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Stealth Deaccessions: National Academy Sells Major Works by Church and Gifford UPDATED

Frederic Edwin Church, “Scene on the Magdalene,” 1854

Sanford Robinson Gifford, “Mt. Mansfield,” 1859

[More developments on this story here and here.]

It’s been the subject of rumor among American art dealers and experts but, as far as I know, this news has not yet hit the press: In a troubling development that may become more common in these financially trying times, the National Academy Museum in New York has just sold to a private foundation, through an unnamed dealer, two of its greatest American masterpieces, above, by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, with proceeds to be applied to programs, operations, fundraising initiatives and gallery improvements.

American art experts I’ve spoken with have put these disposals (especially the Church) in the same league as the New York Public Library’s widely criticized sale of another American masterwork, Asher B. Durand‘s “Kindred Spirits.”

Ethical standards promulgated by the Association of Art Museum Directors stipulate that a museum’s art sale proceeds must be used only to purchase other works of art, not to defray other expenses. Without a permanent director since Annette Blaugrund left last December, the Academy is currently a “deferred” member of AAMD.

Its interim director since July, Carmine Branagan, who has worked as an administrator of nonprofits but lacks any art-historical background, told me in an extensive interview in her office yesterday that she intended to send a letter to AAMD next week to inform it about the done deal. Mimi Gaudieri, AAMD’s executive director, told me on Wednesday that she had preliminary contact “a couple of months ago” with the Academy about possible sales, but “they weren’t able to give specifics.” She said she had heard nothing since.

Branagan said that two other works, which she refused to identify, were also being considered for sale. It has not yet been determined, she said, whether these would be sold privately or at auction. The total take from deaccessions was expected to be “around $15 million.” Most of that amount, she added, has already been raised from the Church and Gifford.

“We are selling to put the permanent collection on exhibit,” Branagan declared, saying that a second-floor gallery would be devoted to that purpose. “We had a choice of selling or becoming part of the dustbin of history,” she added. She suggested that the Academy should not be bound by the AAMD’s guidelines, because “we are really not a traditional museum and we are not an acquiring museum, so it’s difficult to adhere to a standard that’s not part of who we are.” The Academy acquires art not by purchase but through donations by its artist/members of their own work.

Branagan said that the 183-year-old Academy runs a “chronic operating deficit” (now about $800,000 on a $3-million budget) and its $10-million endowment is restricted to specific purposes and cannot be used for general operating funds.

The two sold paintings, which are still (at this writing) on the Academy’s “Permanent Collection” website (here and here), were highlights of its 2006 exhibition, Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam. An artist and member of the Academy, Suydam bequeathed his entire 92-painting collection to the institution in 1865. It was, according to the exhibition’s catalogue, “the organization’s single most important gift of 19th-century art and one that formed the nucleus of the Academy’s outstanding permanent collection.”

When I asked Branagan if the Academy had contacted the New York State Attorney General’s office about the planned sale, she said that the institution’s lawyer had expressed the opinion that such notification was unnecessary. She told me that she did not know the identity of the buyer, but added that the agreement between the purchaser and the dealer, at the Academy’s request, stipulated that the paintings were to be hung publicly, probably on long-term loan.

Speculation has centered on the Crystal Bridges Museum being planned by the deep-pocketed Alice Walton, whose advisor for acquisitions has been the National Gallery of Art’s chairman, John Wilmerding, a distinguished expert on Luminist painting. Walton famously acquired the Public Library’s Durand. I have queries pending with Wilmerding and Crystal Bridges. I’ll update if and when I receive a response. [UPDATE BELOW.]

The National Academy is an honorary association of artists (called Academicians) who are responsible for its governance. The artist/members voted 181 to 1 (with one abstention) in favor of selling the works. An alternative that was considered but rejected was selling the Academy’s swank Fifth Avenue mansion and moving to less pricey quarters.

I’ll have more to say later. I suspect that the AAMD, the American Association of Museums, perhaps the Attorney General’s office and definitely other journalists will be heard from.

UPDATE—John Wilmerding responds:

To my knowledge, neither Alice Walton nor Crystal Bridges bought those pictures. I don’t know where they’ve gone.

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