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Clyfford Still Museum&#146s Sloppy Stewardship: Denver Post Article, City Council Video

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Clyfford’s auction adventure

If the City of Denver and officials of its Clyfford Still Museum believe that the controversy over their decision to monetize four works from the estate of the artist’s widow will quickly die down, Kyle MacMillan, the Denver Post‘s art critic, is out to prove them wrong.

What’s more, an online video (not mentioned by the Post) of a Denver City Council committee meeting demonstrates how delusional the city and its museum have been (and continue to be) in their business plan and their handling of the artistic legacy entrusted to them.

In his hard-hitting piece last Saturday, MacMillan noted that “ethical concerns were quickly—and rightly—raised” about orchestrating a sale that would not “honor the spirit of the Still
family’s very public gift to Denver or live up to the guardianship the
city agreed to take on.”

Like CultureGrrl, Kyle also suggested that the supposed “special opportunity” (as one Denver official called it) for a public institution to buy all four works before a Sept. 19 deadline was mere window-dressing. That’s in part because Sotheby’s, the auction house entrusted with this consignment, had a far greater financial incentive, under the terms of its agreement with Denver, for the public-auction option. More importantly, the window of opportunity for a museum to come up with an acceptable private offer was unrealistically short—a matter of a few days from Denver’s final approval of the agreement.

The nearly hour-long online video of the City Council’s Business, Workforce & Sustainability Committee (linked above) exposes the magnitude of Denver’s folly. The resourceful representatives deployed by Sotheby’s actually managed to convince city officials that instead of being a reputational fiasco, the violation (with court approval) of the explicit no-sale stipulations in the artist’s and his widow’s wills would bring the museum good publicity for its Nov. 18 opening.

In describing Sotheby’s “comprehensive package that included public relations,” Jan Brennan, Director of Cultural Programs for Arts & Venues Denver, gushed:

We were talking about and all excited about the opening of the museum, which would coincide very closely with the auction of these pictures in November. So it’s an incredible promotional opportunity for our collection….It could be good for the museum [for people] to see a few of the paintings [at the auction house] and say, “I’d really like to see the body of his work.”

Comments to the committee by Dean Sobel, director of the museum, revealed that the museum’s business plan was as flawed as the city’s understanding of public relations. Dismally failing to materialize was the expectation that this local project, devoted to a single, lesser-known Abstract Expressionist, would capture the imagination (and dollars) of donors nationwide.

In fact, more than 90% of approximately $30 million in contributions towards the building, Sobel reported, came from Denver’s metropolitan area—a result that he said was “not anticipated….Some of our donors are ambivalent about the art but they understand the importance of it for Colorado and Denver.” The biggest failure was the inability to raise funds beyond the cost of the new Brad Cloepfil-designed building. Opening without an endowment was unthinkable.

In elucidating the reasons why Sotheby’s was chosen over Christie’s, Brennan made the sore-loser auction house look better than it had when it went public with its disappointment. Christie’s had apparently taken seriously the city’s and museum’s purported preference for a private sale to a public institution over a public sale to (potentially) private buyers.

Brennan revealed:

The proposal that we received from Christie’s was not nearly as well developed [as that from Sotheby’s]. They [Christie’s] made as a primary proposal that we would have a private sale, and there was a small paragraph that said other options could be considered if this didn’t work. They did not address the full range of questions that we asked for in the RFP [Request for Proposals], including a public sale. They just threw out that they’d be willing to consider that….

Sotheby’s went down [to Maryland] and saw these paintings and spoke to us authoritatively from personal examination of the paintings. Christie’s did not take advantage of the opportunity to see the paintings, although my understanding is that they had seen them some years ago.

The way this has played out makes Brennan’s stated concern for the artist’s and his widow’s wishes sound like mere lip service:

We want to be very respectful to [and] mindful of the desires of the estate. We know that the Stills care deeply and have a preference that the paintings be available to the public.

With the November auction dispersal on the horizon, that preference—not to mention the stipulation that the works be kept together and never sold—seems to have been “honored” in the breach.

I hope that the Clyfford Still Museum, an exciting project, turns into a great boon for the artworld, the museumgoing public and Denver. But it’s getting off to a very shaky start.

an ArtsJournal blog