly on it I saw the baby’s head coming out.

I was fascinated by the piece and kept going back to it. There was no label indicating who it was by. About the fifth time I walked around it I found the signature.  It was quite clear on the base, so either I was just not focusing, or it had been covered by autumn leaves.  Below is an image of the signature, E. Robergé, with the date, but who is that? A thorough search of the internet has been no help so far.  Maybe, one of my readers will be able to enlighten me.

Why was this wonderful piece hidden at the back of the hospital while another innocuous bronze sculpture of a mother and child was prominently positioned in front of the main entrance. Could it be that people would find its realism too much to handle?

I phoned the Hospital Foundation, which I presumed to be responsible for much of the art there, but they were not able to help.  I was told there was no information that they knew of on my lady and no committee or individual in charge of art acquisitions.

There is a great deal of colorful “art” work on the walls of the hospital but most of it is what I would call “art by the yard”, images of unidentified paintings printed on stretched canvas of the type available online as “wall art”. I can only guess it was budgeted in a building or renovation program.  Once in a while a piece stands out and one can assume that it was donated by an artist or a grateful patient.  In the case, of my new girlfriend I assume that it was the artist.

My curiosity about this sculpture started out because I thought I saw as an ambiguity, it then became an inquiry and then a fascination.  As you have probably experienced, we always want to know more about the one we love!