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Clyfford Still Museum Circumvents Donor Intent (CultureGrrl Circumnavigates Construction Site)

Architect’s rendering of Clyfford Still Museum, Denver

The Clyfford Still Museum, now under construction in Denver, is getting off on the wrong foot, before it even opens, by monetizing four works by the eponymous artist that would otherwise have been part of its collection. They are being sold, against the express wishes of the artist and his widow, due to a failure of fundraising.

Last Thursday, the Circuit Court for Carroll County, MD, gave the City and County of Denver the permission they had sought to sell four Clyfford Still paintings from the estate of the artist’s widow, Patricia Still. Those proceeds, according to the court order, may be applied to the Clyfford Still Museum’s endowment and to “other expenses required by the Donation Agreement between the Estate of Patricia Alice Still and the City and County of Denver.”

The 30,000-square-foot museum, whose director, Dean Sobel, recently gave me a construction-site tour (see the CultureGrrl Video, below), had failed to raise sufficient endowment funds to support its $2-million estimated annual operating budget. Sobel told me on Feb. 8 that the museum, scheduled to open late this year, had raised only about $4 million for endowment. An additional $3 million, he said, had been raised for operations. Astonishingly for such a project, no specific endowment fundraising goal had been set.

This otherwise unsustainable business model depended upon getting court permission to beef up the paltry endowment by selling the four works by Still. According to stipulations in the wills of both the artist and his widow, those works should never be relinquished.

Some $30 million—enough to pay for construction of the Brad Cloepfil-designed facility—has been raised through conventional means. (The City and County of Denver are not providing any funds.) This has been done in a financial climate that made fundraising difficult but that also helped to reduce projected construction costs.

The museum had previously estimated that the paintings it had selected for sale would raise about $25 million. But yesterday, its spokesperson, Juliet Sorce of Resnicow Schroeder Associates, told me this:

The works have not been appraised recently and the museum is planning to do so now that it has the court order in hand….The museum has not yet selected an agent or method of marketing the works.

This disposal, through which Sobel hopes to keep the four paintings together and “in the public domain,” may follow the letter, if not the spirit, of the “no deaccessions to support operations” rule that is deemed sacrosanct by most art museums and by their professional organization, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).

This is because the paintings are being offered for sale before the approximately 2,400 works from Clyfford’s and Patricia’s estates are physically transferred to the Still Museum. The museum asserts that because the collection is not yet in its possession, this cannot be termed a “deaccession.” The ownership of the collection, however, will remain with City and County of Denver, even after the physical transfer. So this purported “non-deaccession” is arguably a distinction without a difference.

Whatever the legalistic loopholes, this gambit violates the spirit and letter of Clyfford and Patricia Still’s written intentions for their collections, as clearly expressed in their wills.

Patricia, as Sobel points out, did sell some works during her own lifetime. But in her will, she insisted upon no further sales after her death. In permitting deviation from this stipulation, the court declared that the prohibition against sales was “impracticable.”

The museum e-mailed to me this document with the relevant excerpts from Clyfford and Patricia’s wills.

Patricia’s will, mimicking similar provisions in the will of her husband, who predeceased her, states:

None of such works of art [the works by Clyfford Still in her estate] are ever to be sold, given, exchanged, loaned, circulated and/or otherwise disposed of at any time, for any length of time, and/or for any purpose but, to the contrary, shall be retained at all times in the Quarters exclusively and permanently provided for such art works for the purpose of the exhibition, study, preservation, maintenance and storage of the same.

You can’t get any more unambiguous than that. These restrictions, in fact, are positively Barnes-ian. (Speaking of which, the postponed court hearing regarding the latest attempt to undo the Barnes Foundation’s move to Philadelphia—which infamously involved court permission to deviate from Albert Barnes‘ own written stipulations—took place yesterday morning. That case continues…)

The executors of Patricia Still’s estate “did not object to the petition” seeking permission to deviate from the terms of the will, according to the museum’s press release. The museum vows that no further sales from the collection will occur. But the final sentence of court order appears to grant some leeway, in case another desperation deaccession is later deemed necessary:

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the petitioner be granted such other and further relief as the nature of its cause may require.

Here’s what Christine Anagnos, AAMD’s interim director, had to say yesterday, when I asked what her organization’s current position is on the Still situation:

The planned sale of these works by the City of Denver, to raise funds for
the Clyfford Still Museum’s endowment, does not violate the Association’s principles regarding the use of funds from deaccessioned works of art, because the museum has not formally accessioned these works into its collections.

What about the disregard of donor intent?

Again, because it’s not deaccessioning of acquisitioned works by a museum, AAMD’s policies do not apply.

Maybe its policies need to be updated to address a situation where a nascent museum, through actions taken (with the museum’s active encouragement) by the current and future owner of its collection, violates of the express wishes of its eponymous artist/donor.

The Still Museum has repeatedly declined to send me photos of any of the works to be sold. When I asked Sobel for images during our conversation last month, he said that he didn’t want the works to be “shopped around” via released images. Spokeswoman Juliet Sorce yesterday gave me a different reason for not sharing these: “The museum only has poor-quality archival images of these works that are not cleared for reproduction/media usage.”

The works, which do not have titles, have been identified to me only by their numbers:

—PH-351 (1940), 41 by 37½ inches

—PH-584 (1947), 69½ by 59 inches

—PH-89 (1949), 93 by 79 inches

—PH-1033 (1976), 93½ by 83 inches

A month and a half before the court decision, I asked Sobel what the museum would do if permission to sell the works were denied. He told me:

We would ramp up our efforts to raise endowment and would do less in those first several years.

That “ramp-up” should have been the museum’s first resort, not its last resort. This might have made compliance with Patricia Still’s stipulations far less “impracticable” than it has now become.

[Speaking of ramped-up fundraising and impracticalities, my warmest thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donors 160 and 161 from San Diego and Burlington, VT.]

On the coldest and snowiest morning of my three-day Denver visit, Sobel graciously took me on a tour of the construction site, where part of the building’s cast-in-place concrete skin is now visible. We entered a mock-up of a gallery, where you’ll see a reproduction of a Hans Namuth photograph of the artist on one wall and a reproduction of a Still painting on another:

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