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Mission Creep: Albright-Knox Belatedly Releases Its Complete Deaccession List

At least the Hogarth isn’t going to auction.

On Monday, as reported by Colin Dabkowki in yesterday’s Buffalo News, the Albright-Knox Gallery finally got around to releasing the full list of 196 works that it plans to sell in seven sales, from March to June, at Sotheby’s, New York. The museum announced plans to sell on Nov. 10, saying the that the works on its list, not then identified to the public, fell outside its mission to collect modern and contemporary art.

In his Nov. 15 piece for the Wall Street Journal, Tom Freudenheim, who grew up in Buffalo and was former assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution, noted that he had not yet seen “the complete list of ‘superfluous’ objects, but worried that a pledge by the museum’s director, Louis Grachos, “never [to] touch 19th and 20th century work,” suggested that “Hogarth’s dramatic ‘Lady’s Last Stake’ or Reynolds’ puzzling ‘Cupid as a Link Boy’ are up for grabs.” (They’re not.)

Freudenheim further observed:

These form part of a small but significant group of 18th-century English paintings (also including works by Gainsborough, Romney and Lawrence) purchased for the museum by the Knox family in 1945. This doesn’t quite conform with the museum’s claims that the concentration on contemporary art is “a tradition that has been in place since the museum’s inception in 1862.”

I became even more interested in the question of whether Hogarth’s “The Lady’s Last Stake,” 1758-60, was going to market after seeing it featured in Pierre Rosenberg‘s new book, Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, included it even though he had not personally visited the Albright-Knox. He said he had focused on works from only museum collections, not private collections, “because as a rule…the pictures seen in museums belong to them permanently—they are their property and for the most part inalienable.”

If only that were so.

The Hogarth isn’t listed in the Albright-Knox’s online Collections Highlights, but the list does include works by Courbet, Daumier, David and Delacroix that were purchased by the museum in earlier decades, when the mission must surely have included art of earlier centuries. None of those works are up for sale, but other important works are, including a late Hellenistic/early Roman Imperial “Bronze Figure of Artemis and the Stag,” estimated to bring $5-7 million.

Museums’ mushy missions are behind many lamentable disposals in recent years. In my recent Philly radio gig, I cited the Albright-Knox as an example of museums’ rationalizing disposals from their collection through “mission creep”—revising their former missions to “justify” dumping whole categories of works that they once proudly displayed.

In case there’s any doubt about the Albright-Knox’s previously more inclusive mission, here’s an excerpt from the museum’s 1979 catalogue, “Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Painting and Sculpture from Antiquity to 1942.”

Then director Robert Buck wrote:

Although the collection is perhaps best known for its modern and contemporary holdings, important representations from earlier periods, such as 19th century French and American painting, 18th century English paintings, and Asian art constitute very major segments of the Gallery’s collection. The acquisitions policy of the Gallery has long held that efforts to add certain works which elucidate affinities and parallels with the art of modern times is an important pursuit.

Meanwhile, “Buffalo Art Keepers,” a group of college professors, artists and other community members, led by local Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Dennis, last week announced a campaign to stop the sales.

an ArtsJournal blog