Sunday, April 11, 2021

Family Feud

This is going to shock all my readers; my wife and I don’t always agree and that has been going on for about half a century. In other words, it started even before we got married!

What happened:  for many years the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) has accepted the concept of de-accessioning art from a museum’s collection as long as the proceeds went into buying other works of art.  Then came Covid and museums lost major parts of their funding and are surviving by contributions from charitable donors and trustees.

After Covid hit, the AAMD amended their rule saying that funds received from deaccessions could also be used for care of the collections, including conservation or security and other aspects that fall under that rubric, or the funds could go into the museum’s endowment.  This change was to last for just two years.

Art critics such as Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times asked questions like, the market is doing great why, can’t all those wealthy trustees put up the funds.  One museum director, Ann Pasternak, at the Brooklyn museum asks why, should the trustees alone support a public institution.  Further, she makes the point that donors will support the Manhattan museums, think the Met and MOMA, rather than the ones in the outer boroughs, no matter how much they may have to offer the public.

One of many flash points in this debate was the deaccessioning of a small Jackson Pollock, Red Composition (1946) Oil on Masonite, 19 1/4 x 23 1/4 inches from the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York.   Though it was one of Pollocks early drip paintings. The Everson still has an important Pollock drawing in its collection.

The director of the Everson, Elizabeth Dunbar, said that they did not have a large collecting base in the Syracuse area nor billionaire trustees. She asked, rhetorically, “if this picture is so important why has it never been requested for a major Pollock retrospective?”

Jessica Arb Danial, the president of the museum’s board of trustees, which has the ultimate responsibility for deaccessions said the sale would “enable the Everson to significantly intensify our strategic efforts, particularly during this critical time in our nation’s history.”  Therefore, they plan to use it, in part, to acquire art by minority artists.

In further defense of the museum’s decision, though Christie’s estimated the painting to bring between 12 and 18 million it “only” brought the minimum, still a huge injection of capital for the Everson.

To quote my wife she argues “that the purpose of an art museum, centers on its permanent collection as opposed to a kunsthalle which exhibits but does not collect. A museum holds works in public trust. That is why a donor of a work gets a tax deduction. Selling duplicates or lesser works to buy better examples and improve the collection is one thing. Selling to keep the institution afloat, however, is contrary to the purpose of its existence. She argues the case of the Everson Pollock was presumably donated to expose Syracuse residents to the aspect of his art which has earned him a place in art history. The Everson has an important Pollock drawing, but due to light restrictions, only the painting could be accessible on permanent view. An influx of dollars may be a boon to those drawing up the institution’s balance sheet, but future art-interested citizens of Syracuse will have to evaluate Pollock’s drip paintings from reproductions. The Everson cites wanting to fund a full-time conservation position, but conservation of what if not what is generally agreed to be the most important work in their collection?”

I do not agree because a deaccessioned work of art is not being destroyed.  Title is just passing to a new owner and that owner just paid Christie’s twelve million dollars so they too will not destroy the picture and in the scheme of things who is to say that it may not someday enter another museum.  Here is a famous painting ”Rainy Day” by Gustave Cailebotte that was owned by Walter Chrysler, Jr. which he did not wish to put in his museum so it eventually ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Additionally, taste and expertise change on a regular basis and who is to say what will be considered more important in the future … maybe it will be an NFT!

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