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Crystal Bridges Accounting: How Much Did the Art Cost?

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Among the many works promised to Crystal Bridges by Alice Walton, but not yet given: John Singer Sargent, “Under the Willows,” 1887

In my previous post about the megabucks finances of Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—gleaned from the information provided in the 990-PF tax returns of 2005-2010, (the last of which is not yet online)—I mentioned that expenses totaling $277.64 million for “art acquisitions” were reported for 2005-2008. But in the subsequent two years, instead of a category for “art acquisitions,” there was a cryptic new listing—“museum procurement,” totaling $167.8 million.

When I asked this week whether that money had been spent to “procure” art, Laura Jacobs, new to her role as Crystal Bridges’ director of communications, initially stonewalled:

We’re choosing not to address this more specifically.

I then deployed my most useful, least ingratiating journalistic tactic—persistence. It elicited this:

To help you understand our choice for not addressing your questions more specifically, as a matter of policy, we do not disclose the purchase price or fair market value of artwork [emphasis added].

Today, this hit my inbox:

The line item for procurement is the total amount for gifts and purchases [emphasis added] of art for the year.

Gifts??? This item is clearly labeled, “Museum Procurement Expense,” and it falls under the broader rubric of “Other Expenses.” If Crystal Bridges’ tax return has indeed classified “gifts” under “expenses” (which I strongly doubt), it’s done so in error. Seeking further clarification, I’ll update here.

Assuming (as seems likely) that “museum procurement” does indeed mean “outlays for art,” Crystal Bridges’ pre-2011 art purchases would total $445.44 million. Notwithstanding the msueum’s reticence, it is, in fact, common practice for museums to list in their annual reports the total annual amount spent on art acquisitions. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, reports (P. 57) that it spent $36.56 million to purchase art during the 2010-11 fiscal year (ending June 30).

When Crystal Bridges’ 2010 tax return finally goes online, you’ll be able to see that the museum did (notwithstanding what Jacobs told me about “policy”) report the fair market value of two artworks—a Theodoros Stamos and an Alfred Maurer—that were given to it by non-Walton donors (identified on the return by name). Museums, for good reason, do not customarily get involved in valuations of donated works, let alone report those values on their tax returns. These valuations (and the validity thereof) are between the donor and the IRS.

The nearly half-billion dollars in art expenditures by Crystal Bridges do not include 2011 purchases, nor do they include acquisitions made privately by Alice Walton, who still owns (as “promised gifts”) about 30% of the 1,000-plus works that are counted as part of the museum’s collection.

David Houston, the museum’s curatorial director, told me that the works still owned by Walton are not coming as fractional gifts. There is as yet no schedule for their transfer, he said, but they are likely to come as both gifts and bequests.

Houston added:

The analysis of the collection, the growth of the collection with our endowment funds, and relationship to bequest is something that we really need to analyze. There’s no answer that they’ll come in this year or that they’ll come all together at a certain point. I think what we’ll see is that this will evolve over time, as we develop a collection strategy. There are documents but they’re fluid things that will change over time.

How sure is the museum that Walton’s “promised gifts” (not identified as such on gallery labels) will eventually become part of the museum’s permanent holdings? Houston told me this:

With promised gifts, you’re always relying on an element of trust and verbal agreement. A promised gift is always a complex thing, because you have the needs and concerns of the donor; you have institutional issues.

In the case where the donor is a founder, it’s much more clear and easy and simple, with mutual interest being shared. I’ve worked with a whole variety of gifts in the past, and sometimes, if you’re dealng with heirs [Walton has no children] and you don’t have that direct link, it gets to be dicey. The question is a legitimate one but, first of all, there’s a strong relationship with a single founder and the founder is the chair of the board.

Crystal Bridges’ outlays for art acquisitions may soon include the $30 million that the museum hopes to spend for a half-share in Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection. As I reported yesterday, Fisk has just received a favorable court ruling (pending possible appeal) regarding its proposed violation of donor Georgia O’Keeffe‘s written no-sale stipulation for the collection.

However one feels about this collection-sharing gambit, it’s clear that some works in O’Keeffe’s 101-object benefaction have no business at Crystal Bridges: As far as I can tell, no one has discussed the fact that these holdings includes numerous pieces of African and European art that fall completely outside the scope of Crystal Bridges’ American-art focus.

Here’s the statement released today by Crystal Bridges, regarding the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ Tuesday ruling green-lighting the Fisk deal:

We are pleased that the Court’s decision has made it possible for Fisk University and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to share ownership of the Stieglitz Collection. As the details of the ruling are being finalized in Tennessee, we welcome the opportunity to work with both the Tennessee Attorney General and the Chancery Court.

“Sharing this resource allows diverse audiences in Tennessee and Arkansas and the nation to engage with remarkable works of art and ensures that the collection will remain intact for generations to come,” said Don Bacigalupi, executive director, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

While you await my two-part analysis (coming next week) of Crystal Bridges’ architecture (Where is Michael Kimmelman when the NY Times really needs him?), I’d like to remind you that my “Bender in Bentonville” challenge is still $140 short of my goal to defray hotel and taxi expenses for my recent visit.

Now that you’ve visited Arkansas with me, please take a moment to visit my middle column. You won’t need a GPS to find the “DONATE” button. A few fractional gifts will (retroactively) get me there.

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