Even as some museums are beginning to reopen following months of pandemic shutdown, visitors may notice that something – or some things – are missing.
The Brooklyn Museum announced yesterday that, due to the financial impact of Covid-19, it would be auctioning off a dozen pieces from its permanent collection at Christie’s on October 15th, including works by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), and French 19th century Realists Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), shown below, and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). This follows the same museum’s selling a work by British Modern painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) at Sotheby’s at the end of last year, one of the artist’s many, rather creepy interpretations of Diego Velázquez’ (1599-1660) famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, supposedly to finance new acquisitions.
Meanwhile, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse is taking a similar path, and on October 6th Christie’s will be selling their 1946 drip painting by American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), done on a smaller scale than his often gigantic canvases, and in predominantly red tones, rather than Pollock’s usual black. As with the Bacon sale in Brooklyn however, the stated goal here is not to pay the bills but to diversify the museum’s holdings. L.A. Times Art Critic Christopher Knight, whose opinions I frequently disagree with, but whose reporting deserves every award it gets, rightly points out that it was rather sneaky of the museum to announce this upcoming sale during the “black hole” of Labor Day weekend, when presumably fewer people would notice the announcement.
Although one can point to the exact moment when the genie was let out of the bottle, this sort of thing started happening long before Covid hit these shores. When the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) loosened its rules earlier this year on the deacquisition of art, the intent appears to have been to allow museums to look around for things they could get rid of, in order to keep things going. However, although the guidance for these supposedly Covid-inspired measures is set to expire in April 2022, I can guarantee you that won’t be happening. The temptation to get rid of x in order to acquire y is simply going to prove too great for these museum directors to resist.
Now, a rational person might suspect that in changing the rules as it did, museum officialdom must have been thinking about a complaint that I’ve made for years, i.e. the fact that the overwhelming amount of the holdings of these institutions are kept in storage where no one can see any of them. If we were talking about the equivalent of a good clear-out, as unfortunate as that might be in some ways, at least the major pieces in these institutions would remain in the public eye. However, the rather nasty and protracted fight that took place back in 2018 over the transformation of the Berkshire Museum from cultural institution to Discovery Kids play zone, was more than a whiff of what’s to come, and obviously predates the present pandemic.
With respect to these latest sales, truth be told, I don’t like Caranch at all – or Courbet or Pollock, for that matter (although I do like Corot.) If someone wants to purchase these items for their collection, well, have at it. At least I’m not the one who would have to look at them every day.
Yet the question of what I personally like or dislike is a separate matter from a rather more existential one, which is coming to a head in our public institutions. Who gets to decide that a work by one artist in a public collection is culturally less significant than a work by another? Is that decision ever a reasonable justification to get rid of a work of art, particularly one by an artist who is already well-established as a major figure in cultural history? Do we just sell off all the Titians, so that we can line the walls of our museums with graffiti?
It’s one thing to want to keep the lights on and your employees paid. There are certainly ways to go about doing that, even via deacquistion, without lopping off important bits from your permanent collection. It’s another to play social science experiment with art that you hold in trust for the public. To that end, when you do finally get to go back to your favorite art museum, gentle reader, I’d recommend that you check to see if there’s anything that’s gone missing during your absence.
And now, some other interesting headlines from the art world over the past week, in brief.
Notre Dame News
Unfortunately, I missed last night’s ABC documentary on “Notre Dame: Our Lady of Paris”, although even with the negative points raised in this review, I hope to catch it online later. While the public won’t be able to visit the interior of Notre Dame de Paris anytime soon, in a sign of things starting to normalize a bit, the crypt of the Cathedral-Basilica has now reopened to visitors with exhibitions on two of the most famous figures associated with the building during the 19th century: architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1914-1879), who did major work on restoring the Cathedral from the ravages of the French Revolution, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” author Victor Hugo (1802-1885). In fact while Viollet-le-Duc did the actual design work, Hugo was the major cultural figure who spearheaded the movement to actually save the building, when it was slated for demolition due to vandalism and decay.
Sagrada Familia Stalls
Speaking of church construction, officials at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona have announced that they will be unable to meet their self-imposed 2026 deadline for completion of the massive structure, which will eventually be the tallest church in the world. It was hoped that the major work would be complete in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its architect, Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), but due to both pandemic restrictions on work and the colossal plunge in funds from visitors – the Sagrada Familia since its inception has been funded entirely through private donations and ticket sales, with no assistance from the Church or State – the astonishing progress witnessed in recent years has substantially ground to a halt. Yet another disaster for which we have Red China to thank.
At the Auctions
And to close out this week, there are just a few, less controversial auction items that I wanted to draw your attention to. First, you may recall that the original design for the Olympic flag by Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) was coming to auction with a pre-sale estimate of approximately $92,000-$115,000. In the end it sold for over $278,000 at Drouot Cannes, which doesn’t surprise me in the least for such an important piece of design, sport, and cultural history. Today, meanwhile, Doyle’s will be auctioning off a number of important works of art, including a very “Life with Father” 1893 portrait of author and British Museum archivist Louis Alexander Fagan by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), and a wonderfully muted, very late floral still life from 1903 by the great Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). I was able to visit part of the National Gallery last week – more on that another time – and one of the great joys there is its collection of both Fantin-Latour’s portraits, which are sadly not on view to the public at the moment, and his small canvases of flowers, food, and everyday items, many of which fortunately are.