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Q&A with Carmine Branagan: National Academy Resurrected after Near-Death Experience, Director Unrepentant

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Carmine Branagan, director of the National Academy, stands her ground in front of Asher B. Durand’s “The Morning of Life,” 1840.

I wish the National Academy Museum a secure and productive future. And I’m delighted that it is finally back in business, having reopened in its Beaux Arts Huntington Mansion on Sept. 16. (I spoke very briefly Friday about its rebirth on WNYC‘s All Things Considered.) The Academy had been closed since July 2010 for renovation, under the auspices of architect Jane Stageberg, who stars in a CultureGrrl Video at the bottom of this post.

But I continue to have misgivings about the National Academy’s leadership.

The Fifth Avenue townhouse is now a clean, well-lit place: Walls have been resurfaced and repainted. Some fabric wallcovering has been stripped off, some wood paneling removed, one fireplace eliminated—all questionable alterations. New lighting has been deftly designed by Richard Renfro, who also was responsible for the masterful illumination transformation at another historic mansion—the refurbished Morgan Library and Museum.

But the Academy’s embattled director, Carmine Branagan, while deserving credit for reopening the place, demonstrated during her brief interview with me at the press preview that she still doesn’t get it: She has no regrets, let alone apologies, for the Academy’s deplorable stealth disposals of two important Hudson River School paintings, undertaken to defray the institution’s operating expenses and debts (a story that I broke in December 2008 on CultureGrrl).

This violation of a bedrock principle of art museum stewardship—that sales proceeds must be used for acquisitions only—landed the Academy in deep trouble with the Association of Art Museum Directors. Due to this infraction, the association censured and blackballed the Academy until  last October.

The Academy remains on five-year probation. I can’t imagine that AAMD’s arbiters of museum ethics will be pleased by Branagan’s responses to my questions at the press preview on Sept. 13.

Here’s the Q&A:

Rosenbaum: Did the deaccessions help pay for this renovation?

Branagan: We deaccessioned in order to keep the doors open. The renovation was actually something that we hadn’t even anticipated that we could do. But it became clear that these facilities wouldn’t work, and then these bequests came in [from Eleanor Popper, a former student, and Geoffrey Wagner, in memory of his artist wife, paying for most of the $3.5-million renovation]. Without the deaccessioning, the Academy wouldn’t even have been able to stay open. It was virtually bankrupt.


Rosenbaum:
So “no regrets” is what I’m hearing. In other words, the deaccessioning needed to be done, even in retrospect.


Branagan:
Do we all regret that we don’t have those paintings? Profoundly! Profoundly we regret that. It’s actually heartbreaking that we don’t have those. And the sanctions were extremely difficult. Make no mistake that sanctions by the AAMD have meaning.


Rosenbaum:
More meaningful than you realized at the time?

Branagan: I kind of knew. But there was no choice. There was no choice! So the collective Academy made the decision that staying open and being able to have the opportunity to continue this historic legacy was what was important. When the decision was made, it was, “Fasten your seatbelts! This is going to be a really, really rough ride.”

Really Lee, the depth of the problem that the academy had, and the depth of the difficulty that was created by the deaccessioning was a shocking wake-up call that it’s time to get your act together because you ain’t doing this again, ever. So there’s nothing like a crisis to create possibility. Do I regret it? Profoundly. We all regret it.


Rosenbaum:
But you don’t think it was the wrong decision, even now. It was the decision you felt was the only way to save the place.

Branagan: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here. I think there’s a necessity and it could have gone either way. If the decision was made not to do it, the Academy wouldn’t exist. What that says to us is that if we went through this really difficult thing and we made this decision, then we’d better damn well make this institution relevant, at the very least, and bring forth a contemporary focus within this historic tradition.

The takeaway from this—that it was okay for the Academy resort to desperation deaccessions as a one-off—cannot be the statement that the Association of Art Museum Directors wants to hear. It had removed the sanctions in the belief that the Academy was “committed—both in principle and practice—to AAMD’s position regarding the use of funds from deaccessioned works of art.” Those words are from AAMD’s announcement of its lifting of sanctions. AAMD’s unprecedented punishment had crippled the Academy by preventing the association’s member museums from collaborating with it in any way, including exhibitions and scholarly projects.

But whatever happened to the jettisoned Church and Gifford?

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Frederic Edwin Church, “Scene on the Magdalene,” 1854

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Sanford Robinson Gifford, “Mt. Mansfield,” 1859

When I had interviewed Branagan in her office almost three years ago, she had told me that, at the Academy’s request, the buyer of the two deaccessioned paintings, a foundation, had made a firm commitment that they would hang publicly, most likely at an art museum and probably on “extended long-term loan.”

They have not surfaced to this day.

In response to my recent query, Heidi Riegler, a spokesperson for the Academy, said her institution had no information about who bought them or whether they will be exhibited. Perhaps the buyer prudently decided not to be publicly linked to this infamous episode.

I have previously given my informed guess about the identity of the buyer, here.

As for Branagan’s vow, at the end of her conversation with me, to make her institution “relevant” and “contemporary,” the sculptural switch in its elegant rotunda gave me a rude shock. At left is how things looked prior to the renovation. At right, the view at the recent preview:

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Left: Anna Hyatt Huntington,
“Diana of the Chase,” 1922, bronze, gift of the artist, 1948
Right: John Chamberlain,
“Tasteylingus,” 2010,
painted and chrome-plated steel
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

“Diana” has now been relegated to a niche in this ornate but empty room:

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Perhaps the biggest shock related to the Academy’s renovation is that it completely eliminated the giftshop. It had been located just inside the entrance, in what has now become an orientation space with informational video monitors. I won’t miss the souvenirs. But I will miss the chance to buy books related to the museum’s collections and past exhibitions.

The new inaugural exhibitions were a mixed bag. If you’re a Will Barnet fan, by all means see the comprehensive retrospective of this still active 100-year-old artist, who oscillated between figuration and abstraction just like de Kooning (which is probably the only thing those two have in common, aside from the fact that they now have simultaneous museum retrospectives in New York). The works, from a variety of sources, were well chosen by the museum’s senior curator Bruce Weber. But I generally view Barnet as the visual equivalent of easy-listening music.

My favorite of the inaugural installations is “The Artist Revealed: A Panorama of Great Artist Portraits”—works that came to the Academy thanks to its requirement that artists elected to its ranks donate a self-portrait to the institution. Here is the “power wall” that I referred to when I spoke on WNYC:

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Self-portraits, left to right, by John Singer Sargent (1892), Cecilia Beaux (1894), Thomas Eakins (1902)

For better images of these and other artworks at the Academy, view the slideshow at WNYC’s report, linked at the top of this post.

To get a better sense of the Academy’s renovation, come join me now on a brief tour with Jane Stageberg, the architect for the renovation:

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