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National Academy Lessons: The Fallacy of Deaccession-or-Die UPDATED

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TOP: The important Frederic Church painting sold by the National Academy, “Scene on the Magdalene,” 1854
BOTTOM: The lesser Church retained by the Academy, “Scene Among the Andes,” 1854

At the end of my Q&A (posted yesterday) with the National Academy’s embattled director, Carmine Branagan, she summed up her institution’s rationale for selling two important paintings—a Frederic Church and a Sanford Gifford—to raise cash for operations:

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.

In truth, what the Academy has done—slicing pieces out of the heart of its distinguished collection of 19th-century American art—is neither “elegant” nor “innovative.” The 183-year-old association has violated established professional principles, which stipulate that museums should only sell art to raise funds to buy other works of art. In reaching for the quick, easy fix, instead of undertaking the hard work of responsible museum stewardship, it has enriched its coffers at great cost to its reputation.

Making matters worse is the Academy’s history as a serial deaccessioner in its struggle for financial survival. Although she has been roundly criticized by professional peers, Branagan refuses to say that art sales to finance operations won’t happen yet again.

As suggested in Jori Finkel‘s Sunday NY Times article, many other art museums have been similarly tempted to sell art to defray expenses. Few (as far as we know) have succumbed. That parenthetical qualifier is necessary because one of the disturbing lessons of the Academy incident is that cultural institutions, seeking to avoid public outcry, may sell without telling. By the time CultureGrrl got the anonymous tip that led to my first published report on what the Academy had done, its secret sale to an unidentified private buyer was already a done deal.

Unless museums are required to give advance public notice of planned sales of significant works, we will never know if the few cases reported in the press are just the tip of the iceberg. Of this we can be sure: More museums will be tempted to try to get away with desperation deaccessions in these financially treacherous times.

In her description to me of how the Academy conceived of and executed its selling spree, Branagan unwittingly supplied a textbook “how-not-to” case study in deaccessioning. When it appointed Branagan last July as its leader during this difficult moment in its history, the Academy put its future in the hands of an administrator from outside the art museum world, who has demonstrated by her own words an inadequate understanding of the demands and responsibilities of her position.

Either Branagan, lacking an art background, didn’t appreciate the importance of the works whose sale she recommended to the Academy’s membership, or she pretended not to know their full significance to the collection. Either way, her conduct showed a blameworthy disregard for due diligence and accepted professional practice.

In my Dec. 4 interview with her in her office, Branagan unequivocally answered “yes” to my question of whether the Academy possessed a Church of importance equal to or greater than the one that it had relinquished.

In fact, as experts have confirmed to me, the sold work is far superior. The Academy’s own 2004 catalogue of “permanent” collection works that were created between 1816 and 1925 describes “Scene Among the Andes” (the Church that the Academy still owns) as “less exuberant and more conventional in color, composition and handling than most of his larger Andes landscapes.” Although I’ve reproduced the two Churches, above, at the same size, the one they sold is actually almost twice as large (28¼ by 42 inches) as the one they kept (15 7/8 by 24 inches).

As for the Gifford, Branagan said that she was “not sure” whether the Academy had another painting by the artist. In fact, it doesn’t, as I was informed by the institution’s former chief curator, David Dearinger, who strongly criticized the sales of both works.

What’s more, Branagan suggested that selling the paintings (which the NY Times recently reported has raised $13.5 million) would be no great loss to the public, because “these works were all in storage.” Dearinger countered that both works, particularly the Church, were frequently exhibited. That’s corroborated by the entry for the sold Church in the Academy’s collections catalogue (for which Dearinger was general editor), which reveals that it was shown in eight different Academy shows (most recently in 2000), as well as in exhibitions at many other venues, including the 1989 Church survey at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The Gifford was displayed in five Academy shows (most recently in 1995, according to the 2004 catalogue). It also was loaned to exhibitions at other venues, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Hudson River Museum and the Parrish Art Museum. Although Branagan says that the unidentified private-foundation purchaser of the paintings has promised to show them publicly, they have now left the public domain for private ownership.

UPDATE: I should also have mentioned that the Church and Gifford were featured in the Academy’s 2006 Luminist Horizons exhibition, which traveled to three other museums.

Branagan’s defense of the sales seems all the more problematic in light of her stated intention to use some of the proceeds to organize a permanent display drawn from the Academy’s permanent collection—a presentation in which the sold Church would undoubtedly have played an important role and in which the Gifford would also likely have played a part. She is paradoxically trying to privilege the permanent collection by diminishing it.

The most troubling of Branagan’s remarks was her response to my question as to why the Academy had not tried to improve its finances the old-fashioned way, through fundraising. She suggested that this had not been seriously attempted:

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

In fact, the Academy has had a robust public exhibition program for some time. Branagan, who arrived in July after stints with the National Audubon Society, New World Symphony and American Craft Council, told me that her areas of expertise are fundraising and marketing—skills that she should have immediately put to good use for the Academy. Sales by cultural institutions of important holdings should be contemplated, if at all, only as a last resort, after all income-producing alternatives have been exhausted.

In adopting the backwards strategy of “sell first, fundraise later,” the Academy has an infamous predecessor in the New York Public Library. In recommending the much criticized 2005 sale of another Hudson River School painting, Asher B. Durand‘s iconic “Kindred Spirits,” the library’s Art Properties Committee had noted: “The idea of attempting an endowment campaign first, and then selling artworks later—if the campaign failed—did not gain much Committee support.” But what if the campaign, spearheaded by a board consisting of some of New York’s wealthiest and most prominent movers-and-shakers, had succeeded, and the library could have retained the painting for the benefit of its visitors?

The most dramatic (and most specious) argument advanced by deaccessionists, including Branagan, is that if they don’t sell art to fund operations, their institutions may cease to exist. Recent events have exposed the “deaccession-or-die” justification as self-serving and hollow. Both Fort Ticonderoga (which wanted to sell a major Thomas Cole, among other works) and Fisk University (which still wants to sell to Alice Walton a half-share in its Stieglitz Collection) ominously warned that if they didn’t convert art into quick cash, they would likely go broke.

Having been prevented by public outcry (Ticonderoga) and a court decision (Fisk) from following through on these disposals, both institutions managed to do what they had warned they couldn’t do: They raised the money needed to keep functioning without the benefit of art-sale proceeds. (Nevertheless, Fisk is still pressing its legal case on appeal.) Cultural institutions and universities with art holdings should no more consider selling collections to defray expenses than libraries would consider selling books off their shelves for that purpose. These objects don’t merely relate to their mission; they are essential to it.

Instead of desperation deaccessions, hard-pressed institutions should embrace furious fundraising. When push came to shove, Fisk and Ticonderoga succeeded. If it revamps its governance and reconfigures its operations, putting itself in line with professional artworld practices, the National Academy can begin to regain the confidence of potential donors and perhaps even of the professional organizations—the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums—that have harshly censured it.

If that doesn’t happen soon, no amount of deaccessioning will save it.

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