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What’s Gross About the “Gross Clinic” Deaccessions

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Thomas Eakins, two sketches for the 1888 painting “Cowboys in the Badlands”

Maybe it’s time for the Association of Art Museum Directors to trash its “Criteria for Deaccessioning and Disposal.” These published guidelines are being conspicuously and repeatedly ignored by institutions eager to acquire works that they believe they can’t pay for without selling other works important enough to have been displayed in their galleries.

So it is with Eakins‘ “Cowboy Singing” (image here) and the artist’s two sketches (above) for “Cowboys in the Badlands” that the Philadelphia Museum has sold to help pay for the same artist’s “The Gross Clinic.” These do not fit the AAMD disposal criterion of “poor quality.” That they are of museum quality is evidenced not only by their current display at the Denver Art Museum, but also by their exhibition history at Philadelphia before that museum cashed them in. Norman Keyes, the Philadelphia Museum’s director of media relations, informed me:

Cowboy Singing” has been on view fairly frequently in
our galleries, generally in rotation with “Home Ranch,” and last in 2007. The two sketches were on display in
gallery 118 over the last several years at least, on a wall containing a large
number of studies by Eakins.

Despite their similarities in size and subject matter, “Cowboy Singing” and “Home Ranch” are different in composition and painting style and cannot be considered works that meet AAMD’s disposal criteria for being “redundant or duplicate [with] no value as part of a series.” Their differences in composition and execution make side-by-side comparison enlightening. The same can be said for the museum’s five “Badlands” sketches, of which two have now been dispatched to Denver. To my mind, multiples can sometimes be considered duplicates; unique works, not.

What’s more, the public’s former patrimony has now, thanks to these disposals, gone semi-private: The private Anschutz Collection (which has no public exhibition galleries) has acquired half ownership of “Cowboy Singing.” According to Denver’s press release:

Cowboy Singing will be shared equally between the Denver Art Museum and the Anschutz Collection, which has donated funds to help support the DAM’s portion of the acquisition.

And this transaction has involved half-privatization of another formerly public work, according to an earlier version of Denver’s press release that is no longer online:

Through the agreement, the Anschutz Collection will receive joint ownership of “Long Jakes (The Rocky Mountain Man)” by Charles Deas, acquired by the [Denver] museum in 1999.

It’s not like “The Gross Clinic” was in danger of being removed from the public domain. If the joint purchase by the National Gallery, Washington, and Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, had been allowed to go through, Eakins’ masterpiece would have been lost to Philadelphians (who had largely ignored it until Thomas Jefferson University decided to sell it), but not to the greater American public.

It’s interesting to note that the Philadelphia Museum has still not chosen to exhibit “The Gross Clinic” together with the work in its galleries that it most resembles: Eakins’ “The Agnew Clinic” (image here), on long term loan from the University of Pennsylvania. This juxtaposition might have diminished the sense of urgency surrounding the rescue of “The Gross Clinic,” by making it seem as much of a “duplicate” as “Cowboy Singing” is to “Home Ranch.” Perhaps the museum does not want to encourage its visitors to draw that conclusion.

Instead, when the $68-million Eakins returns to the Philadelphia Museum from the other local institution, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, that also sold an Eakins (to an anonymous buyer) to pay for its half-share, the painting will, beginning on Aug. 2, be shown together with the sculpture below, with which it would seem to have little in common:

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “The Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial),” 1902, Philadelphia Museum of Art

According to Keyes: The exhibition is still in the works but it will show a work by the great American
sculptor of the time [actually,”Gross” was completed 27 years earlier than “Angel”], along with the work of the great American painter.”

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