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Another “Stealth Deaccession”: National Academy to Sell Its Buildings UPDATED

Randy Kennedy of the NY Times beat me to this story, which I sat on for almost two weeks, because of my Met Breuer obsession. In a story posted online last night, Kennedy reported that the Academy plans “to sell two Beaux-Arts buildings on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street that have been its home since 1942.”

On Mar. 5, one of my confidential sources had emailed this to me:

Apparently within the last two weeks, more staff members have either been let go, “encouraged to resign.” or left….News is that a group of realtors have recently been given a tour of the building.”

The National Academy Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The National Academy
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Two key staff members named by my source as having left the building—Dewey Blanton, director of communications and public relations, and Sarah McCollum, deputy director—are no longer listed on the Academy’s staff directory.

As far as I can see, there is nothing on the National Academy’s website about its museum’s plan (as reported by Kennedy) to “close in June until a new home is found. The school will operate ‘for the foreseeable future’ in its home on East 89th Street, until that building is sold, the academy said.”

At this writing, there’s nothing about this cataclysmic development on the Academy’s homepage, nor on its press page. (Its Facebook and Twitter feeds are similarly clueless.) [UPDATE: The press release was subsequently linked on the press page.] My inquiries sent last night to the Academy’s director, Maura Reilly, and its senior communications manager, Linda Pricci, have been referred by Joy Low, its chief of staff, to Sara Fitzmaurice of Fitz & Co., “our PR agency.” Apparently this public relations crisis has prompted the Academy’s administration to enlist outside help.

On Dec. 5, 2008, I broke the story of the stealth deaccessions by the National Academy of important works by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, with proceeds to be applied to programs, operations, fundraising initiatives and gallery improvements. This ran afoul of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ professional standards prohibiting monetizing art for such purposes, which caused AAMD to blackball the Academy for almost two years.

This deplorable disposal, kept secret until I exposed it, was the first public indication of the institution’s extreme financial distress, under what can now be said to be the failed leadership of  Carmine Branagan, who relinquished the directorship last fall (another secret occurrence that I exposed).

Carmine Branagan, director of the National Academy, posing in 2011 in front of Asher B. Durand’s “The Morning of Life,” 1840 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Carmine Branagan, then director of the National Academy, posing in 2011 in front of Asher B. Durand’s “The Morning of Life,” 1840
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Reilly, who was founding curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has kept the Academy going with several new exhibitions—a Miriam Schapiro show and three installations drawn from the permanent collection.

Maura Reilly

Maura Reilly

As far as I can tell, the NY Times never covered the Academy’s change in directorship—a strange oversight that I can only explain by their possible unwillingness to acknowledge that this was first reported here.

But the financial problems of the Academy were apparently too ingrained for a quick fix by a new director.

In a June 2014 post about cutbacks in the Academy’s staff (which Branagan unconvincingly insisted weren’t budget-driven), I wrote:

Whatever effects the temporary expedient of monetizing art may have had on the National Academy (aside from causing it to be temporarily blackballed by AAMD and possibly keeping its doors open during a particularly difficult time), solving its long-range financial problems wasn’t one of them.

As we now worry about the fate of this 190-year-old institution and its important collection, it pains me to say, “I told you so.”

Late-breaking development: This press release from Fitz & Co. hit my inbox just as I was poised to post. It describes the sale of the buildings as “a fiscally responsible plan to sustain our venerated American institution for future generations.”

It goes on to say:

The sale of our buildings allows the National Academy to establish—for the first time in our history—an unrestricted endowment ensuring the perpetuity of the institution….The valuable permanent collection of 7,700 works that the National Academy Museum holds in its permanent collection as a public trust [emphasis added] will remain vital core institutional assets, neither part of, nor impacted by, the sale.

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