Hot art market tempts museums

[27 May 2007]

By Stevenson Swanson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

American Radiator - Night, New York

American Radiator - Night, New York

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - To sell or not to sell?

That is the question that an increasing number of museums and other cultural institutions are facing as a white-hot art market makes the paintings and sculptures in their collections look less like precious masterpieces to be preserved for all time and more like valuable assets that can be converted into cash.

One of the institutions that sees dollar signs hanging on the walls of its art gallery is Fisk University, a small, historically black college northwest of downtown Nashville.

Strapped for cash, Fisk University wants to sell two of the premier pieces in its art collection, “American Radiator - Night, New York,” one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s best-known works, and “Painting No. 3” by the American Modernist painter Marsden Hartley.

But, in a sign of how such sales can become entangled in controversies over law and civic pride, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. last month rejected a deal by which the university would have sold the O’Keeffe painting to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe for $7 million.

“My goal is, hopefully, to keep this collection intact,” Cooper said. “This is a collection that I think any university, any city, would be proud to have as part of its cultural offering.”

The O’Keeffe controversy has put Fisk at the center of a contentious debate roiling museums, universities and other trustees of art over the sale of works from their collections, which can result in art disappearing into private collections. The practice is called “deaccessioning” in the parlance of museum professionals, whose trade organization, the American Association of Museums, held its annual meeting in Chicago this month. Some institutions argue they need to sell “non-essential” works to raise money to buy objects in their core collecting fields, pay for the upkeep of their collections, fund building repairs, or pay off debts.

That was the case in 2004, when Chicago’s Field Museum sold a collection of 34 paintings of American Indians, most of them by artist George Catlin, for $17.4 million. The museum invested the proceeds to set up a fund for new acquisitions, spending about $120,000 last year to buy such things as Peruvian textiles, a new totem pole and casts of the skulls of early hominids, mankind’s ancestors.

That also was the case in September when Rockford College auctioned off 2,000 works in Chicago, raising $1.1 million toward paying off $10 million in bills and loans.

The two paintings that Fisk wants to sell were part of a collection of about 100 works it received from the estate of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After his death in 1946, his widow, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, dispersed his large art collection to leading museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. - and Fisk University.

O’Keeffe’s friend, the writer and Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten, persuaded her to give the works to the university, which was founded shortly after the Civil War to educate freed slaves. Historian John Hope Franklin and poet Nikki Giovanni are alumni.

But the university, which has about 850 students, is short of cash to pay for much-needed building projects and upkeep. The Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery, a former church and gym where the O’Keeffe and Hartley works are on display, is closed for renovations, according to a sign on the door.

Selling two of the most valuable items in the collection seemed to provide one way to rebuild the school’s shrunken endowment and fund construction projects, university President Hazel O’Leary has said.

“The major collection we’re investing in is our students,” O’Leary recently told Time magazine. A university spokesman said O’Leary was no longer giving interviews about the controversy.

But art sales by museums and other institutions often cause an uproar. That happened last year in Philadelphia, when Thomas Jefferson University announced plans to sell “The Gross Clinic,” a central work by 19th Century Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins, for $68 million to the National Gallery of Art and a museum being built in Bentonville, Ark., by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

News of the pending sale raised the specter that the powerful 1875 painting, which shows Philadelphia surgeon Samuel Gross operating on a patient, would leave the City of Brotherly Love.

To keep Eakins’ masterpiece in the city, local citizens raised $30 million. Then the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts worked out a financing plan to cover the remaining cost and buy the painting jointly. But to help pay for its share of the purchase price, the academy is selling one of its Eakins, considered a lesser work.

Despite a similar outcry in Buffalo, N.Y., no such deal could be cobbled together to prevent the Albright-Knox Art Gallery from selling more than 200 older objects to raise money to buy contemporary art, one of the priciest segments of the current art market. The auctions, which will continue until June, are expected to raise some $30 million.

Fisk’s initial intention to sell the O’Keeffe and Hartley paintings on the open market led to a lawsuit by the O’Keeffe museum, which argued that one of the terms of O’Keeffe’s gift was that the collection remain intact. The museum agreed to drop its suit and let the university sell the Hartley painting on the open market, provided the school sell the O’Keeffe to the museum for $7 million.

“It was a settlement that turned a lose-lose situation into a win-win,” said Saul Cohen, the museum’s president. “Arguably the painting belongs at the museum, where it would be seen by many more people and where it fits with our collection.”

But under Tennessee law, the deal by the private university needed the approval of the attorney general. While Cooper was mulling his decision, the university reported it had heard from art dealers and other art experts that the O’Keeffe could fetch as much as $25 million.

Cooper rejected the settlement last month. The lawsuit is set for trial in July, unless the university and the museum can reach a new settlement, or an innovative arrangement can be worked out similar to the one that will keep “The Gross Clinic” in Philadelphia.

The Fisk collection “integrates well with other collections in Nashville,” Cooper said. “The Stieglitz collection has been something of an undiscovered jewel in Nashville.”

Lisa Tremper Hanover, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, said Fisk is violating a principle of museum ethics: that the money from sales of deaccessioned works is supposed to be used to buy new works or pay for the upkeep of existing collections, and if the university is allowed to sell two paintings, the temptation will be to chip away at the collection in the future.

“What’s going to stop them from going back next year to mine that collection?” said Hanover, the director of the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, outside Philadelphia. “They are not going to be making the commitment to enhance and interpret and share that collection. So my opinion is to sell it as a whole collection if they’re not going to make the commitment to it.”


Created: 1830s, mainly
History: In 2004, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History auctioned off a collection of 34 paintings of American Indians and bison, most by the artist-adventurer George Catlin. The decision to sell the paintings prompted one trustee to resign from the museum’s board in protest. The museum invested the funds and is using the investment income to buy anthropological artifacts, including a new totem pole and casts of skulls of mankind’s early ancestors.
Value: $17.4 million, paid by an unidentified buyer at an auction at Sotheby’s in New York.

Created: 1927
History: One of Georgia O’Keeffe’s better known images, “Radiator Building” dates from a fairly early period in her long career. She later moved to New Mexico and devoted herself to painting landscapes and objects from nature, such as animal bones and close-ups of flowers.
Value: Nashville’s Fisk University, which owns the painting, had an agreement to sell the painting to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M. for $7 million. But the Tennessee attorney general has rejected that deal, based on reports that the painting could fetch as much as $25 million on the open market. As part its deal with the O’Keeffe Museum, Fisk also would have been allowed to sell “Painting No. 3” by Marsden Hartley on the open market. Its value is estimated at $8.5 million to $10 million.

Created: 1875
History: Thomas Eakins created an uproar when he submitted his painting of the blood-spattered Dr. Samuel Gross to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876. It was rejected as too gruesome. Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia created another uproar last year when it announced plans to sell the painting.
Value: $68 million, raised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art to keep it from leaving the city.

—Stevenson Swanson

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