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Spinning the Bad News: Randolph College Puffs Discarded Bellows With Hot Air

George Bellows, "Men of the Docks," 1912, as installed last year in exhibition at National Gallery, Washington Photo: Rob Shelley, © 2012 National Gallery, Washington

George Bellows, “Men of the Docks,” 1912, as installed last year in a retrospective at National Gallery of Art, Washington, that traveled to Metropolitan Museum and Royal Academy, London
Photo: Rob Shelley, © 2012 National Gallery of Art, Washington

More on this here, including identification of the dealer who helped arranged the Bellows’ sale.

Too often, local newspapers cross the line from journalism to boosterism when covering dubious doings at institutions in their hometowns.

In this not-so-grand tradition, Amy Trent, writing for the Lynchburg, VA, News and Advance, seemed to buy Randolph College’s win-win spin of its deplorable sale to London’s National Gallery of its signature Bellows, “Men of the Docks.”

In her Friday article, Trent did acknowledge that the disposal “drew mixed reactions.” She also alluded, in the middle of her mostly favorable piece, to opposition by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, (ACUMG) and American Alliance of Museums (AAM).

Unmentioned by Trent, but also issuing strong statements opposing the college’s intended use of art sale proceeds to support non-museum operations, were the College Art Association (which today reaffirmed its position) and Association of Art Museum Curators. In case anyone thought that its fury might have abated with time, the AAMD on Friday reposted on Twitter a link to the second of its two censures, which it had issued in 2011.

The Lynchburg scribe gave top billing and generous space to, of all people, New York art dealer Debra Force. That market maven gushed:

This is really quite a coup for American art, the fact that it is being internationally recognized.

What the newspaper failed to point out was that Force not only had a professional stake in promoting conspicuous high prices for the type of art that she sells. She also had a close association with Christie’s, the auction house to which the college in 2007 had consigned “Men of the Docks,” along with three other paintings. From 1984 to 1993, Force was Christie’s senior vice president and head of its American Paintings department.

Surprisingly, though, Christie’s did not broker this sale, as confirmed to me by both the auction house and by Brenda Edson, Randolph’s director of college relations. (My follow-up query to her on how the sale was arranged has not been answered at this writing. I’ll update here if/when I receive a reply.)

Christie’s had originally estimated the Bellows to bring some $25-35 million. But a drop in the market for American art caused the college to postpone the sale of three American paintings, including the Bellows. The National Gallery is now shelling out $25.5 million.

Also roundly condemning the sale to the National Gallery (and quoted by Trent) was Ellen Agnew, former associate director of the Maier Museum, who damned it as an “egregious and unethical breach of public trust that will have dangerous and far-reaching implications for museum collections everywhere.”

The last word in the local newspaper’s report was granted to Randolph College’s new president, Bradley Bateman, who astonishingly touted the disposal as an example of “fiduciary responsibility” and extolled the benefits of the college’s new partnership forged with the National Gallery, thanks to the Bellows’ sale.

In its press release crowing about its art-market coup, Randolph College quoted a description of the Bellows by the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny. He claimed it was the London museum’s “first major American work.”

Admittedly, this Inness that it has owned since 1956 probably wouldn’t fetch as much as the National Gallery paid for the Bellows. Still, it’s nothing to sneeze at:

George Inness, "The Delaware Water Gap," c. 1857, National Ballery, London

George Inness, “The Delaware Water Gap,”
c. 1857, National Gallery, London

Randolph hasn’t yet finished with its deplorable disposals: In a letter that I obtained, sent by President Bateman to friends of the college, he revealed that “we still plan to sell Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” and Ernest Hennings’ “Through the Arroyo” at a later date.” (Already sold at Christie’s in 2008 was Rufino Tamayo‘s, “Trovador,” 1945, which fetched $7.21 million.)

In selling the birthright of its Maier Museum—the first work purchased for its collection, thanks to a $2,500 bargain price arranged in 1920 directly with Bellows himself—Randolph College may have forged a new relationship with an eminent London museum. But it has also solidified its status as a pariah among museums and art historians in its own country. The National Gallery, as the other side of a transaction almost universally condemned by its American colleagues, deserves a share of the blame.

an ArtsJournal blog