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National Academy’;s Dysfunctionality: More Details in NY Times, LA Times CORRECTED

Thomas Eakins, “Wrestlers,” 1899, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Sold in the 1970s from collection of the National Academy, New York

Both the NY Times and LA Times followed up yesterday on my National Academy deaccession story, revealing more details about the dysfunctionality of this institutional hybrid—a combination museum, school and artists’ organization.

The NY Times’s Robin Pogrebin followed me into director Carmine Branagan‘s office for an interview, where she managed to extract the exact amounts raised by the sale of the Church and Gifford ($13.5 million) and the hoped-for amount from future sales of two more works ($1.5 million). (Branagan would only tell me that the total amount was expected to be “around $15 million,” with the preponderance already raised through the sale of the first two works.)

Pogrebin also delved deeper into the dissension in the Academy’s ranks, talking to members of the institution’s advisory board who had resigned in protest. What most struck me in her piece was the vitriol hurled by important figures from within the Academy’s own family at the institution’s artist-members. For better or worse, this is, after all, an artists’ organization—by and for the creative class. Insulting them in the pages of the NY Times was neither a smart nor constructive move.

Pogrebin reports:

Robert A. Levinson, vice chairman of the [Academy’s] advisory board, said the
trustees met last week to discuss changing the academy’s constitution
so the academicians [artist-members] would no longer have financial control.

Levinson argued that artists are ill equipped to make financial
decisions about the institution’s future. “They just live in another
world and don’t understand fiduciary responsibility,” he said.

It’s not just non-artist board members vs. artists; it’s also artists vs. artists. According to Pogrebin:

When asked how the Academy had landed in its current situation, [Richard] Haas [the Academy’s vice president] allowed that some “somewhat intransigent age-75-and-over artists
probably had something to do with it.”

Those geezers!

By far the most entertaining National Academy story to date is Christopher Knight‘s tangled tale for the LA Times about the first of the institution’s two prior deaccessions. (I discussed the more recent one, Richard Caton Woodville‘s, “War News from Mexico,” here.)

As revealed yesterday by both Knight and Pogrebin, the first disposal, which occurred in the 1970s, was Thomas Eakins‘ “Wrestlers” above. Knight was pleased to discover this “terrific” painting now residing in his newspaper’s hometown: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the painting last year, Knight reported, at the end of a circuitous route with five stops after it left the Academy. The first was the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art, which later sold it to acquire a collection of American Regionalist and Surrealist paintings from the 1930s.

What Knight doesn’t mention [actually, he DID mention it; please see the correction below] is that LACMA’s recent acquisition is the finished version of another Eakins oil already in its collection—an oil sketch with the same title and composition.

LACMA’s online description of the ex-Academy picture shows just how important it is:

“Wrestlers” is Thomas Eakins’s last completed genre painting, his
last consideration of the male nude, and his last sporting picture.
Considered in the trajectory of his career, from his first studies of
the figure as a student and first rowing pictures completed in 1870, “Wrestlers” stands as a superb summation of some of the most significant themes of his career.

It is, LACMA says, “very much a spiritual self-portrait of a frustrated artist toward the end of his career.” That makes it an apt symbol of the Academy’s agonies.

CORRECTION: In my rush to get done with blogging (since no one is reading today, anyway), I somehow missed this sentence near the end of Knight’s piece, in which he does indeed refer to LACMA’s oil sketch:

LACMA has owned the oil sketch for the painting since 1927 when the
museum was in Exposition Park—another study is in the Philadelphia
Art Museum—and the two now have been happily reunited on Wilshire

Now that I’ve given proper credit, please deck my computer with boughs of holly and pass the eggnog.

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