Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"I don’t think any of us were prepared for the aggression with which they came after us" (UPDATED)

In this morning's New York Times, Robin Pogrebin has a detailed look at the circumstances that led to the National Academy's decision to sell a couple of paintings.

She points out that the academy is "on a financial precipice": with a $4 million annual budget, it "has been running a deficit for five years, and this year’s shortfall is estimated at around $1 million." It's been "borrowing heavily from its $10 million endowment — $3 million of which is restricted — to pay the bills and has had difficulty paying the museum guards and the heating bill." "Operating essentially hand to mouth, the institution has had no formal fund-raising operation in place, aside from its annual spring gala." Consultants hired last year to explore a $5 million capital campaign "concluded that the goal actually needed to be $21 million, but that the institution was capable of raising only $800,000."

A proposal to sell its Fifth Avenue home (and two additional buildings on East 89th Street) was supported by the academy’s 20-member board, but rejected by its artist members.

Artist-member Richard Haas says the artists "agonized over the proposal to sell the works" before voting 183 to 1 in favor: "It was with great trepidation that we went into this." Architect Cesar Pelli, an academy member as well, is quoted as saying the sale was "perfectly fine": "Museums don’t need to be black holes where every work of art that enters them can never leave."

On the other side, Lawrence Larose, who resigned in protest as chairman of the academy's advisory committee, says "to think about raiding the cookie jar in order to keep the lights on I find culturally irresponsible."

Aside from saying how strange that statement strikes me on its face ("culturally irresponsible" to want to keep the lights on at a museum?), I'll just note (again) that the "anti" position in cases like this is not that the cookie jar can never be raided; it's perfectly fine to raid the cookie jar to buy more cookies, but it's a disaster, an outrage, culturally irresponsible, etc. to sell a cookie or two to repair cracks in the cookie jar, to keep the cookies fresh, to make them more available to the cookie-loving public, to better educate people about cookies, or do anything at all, no matter how valuable, that isn't buying more and more cookies.

UPDATE: The New York Press's Adam Rathe has a question.