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Part II: Boston MFA Purchases Caillebotte&#146s Male Nude, Denudes its Permanent Collection

Gustave Caillebotte, “Man at His Bath,” 1884
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (which has acquired it)

[Part I is here.]

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is not alone in succumbing to the temptation of “trading up” by liquidating museum-quality works to buy other works deemed more important to the collection. Many have done it; the Museum of Modern Art has done it repeatedly—most notably in acquiring van Gogh‘s celebrated “Portrait of Joseph Roulin.”

Boston, which is about to sell eight works from its collection to fund its purchase of Caillebotte‘s “Man at His Bath,” has done this sort of thing before: In 2003, it sold two much-exhibited Degas pastels of dancers
and a Renoir double portrait of the artist’s third son and his
housemaid to bankroll the purchase of a Degas masterpiece, The Duchess of Montejasi with Her Daughters.

Even the Association of Art Museum Directors, in its Professional Practices in Art Museums (p. 22), regards an “effort to refine and improve” the collection as an appropriate reason to sell.

So what’s the downside of trading up? The problem is that art donors and the general public have a right to expect museums to be custodians of culture, not market traders. This especially holds true for works that have been deemed of sufficient importance by the curators to have accumulated extensive exhibition histories.

I requested and obtained the provenance and exhibition
of the eight works that Boston plans to sell. (The presale estimates of these pictures, with images, are provided my previous post, here.) Five of these paintings showed no exhibition histories in the records that I was sent.

But the Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin have all been exhibited extensively. The Monet was in “Impressions of Light: The French Landscape from Corot to Monet,” which ran at the BMFA from December 2002 until April 2003. In the museum’s permanent-collection galleries, the Pissarro and one of the Sisleys (“Saint-Mammès: Morning”) were on view from February to June 2003.

The Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin all figured in “Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape,” which traveled a decade ago from Boston to four major institutions: the National Gallery of Canada, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, National Gallery of Ireland.

These three were also repeatedly dispatched to
exhibitions in Japan, both at the BMFA’s own satellite museum in Nagoya
(Gauguin and Pissarro) and to a variety of other Japanese venues. They were also included in the BMFA’s controversial rental shows dispatched in 2004-2006 to the Bellagio Resort and Casino,
Las Vegas.

The fact that they were shown off-premises much more than at home means that Impressionist-rich Boston probably did not regard them as essential to hometown visitors. But the fact that they were so often included in traveling “Masterworks” shows means that they were deemed worthy of public display and should remain part of the public patrimony.

George T.M. Shackelford, the BMFA curator who orchestrated both the Degas and Caillebotte acquisitions (and their related deaccessions), has extolled the quality of his institution’s eight consignments to Sotheby’s November sales. In recent comments to Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee, Shackelford stated:

There’s not a dud painting in this group. That’s
why we are very sad to see them go. It’s not secondary material; it’s
great stuff. It has to be, to get the required sum.

Why couldn’t the BMFA get the undisclosed “required sum” the old-fashioned way, by raising it? After all, the museum’s director, Malcolm Rogers, proved to be a master fundraiser in the successfully concluded campaign that netted a whopping $504 million for new construction, renovations, endowment and operations connected to two capital projects—the new American Wing and the just-opened Contemporary Art Wing. What’s a mere $16.6-24.3 million (the total presale estimates for the eight deaccessions), compared to $504 million? (Caillebotte’s auction record is $14.3 million, achieved in 2000 for this painting.)

But it’s precisely the focus on the megabucks capital campaign that may have diverted the museum from raising needed funds for other purposes, such as acquisitions. After all, how much can you ask of benefactors who have already been stretched to the limit?

This problem was explicitly acknowledged in comments made back in 2003 by Ann Gund, then chairman of the museum’s collections committee, to Geoff Edgers of the Globe. She noted that the capital campaign (already then underway) had sidelined fundraising for the purchase of Degas’ expensive duchess:

Usually, if there is something like this, we go and ask friends of the museum if they will contribute. But we want to keep our friends’ eyes on the capital campaign.

What’s the message that these deaccessions, past and present, send to Boston’s benefactors? Their donations are crucial for major capital projects, but are not as essential for major acquisitions, which can be bankrolled by mining the collection. These are pernicious precedents.

Deaccessioning is an integral part of good collections management. But works should be sold because they are deemed unworthy of the museum’s collection, not because of a sudden need to make a splash in the market. Deaccessioning decisions should be made independently of purchasing decisions.

The principle that disposals “should reflect policy rather than the reaction to the exigencies of a particular moment” was contained in previous versions of AAMD’s “Professional Practices in Art Museums” (p. 21 in the 2001 edition). Interestingly and regrettably, that language was dropped in the 2011 revision. The slippery slope has been greased.

The Caillebotte, which had been on
anonymous loan from February 1997 to April 2011 at the National Gallery, London (after which it went to the BMFA), will soon be part of the Boston exhibition that has become Shackelford’s swan song there—Degas and the Nude, Oct. 9-Feb. 5. At his next gig—senior
deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth—Shackelford may be less
tempted to treat the permanent collection as fungible:
The Kimbell, it seems, has ample resources of its own to fund stellar acquisitions.

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