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What’s Left Unsaid About the Delaware Deaccession

Today’s sad sale at Christie’s in London, where Isabella and the Pot of Basil, which was being deaccessioned by the Delaware Art Museum, failed to raise much money — just $4.24 on the hammer, versus a low estimate of $8.4 million (and we don’t know if Christie’s waived the commission or not) — begs another look at the situation there.

Homer-MilkingTimeJust last week, no less an authority than Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Art Museum, writing against the deaccessions in the Wall Street Journal, wrote:  “Given its importance, the work may fetch much more than that.” I’m not blaming him for optimism — no one can predict markets — but I do believe the Delaware museum trustees had been thinking the same way. Now, trustees may have difficulty raising $30 million, their goal, by selling just four works.

Rub’s larger point was about those very trustees: “It is important to recognize that the key to this issue is good governance.” What he left unsaid is that trustees made the fundamental mistake several years ago, when they expanded the museum.

In comments to Rub’s article, Gail O’Donnell, a former museum official made a few but damning points, including:

  • The Wilmington population is 80,000, a smaller market than those of the institutions criticizing the Delaware Art Museum.
  • The museum’s “hard to sell” building, unlike the Folk Art Museum in New York, is in a residential neighborhood and could not be sold.
  • The museum’s donor pool is limited.

But why weren’t those trustees thinking about those items when the museum expanded, which caused the debt the museum is now struggling to pay? To quote from the museum’s website:

On June 26, 2005, the Museum reopened with extensive renovations to the original 1938 building and three new Museum wings, offering new facilities for the permanent collection and special exhibitions, arts education programs, the Thronson Café, the Museum Store, offices, meeting areas, and collections care facilities. Total facilities now include over 80,000 square feet of space.

In hindsight, one has to ask: Why did Delaware, with such a small population, feel the need to expand? have been on an expansion jag since at least the mid-90s, almost unrelentingly. Even during the recessions, expansions continued, and Delaware was far from alone. But it’s sad that they seemed to value that bigger, fancier building more than what it is in it — because that’s what it looks like now.

To show how high tensions have risen, O’Donnell made an astonishing, low-blow accusation at the end of her comment:

…were the museum to close and dissolve its collections, the very institutions that might benefit, acquiring works at fire-sale prices, are those that are active in their condemnation of this action.

I really highly doubt that the Philadelphia Museum would grab at Delaware’s collection.

Now, it seems, Homer’s Milking Time and Calder’s Black Crescent, are next to go.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum




  1. Josh Reynolds says:

    I must agree with the commernt, ‘…Why did Delaware, with such as small population, feel the need to expand?
    This is just bad business.

    • Chris Crosman says:

      Wilmington may have only 80,000 residents within its city limits but the catchment area is huge. Moreover, Wilmington is home to many of the wealthiest individuals and corporations on the planet. While it is always easy to blame one’s predecessors, it seems clear to most that the museum board has failed at its most fundamental responsibilities–safeguarding the permanent collection and raising sufficient funds with which to operate the museum. Giving or getting are why most board members are invited to serve. If they are unable or unwilling to perform either function, they have failed in their fiduciary responsibilities. Moreover, the museum’s tax exempt status should require some kind of government oversight when the museum starts selling its most important financial assets that, in a very real sense, belong to everyone who pays taxes there (or anywhere).

  2. David Dixit says:

    Museum donors / trustees today all to often apear to value new buildings, more than they value the collections themselves.

    Pehaps there is too much emphasis on appearance and not enough on scholarship. I for one am unhappy to see many museums today becoming places of entertainment instead of places of learning.

  3. Brian Y says:

    I want to add to David’s comments. As an out of town visitor, I would rather go to a small museum and see a few key pieces like a Homer or a Calder than an exhibition on the Brandywine Photo Collective, a show that is currently up. A significant Homer can be a point of pride, for example. Think of how the Butler and Snap the Whip are intertwined. Or Oberlin’s Terbruegghen and so on. Yet, places like the Maier, the Rose, and the DAM continue to scheme and slink about in an effort to sell their identity.

  4. Michael Redmond says:

    This article is less than helpful. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the DAM board was indeed mistaken when they went ahead with the DAM expansion. Well, I guess we take them out and shoot them, right? Then we come back to the table and face the fact that DAM still owes some $20 million, mistake or no mistake, and urgently needs to replenish its endowment in order to place a floor under their operations. No public or private sources have stepped up for the DAM. That’s the story, folks.

    • Well, I personally would not recommend shooting. But it always helps to understand the root of a problem (at least so it is not repeated there or elsewhere). Perhaps the people who made the mistake would then own up to the responsibility to fix it — step up, as you say — in a way that does not harm the collection.

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