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PAFA’s Folly: Art Sales v. Acquisitions

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

As promised in Tuesday’s post about the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ ditzy deaccessions, I’m publishing images in the lefthand column, below, of the four of the five works recently sold by the Academy. (The fifth is the William Merritt Chase pictured in Tuesday’s above-linked post.) In the righthand column are five of the works purchased, in part, with the deaccession proceeds. (A sixth recent acquisition, by Odili Donald Odita, was pictured in Tuesday’s post.)

This juxtaposition is not intended to suggest any one-to-one correspondence between a sold work on the left and the acquired work to its immediate right. But you’ll get some flavor for what types of work are being let go and what is now being sought.

I don’t presume to be able to accurately assess the relative quality of the bought and sold works from digital images. Even if I saw them all in person, I’d be comparing apples to oranges—traditional, historic works with contemporary works and/or works by women and minority artists who are less well represented in PAFA’s collection.

But given the fact that the proceeds from the five castoffs totaled $5 million (not counting dealers’ commissions)—an average price, with commissions, of more than $1 million per piece—it’s safe to say that the sold works were not objects “of poor quality” (in the words of the Association of Art Museum Director’s “Criteria for Deaccessioning and Disposal”).

The criteria that PAFA says it did employ in choosing expendable art—“works [that] are represented in PAFA’s collection by more important examples and/or [emphasis added] ones that relate better to core works in the permanent collection”—leave a lot of wiggle room on the question of what it means to “relate better to core works in the collection.” Perhaps works that differ from, rather than “relate to” the “core works” are exactly what the collection needs for greater variety and broader scope (as witness the effort to diversify the contemporary holdings with the types of works and artists not already well represented in the collection). And “important examples,” even if there are other equally important ones, should stay where they are. Part of the proper function of museums is to collect in depth.

The disposal of traditional, historic works to acquire freshly minted pieces and/or works by minority and female artists brings to mind the much criticized 2007 disposals by the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, of highly important antiquities and other masterworks, to bankroll a contemporary art-buying spree. There’s a longstanding (but, obviously, not universally held) school of professional thought that says proceeds from deaccessioned works should be used acquire works from the same or similar collecting areas. I subscribe to that belief. (The Albright-Knox finessed such scruples by changing its mission to accommodate its collection revamp.)

Below is the sold-bought (left-right) evidence of PAFA’s folly. (The relative sizes of the images do not conform to the relative sizes of the actual works.):

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SOLD: John Twachtman, “Flowers,” 1893, left;  BOUGHT: Mark Bradford, “Untitled: [Dementia],” 2009, right








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SOLD: Childe Hassam, “Looking over Frenchman’s Bay at Green Mountain,” 1896, left; BOUGHT: Lilly Martin Spencer, “Mother and Child by the Hearth,” 1867, right

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SOLD: Maurice Prendergast, “Bathers in a Cove,” 1916, left; BOUGHT: Philip Evergood, “Mine Disaster,” 1933, right

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SOLD: Frank Weston Benson, “Great White Herons,” 1933, left; BOUGHT: Dorothea Tanning, “Midi et Demi (Half past Noon),” 1956-57, right






CONSIGNED BUT NOT YET SOLD: Theodore Robinson, “Girl at Piano,” ca. 1887, left; BOUGHT: Mickalene Thomas, “Din Avec la Main Dans le Miroir,” 2008, right




I also have the titles and artists (but not images) for recently acquired works by two other artists: Norman Lewis, “Redneck Birth,” 1961; Nancy Spero, “At Their Word (The Sick Woman),” 1957-58, “The Great Mother,” 1960, and “The Bug, Helicopter, Victim,” 1966.

Like the Robinson, directly above, some of the other consigned (but not yet sold) works appear to be even more appealing than some of the works already sold.



James Peale, “Still Life #1,” 1827

Childe Hassam, “Top of Cape Ann,” 1918


Ernest Lawson, “Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia,” 1924

Arthur B. Carles, “The Turkey,” 1927

Maybe PAFA should reconsider its misconceived deaccession plan while there’s still time to rescue some of the works now on the market. I’m not saying that PAFA shouldn’t try to diversify its collection and I’m not saying that it shouldn’t sell some of its holdings. What I AM saying is that it shouldn’t be selling museum-quality works in general and important historic works in particular to fill perceived gaps regarding contemporary art and works by women and by artists of color.

They should acquire those works through donations and by using their purchase endowment (which they have also tapped for these purchases), or by selling works that, because of poor quality or condition, have no business being in the collection in the first place.

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