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The “Gross Clinic” Deaccession Debacle

On Dec. 22, I said that “the fundraising campaign to keep ‘The Gross Clinic’ in Philadelphia cannot be considered a roaring success, having fallen far short of its goal during the appointed time.”

On Jan. 31, I’m saying that the Eakins acquisition is not just a hollow victory; it’s a debacle.
There is nothing to celebrate in selling one masterpiece (or maybe more) to acquire another one. There is no glory for art museums in winning the Pyrrhic victory of outmaneuvering a big-money collector like Alice Walton on this one work. Deep-pocketed collectors will keep going after other available trophies, and financially strapped museums can’t go on playing that prohibitively expensive game. The Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts claimed to have won that game, but the cost in dollars and in institutional integrity was far too high.

As I said in my recent post on The Hegemony of the Money-No-Object Collector:

It’s not the fault of money-no-object collectors that connoisseurship, museum ethics and artistic integrity are under assault. They are entitled to do what they want with their megamillions. But the effect of their extravagant outlays, intended or not, may be to compromise culture, not enrich it.

With PAFA’s willingness to sacrifice one of its signature paintings by Eakins, “The Cello Player,” for the sake of acquiring another Eakins that had become a community cause célèbre, we have turned a corner from responsible stewardship of collections to reckless endangerment.

The professional guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors say that “deaccessioning must be governed by the museum’s written policy rather than by exigencies of the moment….No work of art in the collection may be considered for deaccessioning without the recommendation of the director to the board.”

The secret sale of “The Cello Player” for an undisclosed amount to an undisclosed purchaser is surely a deaccession that was governed by “exigencies of the moment”—that moment being today’s fundraising deadline for “The Gross Clinic’s” $68-million bounty. With director Derek Gillman long gone to the Barnes Foundation, PAFA doesn’t even have a permanent director to give proper professional consideration before deciding whether to recommend this major disposal to the board.

We had been led to believe that when the clock struck 12 tonight, PAFA and the Philadelphia Museum, joint purchasers of “The Gross Clinic,” would be able to draw upon a loan offered by Wachovia Bank for whatever they hadn’t yet raised of the $68 million. One of the unanswered questions about this irregular affair is why it was considered preferable to deaccession a masterpiece than to assume the debt.

Museums hold their works in trust of the public. PAFA has now failed the public trust. What’s worse, Stephan Salisbury writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer (linked above) that there may be more disposals to come:

Anne d’Harnoncourt, director and chief executive of the [Philadelphia] Art Museum, said her institution would likely sell some art to defray its share of the debt, as well.

“We are looking very seriously at deaccessioning,” she said, adding that no works had been selected for the marketplace so far.

It’s time for the toothless Association of Art Museum Directors to get some dentures and issue some censures.

UPDATE: I just checked the list of AAMD members, and PAFA, which is an art school, as well as a collecting and exhibiting institution, is not in the art museums’ organization. That should not exempt it, however, from responsible stewardship of its collection. The Philadelphia Museum does belong to AAMD.

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