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Sherman Surrender: Akron to Auction Cindy&#146s Iconic “Centerfolds” Image

If a museum owns two major works from the same period by the same artist, can one of them—by far, the more celebrated of the two—be deemed redundant and expendable?

That seems to be the thinking behind the Akron Art Museum’s announcement, through Christie’s, that on May 8 it will auction off Cindy Sherman‘s “Untitled #96″ from her landmark “Centerfolds” series—the famous image of a girl (Sherman herself) in an orange sweater, lost in reverie.

Her removal to the auction block is intended to capitalize on the heightened interest brought to Sherman’s already sought-after work by the Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective, which reproduced the orange-sweater image “in all the media related to
this show” (in the words of the Christie’s announcement).

Akron feels comfortable disposing of this….

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Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #96,” 1981
Presale estimate: $2.8-3.8 million

…because it also owns a less renowned, less riveting image from the same series:

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Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #93,” 1981

In explaining the sale to Dorothy Shinn, art and architecture critic of the Akron Beacon Journal, the museum’s director, Mitchell Kahan, stated:

We are in a very unique position of being able to keep a 1981
masterpiece and use the other one to raise money. It was a proposal that I made to take
advantage of a unique moment in time when everybody seems to want what
we have.

Other museums might regard their possession of what “everybody seems to want” as an excellent reason to keep what they fortunately already have.

What really gave me a “did he really say that?” moment was Kahan’s citing the problematic precedent of the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s dubious deaccession of a museum-quality Monet (among others) to bankroll the purchase of its coveted Caillebotte. These expedient excisions, particularly tempting during financially tight times, are becoming contagious.

In response to my query about the rationale behind the sale, Kahan told me:

The sale will allow the museum to continue its longstanding commitment to the work of Cindy Sherman, reinforcing its prescient 1981 purchases of Untitled #93 and Untitled #96. The museum will do this by broadening its Sherman holdings, acquiring additional images made since the early 1980s to develop a broader representation of her work. As well, we will continue to purchase key works of contemporary art. Our strategy has been to buy artists in mid-career.

When I asked how he justified selling the museum’s most important Sherman instead of the lesser one, he replied:

History may reveal [or maybe it already has] whether one is more important than the other, but the work chosen for sale is clearly the one that the market prefers at this point in time. Since our ultimate goal is to increase the acquisitions endowment as much as impossible, it was logical to sell the image that will bring the most income for future purchases.

While all proceeds from the Sherman will be used strictly for acquisitions, the museum’s chronic operating deficit can be seen as a factor contributing to the deaccession decision. Kahan told me that “given the anticipated boost to the museum’s acquisitions endowment from the sale,” the museum will now be able to focus its upcoming fundraising drive “exclusively on new operating endowment.”

Regarding the museum’s current financial challenges, Kahan told me this:

The museum was fortunate to raise almost three-quarters of a million dollars in reserve funds to cover deficits for fiscal years 2009 and 2011 and an anticipated deficit for FY2012….

It is worth noting that the museum tripled its size in July 2007, just prior to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a development that continues to stress our operating budget. Despite the Great Recession, in January 2010, only 30 months after opening the new Knight Building, the museum paid off all debt related to the expansion, and the museum continues to operate debt-free…

…but not deficit-free. For many museums, it seems to be easier to raise money for new wings than for the costs of operating them and the new art to fill them. As I said in a previous post (scroll down) about the situation at the Boston MFA:

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?

It’s no wonder, then, that Akron’s trustees voted unanimously in favor of the Sherman sale. Why undertake the laborious task of raising acquisitions funds, when you can do it in one fell swoop by monetizing a masterpiece?

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