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Hopper Whopper: More on Pennsylvania Academy’s Deplorable Deaccession; Why AAMD Should Act


Harry Philbrick, director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

The Hopper painting to be sold on Dec. 5 at Christie’s by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the less important of the two paintings by that artist in PAFA’s collection, according to the press release issued by museum this morning to announce its planned December sale at Christie’s of one of only two Hopper oils in the entire city of Philadelphia.

In yesterday’s CultureGrrl post deploring this deaccession disaster, I speculated that the painting being retained, “Apartment Houses,” 1923, which is smaller in size than the Christie’s consignment, “would likely have fetched less money.” But having not myself eyeballed the two paintings, I must defer to PAFA’s curatorial judgment on their relative quality.

That said, any Hopper that could bring the estimated $22-28 million (possibly breaking the Hopper auction record of $26.9 million set in 2006) is clearly a possession that PAFA should continue to proudly display, not discard:

Going, going... Edward Hopper, East Wind Over Weehawkin, 1934, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Going, going…
Edward Hopper, “East Wind Over Weehawken,” 1934, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

PAFA’s announcement says that the acquisitions endowment from the sale of East Wind Over Weehawken,” 1934, “will be used both to acquire contemporary artworks and to fill gaps in the collection of historic art.” According to a report by Graham Bowley in today’s NY Times, “about 25% of the endowment will be dedicated to filling gaps in the collection of historic art, but around three quarters of new investments will be in contemporary art.”

“We will use the proceeds from the endowment to build a broad base of the works of today’s emerging and mid-career artists, and tomorrow’s,” Harry Philbrick, the contemporary art specialist who has been PAFA’s director since 2011, stated in today’s press release.

As I have repeatedly stated, museums shouldn’t be selling the art they hold in public trust unless that art is manifestly not of museum quality and is of no use for study purposes. The public has paid for museums’ holdings through the tax deductions given to museums and to donors of art and acquisition funds. It’s our stuff and should not be monetized by later generations of cash-strapped curators with an understandable urge to collect.

Unfortunately, the leading professional organization for American art museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, recently greased the slippery slope of dubious deaccessioning in its own 2011 revision of “Professional Practices in Art Museums.” On pp. 21-22, it added the following as one of the acceptable “Criteria for Deaccessioning and Disposal”:

The work is being sold as part of the museum’s effort to refine and improve its collections [emphasis added], in keeping with the collecting goals reviewed and approved by the museum’s board of trustees or governing body.

This subjective “refinement and improvement” can excuse a multitude of sins, including the disposal of a major Hopper, which was one of the only two oils by that celebrated artist in all of Philadelphia.

As I expected might happen, one important art museum official sent me a note today taking exception to my reference in yesterday’s post to AAMD’s position deploring any monetization of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection to help solve the city’s severe financial problems:

They [PAFA] are not monetizing the painting for renovations or operations or to fund academic programs, nor to settle a debt, which would be the only way they’d be like Detroit.

Of course I understand the important distinction between the purposes to which the sale proceeds would be applied in these two instances. But the relevance of the DIA’s situation to PAFA’s (as I stated in my post) relates to AAMD’s impassioned argument that the DIA’s collection is “an invaluable cultural resource that has been entrusted to its care for the benefit of the public.”

If AAMD looks the other way when one of its own, even with the best of intentions, plays fast and loose with the public trust that the “permanent collection” will (with the exception of non-museum quality works) remain permanent, the credibility of its no-sale argument in Detroit may be seriously undermined.

As PAFA’s misstep dramatically demonstrates, it’s time for AAMD to review and tighten its standards for deaccessions.

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