Thursday, January 15, 2015

"MoMA has decided to auction off to the highest bidder a work in the museum's collection for over a half-century, a painting by an artist who may have produced more 'masterpieces' than any artist in Western art history"

Jerry Saltz is not happy with MoMA's imminent sale of a Monet that, until a minute ago, was held in the public trust.  Then, MoMA sprinkled the magic fairy dust on it and ... tada!  No longer held in the public trust.  So long public, hello billionaire's living room.  It's so easy!

He points out that the painting "was donated to MoMA in 1951 by New York collectors William and Evelyn Jaffe" -- but don't worry, no one will ask, "Why should I give this to you?  What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell tomorrow?"

He expects MoMA's reaction to any criticism to be "blithe, platitudinous, one-size-fits-all dismissal" -- and now I have a great new way to describe the AAMD/Deaccession Police approach to the issue:

Because the proceeds from this sale will go into bank account A ("acquisitions fund"), earning interest, it's totally fine, nothing to be concerned about at all.  But if they went into bank account B ("operating expenses"), earning interest ... hoo boy, now we've got a massive problem on our hands, a BREACH OF THE PUBLIC TRUST, get the New York Times on the phone, call out the sanctions, THIS CANNOT STAND.

That's called "ethical reasoning," if you weren't aware.

Saltz ends up endorsing a kind of Ellis Rule -- "I believe that once a work of art enters a museum collection, it should be out of play for private collections. A work in a museum collection should only be sold or go to another museum collection, where it can remain in public view and circulation" -- though he doesn't say whether he believes that, if that condition is satisfied, the proceeds must also be used only to buy more art.

One quibble in connection with this last point:  Saltz thinks "it's doubtful that this little painting will ever be seen again in public."  But as he himself notes earlier in the piece, it was once owned by the Art Institute of Chicago ... then it was owned by the Jaffes ... and then it went to MoMA.  The tax laws in this country (as well as a host of social and psychological facts) have a way of bringing these works back into the public sphere.  It's possible, of course, that we've seen the last of it, but by no means guaranteed.