Mary Cassatt, “Françoise in Green, Sewing”—Good enough for Adelyn Breeskin
It’s still the same old story:
A museum decides it needs to sell works to raises big bucks for one or more major acquisitions. It puts out the story that the works to be deaccessioned are seldom or never exhibited, and/or redundant and inferior to other comparable works in the collection.
Then I ask for the registrar’s records of the “inferior” works’ exhibition histories. (Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes apparently did so too, and deserves credit for twice—here and here—beating me to the keyboard, but not the information. I’ve been diverted by an unrelated WSJ assignment.)
As always seems to happen, my queries to the St. Louis Art Museum revealed that the exhibition histories of some of the works to be sold at Christie’s this fall to bankroll its Degas purchase are at variance with the story they were putting out. This turns out to be yet another case of what I call “off-the-wall deaccessions”: sales of museum-quality works that institutions had previously deemed worthy of public display.
This has happened so many times (including, in the last few years, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art) that when St. Louis’ director, Brent Benjamin, told me that his institution was selling inferior, seldom exhibited works, I immediately asked him if he was sure, because I always seem to find, when I dig further, that the real story is different. It is, after all, difficult to raise multimillions by selling only clunkers.
The real story IS somewhat different, as the museum’s media relations officer, Kendra Gramlich, acknowledged when she sent me the full exhibition histories of the St. Louis Ten. She volunteered that the exhibition record “might not quite agree” with what Benjamin had told me, because he was “speaking off the top of his head.” If true, that in itself is an troubling admission, because when a museum takes the weighty and irrevocable step of selling works from its collection, the director ought to have complete, top-of-the-head familiarity with the importance and histories of those works.
Benjamin is in good company: Back in 1990, when I did the same investigative digging for ARTnews magazine into the exhibition histories of works being sold by the Museum of Modern art to bankroll its $45-million van Gogh “Portrait of Joseph Roulin,” Kirk Varnedoe, then MoMA’s director of painting and sculpture, ultimately acknowledged to me that one of the seven works deemed expendable, a Kandinsky landscape, had “hung consistently [in MoMA’s permanent collection galleries] from 1984 to 1989, more than memory tells me.”
Similarly, although Benjamin had told me that the works up for sale were not customarily shown in the permanent collection galleries, the Jean Metzinger “Landscape,” ca. 1916-17, had been consistently on public display there from Sept. 2002 to Sept. 2006 and had been included in a prior three-museum retrospective of the artist’s work.
This and some other works being sold by St. Louis clearly don’t conform with Benjamin’s own stated criteria for deaccession, as reported today by David Bonetti in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Benjamin told Bonetti:
It is the policy of the museum to deaccession only those works that are inappropriate for display or research. In general, there are four reasons why we might choose to sell a work. One, that it be of inferior quality, relative to the museum collection. Two, that it be of compromised physical condition. Three, that it be a secondary ‘school’ of work or a copy. Four, that it be a duplicate.
MAN reported yesterday (and this I DIDN’T previously know) that far from being “of inferior quality, relative to the museum collection,” the Cassatt consigned to auction, “Françoise in Green, Sewing,” ca. 1908, is the museum’s ONLY Cassatt. I can add that it was deemed worthy of display by Adelyn Breeskin, then the premier expert in that artist, in her Cassatt show of more than 150 prints, pastels, and paintings at the Baltimore Museum in 1941-2. It was also part of the National Gallery’s 1970 exhibition of more than 90 Cassatt paintings and pastels, organized to celebrate the publication of Breeskin’s catalogue raisonné of the artist.
In order to acquire its only Degas painting, it is selling its only Cassatt.
The soon-to-be-sold Renoir, “Young Woman Embroidering at the Window,” 1900, which is St. Louis’ highest-estimated ($2.5 – $3.5 million) work in Christie’s Nov. 6 evening Impressionist/modern sale, has an interesting history: It was purchased in 1916 by legendary collector Albert Barnes from the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris.
St. Louis will also be disposing of six works in Christie’s Oct. 4 old master paintings sale. These are all estimated below $100,000, so this can probably be legitimately deemed a housecleaning. The museum also tried to clean house with four of its American paintings in Christie’s American paintings sale last week. None sold at the auction; one was sold privately afterwards.
Some will argue that sacrificing the Cassatt and the Metzinger for the Degas is a smart trade. I would argue that if a work belongs in the public domain, it should stay there. Permanent collections aren’t trading chips. Benjamin’s stated criteria for deaccessioning are exactly right. He needs to start adhering to them.