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Polaroid Collection Dispersal: From Museum Exhibition to Presale Exhibition

The 1999 Abrams catalogue for a traveling exhibition of Polaroid’s photography collection Cover image: detail from Silvia Taccani’s “Composite #115”

The Polaroid Corporation’s decades-old Artist Support Program (through which it bartered equipment for a collection of photographs by distinguished artists) has now become a Creditor Support Program.

In her e-mail accompanying the press relase for the highly controversial bankruptcy-driven dispersal, June 21 and 22, of more than 1,200 works from the Polaroid Collection, Sotheby’s spokesperson Lauren Gioia wrote:

The first significant
exhibition of highlights from the collection will be shown at Sotheby’s New York from 17-21

Actually, this is not the collection’s “first significant exhibition,” as I know firsthand. Back in 2006, I caught the show Innovation/Imagination: Fifty Years of Polaroid Photography at the Johnson Museum, the I.M. Pei-designed art facility of my alma mater, Cornell University.

I entered with low expectations, thinking that this would be a corporate-promotion exhibition, assembled at low cost to the museum but of meager artistic interest. Instead, I was blown away by the instantly recognizable oeuvre of many well-known photographers, who had taken a relatively limited (but immediate-gratification) device and put their unique, unmistakable stamps on the instant prints.

That traveling exhibition was launched in 1999 at the (now defunct) Ansel Adams Center for Photography, San Francisco, accompanied by a 120-page Abrams-published catalogue. In his review of the inaugural show, David Bonetti, then art critic for the San Francisco Examiner, described its highlights (which include works by Ansel Adams, Philippe
, Paul Caponigro, Robert Frank, Robert Maplethorpe, Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, William Wegman, Lucas Samaras, Dawoud Bey, Yasuhira Ishimoto).

Bonetti felt that the show wasn’t “as complete a survey as it might have been.” But for me, previously unaware of Polaroid’s enlightened sponsorship of artistic innovation, the show was a revelation.

For Chuck Close (as quoted by Carol Vogel in the NY Times), the sale of works created by artists who had given some of their output to the Polaroid Collection in exchange for material and equipment (and sometimes, direct grants) is “criminal.”  Photography critic A.D. Coleman decried the sale (in comments to Lindsay Pollock of Bloomberg) as “against
promises made to the photographers.”

In response to my queries, Gioia of Sotheby’s told me this about the circumstances of the sale:

The federal bankruptcy court [U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota] ordered the sale of the photos in our auction free and clear of all claims and encumbrances of any kind. This order was issued by the court after the court reviewed and specifically overruled the objections to the sale that were raised by a few photographers and others [emphasis added].

It is also significant to note that the federal bankruptcy court in a prior bankruptcy case involving Polaroid made similar findings of fact and rulings in a sale transaction that was approved in 2002.

Gioia also told me that “approximately 13,000 items remain in the collection.” The 1999 catalogue put its trove of photographs at 23,000.

Veteran New York photography dealer Janet Borden sees the sale as possibly a great buying opportunity: According to the initial reports she’s seen, the works seem “undervalued,” she told me today. (The presale estimate for the collection is $7.5-11.5 million and many of the individual works’ estimates can be found at the “press release” link at the top of this post.) Borden added that before she regards them as bargains, she will need to “see the shape they’re in. Some [Polaroid photos] are in good shape; some are really faded.”

Time and next month’s presale exhibition of highlights will tell.

Meanwhile, although Polaroid may soon be losing work by Ansel Adams, who once served as its “special consultant,” it has now engaged Lady Gaga as “creative director for a specialty line of Polaroid Imaging products.” This is intended to be a “multi-year strategic partnership.”

Is that what they mean by “staying true to Polaroid’s long-standing values”?

an ArtsJournal blog