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My Q&A with Carmine Branagan, Director of the National Academy

Too important to sell from the Suydam Collection:
John Frederick Kensett, “The Bash Bish,” 1855, National Academy Museum 

Below are key excerpts from my conversation on Dec. 4 with Carmine Branagan, then interim director (now director) of the National Academy, in which she patiently and candidly addressed my questions on the National Academy’s secret deaccessions of Frederic Edwin Church‘s “Scene on the Magdalene,” 1854, and Sanford Robinson Gifford‘s “Mount Mansfield,” 1859.

I will be referring to her comments in a subsequent post on the conclusions to be drawn and the lessons to be learned from this regrettable episode, which has further compromised the already shaky future of this venerable institution.

Here’s the interview:

Q: Who bought your two paintings [the Church and the Gifford]?

A: I can’t say. They were sold privately and they will be hung publicly….I frankly don’t know who they were sold to.

Q: Where will they be publicly hung?

A: That’s to be determined. They were sold to a foundation. They may be on loan or they may be given [to the institution that will show them publicly].

Q: How long will they be hung publicly: Forever? For two months?

A: I don’t know.

Q: It could just be a short-term display?

A: Probably not.
It will probably be an extended long-term loan.

Q: Do we know if it’s going to be in New York?

A: We don’t know that.

Q: In an art museum?

A: Probably….The seller has an agreement with the dealer that says it will be hung publicly. [I subsequently learned that the sale was handled privately by Sotheby’s, the auction house.]

Q: Was that at your behest?

A: It was a request.

Q: A request but not a stipulation?

A: It was a request.

Q: The dealer hammered out an ironclad agreement that it would be hung publicly?

A: Yes.
I think the important thing is the reason that this was done. It’s in the context of moving the institution forward and honoring the collection and the heritage of this institution and that’s what we intend to do.

Q: Is this “it” for deaccessioning, or is it possible that along the way you may find there’s more need [to sell again]?

A: You and I know that you never say “never.” I would be foolish to say “never, never, never.” But certainly my position and the position of the individuals who presented the possibility to the academicians [the Academy’s artist-members who voted to approve the sales] is that unless you’re ready to commit to moving the institution in a certain direction, then we recommend that you do not vote to deaccession, because you can’t deaccession unless you have the intention of actually doing the right thing with these funds.

Q: Does Alice Walton have anything to do with the purchasing foundation?

A: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that really.

Q: Can you tell me what the other two paintings are that you are thinking of selling?

A: I’d rather not. The members know what they are. I just don’t want to say….When they sell, we will say.

Q: What are the reasons for not saying now?

A: I just would rather not.
[I subsequently learned from other sources that these two works are John White Alexander‘s, “Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Hastings,” 1901, and Robert Blum‘s “Study for a Japanese Beggar,” 1891.]

Q: Had you contacted the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors about this?

A: We went to them proactively, even before the vote had been taken, and had extensive and very cordial conversations with them about the situation. And we continue to be in discussion with them. [This interview took place before both organizations issued their censures—here and here—of the sales.]

Q: Wouldn’t such sales violate their guidelines?

A: The fact that we’re really not a traditional acquiring museum makes it difficult to adhere to a standard that is not part of who we are. [The Academy receives art from its artist-members. It doesn’t acquire by purchase.]

Q: Was the Attorney General alerted to the sales?

A: We were advised by counsel that wasn’t necessary.

Q: Since you hold these works in trust for the public, doesn’t the public have the right to know what’s happening?

A: I think I’ve been very candid with you about why [we did this]. As for the issue of the public, these works were all in storage.

Q: Is it fair to say that the works you are selling are the most important works from that collection [the trove bequeathed to the museum in 1865 by academician James Suydam]?

A: No.

Q: What are the most important works from that collection?

A: It depends on who you’re talking to. The protocol for the decision was that it started with the curators and they determined the pieces that would not compromise the integrity of the collection.
We had other pieces by that artist in the collection.

Q: Were they as good?

A: Yes.
We have a [John Frederick] Kensett “Bash Bish” [above] that is absolutely spectacular and that is not being sold….I’m not sure if it’s from Suydam. [It is.]  It was too important to the integrity of the collection. It’s the best Kensett that we have.

Q: Why were the other two deemed expendable?

A: Because we have another Church.

Q: As good as or better than the one you sold?

A: Yes. It’s part of the South American series.

Q: What ‘s the name of that one?

A: It might be “The Andes.” [It’s “Scene Among the Andes,” 1854.]

What about the Gifford?

A: I’m not sure about the Gifford—what else we have. [Actually, nothing.] But this was a curatorial decision.
It [selling art] was on the table when I arrived. When you have resources and your resources are real estate and an art collection, I don’t think it’s any mystery about how you arrive at one thing or another….There was a period of time [under the previous director, Annette Blaugrund] where they started to consider selling the real estate, and the academicians were adamantly opposed to that. They did not want to sell the building. This was home.

Q: Why not just try raising funds the old-fashioned way, by fundraising?

A: A fundraising structure has never been built here. In order to have a successful fundraising structure, you need innovative, relevant, resonant programing.

Q: Do AAM and AAMD know that you have now sold those two works?

A: Not yet, but I’m in the process of writing a letter to them and telling them.

Q: Do you expect you will be booted out?

A: That remains to be seen.

Q: Did they indicate to you that if you sell works to do anything besides buy art, you can’t be a member because those are their guidelines?

A: Their guidelines are no secret. Everybody knows what their guidelines are.

Q: So you would expect the answer to my question to be “yes,” that they will “excommunicate” you?

A: I think there are many ways of looking at this. Is it necessarily appropriate for an institution like this to be a member of either of those organizations? Because we don’t necessarily fit their profile of what you are going to do if you sell works. If you can’t use the money to acquire, what’s the alternative?
But that’s not an alternative because you need the cash infusion in order to build the infrastructure. It’s a very challenging “Catch 22.” This institution spent many, many months of discussing this with a sincerity and attention that I think needs to be respected.
When you have a very complex set of problems, which the Academy does, you need a solution that is as elegant and innovative as the problems are complex.

COMING TOMORROW: “National Academy Lessons: The Fallacy of Deaccession-or-Die

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