I was on NPR's WHYY in Philadelphia this morning discussing the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson University's pending $68 million sale of Eakins's iconic "The Gross Clinic." You can listen to the show here.
As I mentioned on the show, one of the things I find most interesting about the controversy is that, when a similar thing happened last year with the New York Public Library's sale of Durand's "Kindred Spirits," Michael Kimmelman wrote a piece in The New York Times that got a lot of attention, and which included the following discussion of the question "what to do next time":
"[H]ere's a modest proposal. ... [W]henever art is sold by a public institution -- which, receiving tax breaks, can be expected to make some sacrifice toward the public good -- local museums should be given a reasonable period of time to match the sale price. That's it. Just a shot at preserving the public's heritage for the public."
Well, that's exactly what's happened here (local art museums and governmental institutions have 45 days to match the offer), and the university is still coming in for the same kind of criticism.
Here is the latest from the Philadelphia Inquirer (the writer, Stephan Salisbury, was also a guest on the show). Here is the paper's art critic, Edward Sozanki; he says it must be included on "any list of the top 10 American paintings." Here is an excellent piece by Carol Vogel from The New York Times last week, which also contrasts this sale to the way the "Kindred Spirits" sale was handled. The latter story also mentions that in a 2002 review of an Eakins show at the Met, Michael Kimmelman called "Gross Clinic" “hands down, the finest 19th-century American painting.”
UPDATE: One question the host asked that I didn't have a good answer for is "Why is the art market so hot right now?" Bloomberg.com happens to have an interview up with a real expert in this area -- PaceWildenstein's Arne Glimcher -- which includes that very question:
"[Bloomberg]: What's driving the demand for art?
"Glimcher: The amount of money in the marketplace and the incredible discretionary income. Money has very little meaning to certain people anymore who are making hundreds of millions dollars a year. It doesn't matter if they are paying $80 million for a Pollock. It does not alter their lifestyle at all. It's just, 'I want it and what does it take to get it?'
That's why the auction market is a little bit crazy. We'll have a show of 10 works by an artist, and they'll all sell. And then other people want them, can't get them. One comes up on the open market, and they'll pay twice what they were in the gallery."
UPDATE 2: WHYY has started a blog, called The Sixth Square, devoted exclusively to the pending sale. Lots more at their dedicated Eakins page.