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PAFA’s Ditzy Deaccessions: What It Gained vs. What It Lost


Sold: William Merritt Chase, “Autumn Still Life,” left
Bought: Odili Donald Odita,
“Future Perfect,” 2010, right

Janet Landay, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, has precipitously bestowed the professional organization’s seal of approval on the ongoing deaccession program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. I think AAMD urgently needs to rethink that position at its midwinter meeting next week.

CultureGrrl readers may remember PAFA’s deplorable disposal of Thomas Eakins‘ “The Cello Player” to help pay for the Academy’s half-share (with the Philadelphia Museum of Art) of the $68-million purchase price for Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic.”

Now the Academy is engaged in another dicey deaccession—the $5-million sale of five quality works by historic American artists to take a flier on some very recent art. AAMD states, in its Professional Practices in Art Museums, that “standards applied to deaccessioning and disposal…should not be subject to changes in fashion and taste.” The works acquired with the proceeds are, for the most part, contemporary and demographically correct—emphasizing female and black artists. This desire for increased inclusiveness is laudable; the method employed in fulfilling that goal is not.

I have been sitting on this story since late December, trying to pin down information about how important the sold works have been to PAFA itself, in terms of their exhibition history and time spent on display in the permanent collection galleries. But since the Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday published a favorable piece by Stephan Salisbury about the disposals and acquisitions, I’ll go with what I’ve got and update later.

The sales were arranged through two private dealers—Avery Galleries and Menconi & Schoelkopf. (Avery’s Richard Rossello, as CultureGrrl readers may remember, was the buyer of record for Jasper Johns‘ record-breaking $28.6-million “Flag” at last year’s Michael Crichton auction at Christie’s.) When I asked why PAFA favored private sales over public auction, Marsha Braverman, the Academy’s executive vice president of marketing and communications, replied:

PAFA sought valuations from five dealers and two national auction houses. The sales estimates of the dealers were consistently higher, sometimes by 100% or more….Moreover, auction houses no longer provide minimum guaranteed prices and buy-in rates in recent American art sales have been high. If a work fails to sell at auction, it is unlikely to sell for the foreseeable future.

The Academy’s press release states:

In each case, the artists of deaccessioned works 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.

Maybe so, but in a subsequent post, I’ll supplement the images above with more examples of what the Academy has deaccessioned and what it bought. Then you can decide for yourself. I wonder whether AAMD’s Landay saw these images, as I have, before expressing her endorsement of the transactions to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Salisbury reported:

Landay…said she was “pleased to hear this story [about PAFA’s deaccessions] because this is the direction we are encouraging our institutions to go.”

Landay said she knew of no other museum that has made such a specific public announcement of sales [Had she never heard of this?], and said it could be an important step toward providing “more transparency” for such normally murky transactions….Landay…noted that it is common for museums to sell from one section of a collection in order to strengthen another.

“It’s a normal part of building a collection,” she said. “It shouldn’t be such a touchy subject.”

PAFA’s so-called “transparency” and its “public announcement” came only after Lita Solis-Cohen published an article questioning the then unannounced deaccessions in the Maine Antique Digest. I saw that article (but I’ve lost the link and the date), which prompted me to send my list of questions, on Dec. 26, to Braverman.

More to come, here and here.

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