Thursday, February 15, 2007

Today in Deaccessioning (UPDATED)

A settlement has been reached in the lawsuit involving Fisk University's attempts to sell two paintings given to it by Georgia O'Keeffe. It's a two-stage process: First, the Tennessee Attorney General has given the university 30-days to come up with an alternative to the sale. (Tyler Green notes: "Given Fisk's fundraising history: Don't hold your breath.") Then, if that fails, the museum has agreed to buy one of the paintings (O'Keeffe's Radiator Building) for $7 million and to withdraw its objection to the sale of the other (Marsden Hartley's Painting No. 3) on the open market. Christie's appraised each painting at $8.5 million in 2005. (Green again: "Why, in this art market, anyone is using a two-year-old appraisal is beyond me.") The Tennessean has further details here. Earlier posts about the case, which I've called an example of "survival deaccessioning" (where deacessioning is really the only way to keep the institution alive), here, here, here, and here.

And in other deacessioning news, Kate Taylor has a story in today's New York Sun about the Albright-Knox's decision to sell a number of works. She writes:

"Rarely does a community get as exercised as residents of Buffalo are over the decision by the board of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to sell almost 200 antiquities and classic works in order to purchase contemporary art. The objects, which include works of African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian art, Chinese ceramics and porcelain, classical sculpture and Old Master paintings, will be sold in a series of sales at Sotheby's, beginning next month. The most valuable piece, a late Hellenistic/early Roman imperial bronze sculpture of Artemis and the stag, is expected to sell for between $5 million and $7 million. The total sale is estimated at $15 million ...."

The museum justifies the sale on the ground that the works fall outside of its "core mission," which is collecting contemporary art, not antiquities. Its director says: "We've never had designated curators devoted to any of these areas — to develop the collections or, frankly, to even organize exhibitions around them. As objects on their own, they are important, they're beautiful, but they are clearly outside the main mission." Which elicits this response from a University of Buffalo professor: "He has a responsibility to the people of New York to display the permanent collection." I quote that response because it's an interesting extension of an argument that often gets made in these deaccession debates -- the museum has a responsibility to the public not to: sell this Eakins painting, or trade one Eakins for a better Eakins, or treat its art holdings like capital assets, and so on -- that I think proves a little too much. Of course a museum's trustees owe a duty of complete loyalty to the interests of their beneficiaries -- the public. But it seems to me that's just the start of the conversation, not the end. Are we better off -- that is, is it in the public interest -- to hold onto The Cello Player if it means the loss of The Gross Clinic? Are we better off keeping the Stieglitz Collection intact if it means the bankruptcy of the instituion? Are we better off selling a tiny fraction of the Barnes Collection and keeping it where it was intended to be, or refusing to sell anything and having to move the entire collection to a new home? It seems to me those are the questions that have to be wrestled with in each case, rather than simply invoking "the responsibility to the people of _________."

UPDATE: The New York Times story on the Fisk settlement is here. A sidebar story in the Tennessean says the Gross Clinic transaction was a useful precedent for structuring the settlement here. Is the Kimmelman Approach becoming the new standard?

Meanwhile, "radical conservative" Lee Rosenbaum has two posts up on the Albright-Knox, and also links to this article on the "Buffalo Art Keepers," "a group of college professors, artists and community members led by local Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Dennis [which] is mounting a campaign against" the sale.