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A Lose-Lose: National Academy Agony and AAMD Retaliation

National Academy’s spiral staircase

To this point, I’ve been covering the National Academy deaccessions as a straight news story, keeping my opinions largely in check. (CultureGrrl readers are well aware that I customarily modify the noun “deaccession” with the adjective “deplorable.”)

Even Carmine Branagan, who was the Academy’s interim director when I first talked to her on Dec. 4 (and has since been named its director), was well aware of the hard line that I take on art disposals by museums.

Towards the end of our extensive conversation in her office, Branagan told me:

I’ve read your blog, so I know your position on this. It’s easy to take that position. But when the work has not been hanging publicly, it’s been in a storeroom, and the sale of this work makes it possible for other works to be put on exhibition, I think there’s a very strong case for deaccessioning.

I have until now been holding fire, partly in the interest of bringing you all sides of this story and partly out of gratitude for the candor and respect that Branagan accorded to an interlocutor who she knew was likely to be unsympathetic towards her position. She hoped that by fully explaining her side, she could convince me that the financially strapped National Academy did the right thing by selling its important Church and Gifford as a step towards financial stability.

I remain unconvinced.

That said, I also think that the Association of Art Museum Directors overreacted in its unprecedented, harshly punitive edict instructing its members to deny the Academy loans of artworks and collaboration on programs. I agree that the Academy forfeited any claim to AAMD membership when it violated that organization’s clear and appropriate strictures against applying proceeds from art sales to anything but art acquisitions. I think Branagan knew she was taking that risk and, unfortunately, she was willing to take it.

But I was as stunned as she was at how far AAMD went. Maybe I should be careful about what I wish for: Almost exactly a year ago, I called on the association’s then president-elect, Michael Conforti, to “to put some real force behind AAMD’s chronically wishy-washy ‘Position Papers,'” particularly the 2007 statement (click the first item on the list) on “Art Museums and the Practice of Deaccessioning.”

Despite my strong views against desperation deaccessions, I believe that blacklisting the Academy by asking professionals at the member museums to forego future collaboration with their colleagues at the infringing institution was a step too far.

A professional organization that seems to have no problem allowing its members to lend to exhibitions at commercial galleries (here and here) should not shun scholarly, worthy projects at the Academy, such as the current George Tooker and Albert Blakelock shows, which include loans from many AAMD members. The Academy’s planned 2010 exhibition of Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida in America (scroll to bottom) was also to have included loans from several AAMD institutions, including the one directed by AAMD president Conforti—the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

As if to call attention to the importance of the Academy’s endangered artistic enterprise, the NY Times‘ “Weekend Arts” today features the Tooker and Blakelock exhibitions in separate reviews. On the front page of the section devoted to visual arts, an image of a Tooker painting in the Academy’s current exhibition illustrates Holland Cotter‘s reverie on art inspired by New York City light. On the inside pages, Karen Rosenberg belatedly reviews the Blakelock show, which (like Tooker) closes Jan. 4.

Rosenberg concludes her review with comments underscoring the distinctive contribution of the National Academy in calling attention to relatively neglected, unfashionable American artists:

It would be a stretch to say that Blakelock is a missing link between Thomas Cole and Jackson Pollock,
but he was one of several figures who helped to nudge American art into
the 20th century. For all its shortcomings “The Unknown Blakelock”
makes that case. It also raises the question of how the Blakelocks of
art history, undersung American artists, would fare without the
custodial efforts of the National Academy.

Blacklisting the Academy will only hasten the demise of a venerable institution that fills a gap in the New York cultural scene and deserves to live. That said, AAMD has now sent a loud, forceful message to any other institutions that may be tempted to consider using collections as ATMs during this time of severe economic challenges.

Before sharing with you my views on the Academy’s deaccessioning and its broader implications for the field, I need to provide you with some necessary source material—excerpts from my Dec. 4 interview with Branagan that informed my original National Academy story, which has since been picked up by the mainstream media.

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

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