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Hopper Whopper: Pennsylvania Academy to Sell Prized Streetscape to Buy Contemporary Art

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

Going, going…
Edward Hopper, “East Wind Over Weehawken,” 1934, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Presale estimate: $22-28 million

More on this, here.

This deplorable deaccession couldn’t come at a worse time.

How can the Association of Art Museum Directors convincingly argue for “the City of Detroit’s responsibility to maintain and protect an invaluable cultural resource [the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts] that has been entrusted to its care for the benefit of the public,” when one of the association’s own members, Harry Philbrick of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, has just announced plans to cavalierly and irresponsibly monetize a treasured historic masterpiece from PAFA’s collection to feed his appetite to acquire contemporary art?

This just in from Stephan Salisbury, the estimable culture writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, owner of two signature oil paintings by Edward Hopper, intends to sell one and plow the expected sizeable proceeds into a fund largely for acquisition of contemporary art….”We very actively collected contemporary art from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century,” Philbrick said. “This move is an attempt to build a firm foundation to be actively engaged again in buying the art of our time.”…

He acknowledged that acquisitions of contemporary art are “a crap shoot” – today’s genius more often than not is forgotten tomorrow. But it is worth the risk, he said. “The pain of selling the work is immediately apparent,” he said. “The gain won’t be apparent until 50 or 60 years from now”…

…or maybe not even then. In my January 2011 post analyzing another of PAFA’s foolish forays into the contemporary art market at the expense of important works from its historic collection, I described the histories of the jettisoned works and observed that “to bankroll today’s curatorial spending sprees, PAFA sold historic works that its own curators had previously valued enough to include in special exhibitions.”

It remains to be seen whether the works by Odili Donald OditaMark Bradford, Mickalene Thomas and others that PAFA purchased (before Philbrick’s arrival) through sales of William Merritt Chase, Maurice PrendergastFrederick Childe Hassam, John Twachtman and others will stand the test of time. I’m not saying that the contemporary purchases shouldn’t be made, just that the method of bankrolling them is wrong.

As ill-conceived as that deaccessioning spree was, PAFA’s planned Hopper sale is much worse, given the importance of what’s being sold. The Inquirer’s Salisbury tells us that the streetscape of the Hudson River town of Weehawken, NJ, “has been shown at PAFA many times and has been included in major Hopper exhibitions elsewhere, most recently a touring European retrospective that closed earlier this year in Paris.” He notes that PAFA had owned only two Hopper oils and that they were the only such works in all of Philadelphia.

Below is the one that will remain. Like the Hopper being sold, it was purchased by PAFA through its John Lambert Fund. This one is smaller than the Christie’s consignment and would likely have fetched less money:

Hopper, "Apartment Houses," 1924, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Edward Hopper, “Apartment Houses,” 1923, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

The auction house expects to get some $22-28 million for “East Wind Over Weehawken.” At this writing, there is no press release about the pending sale on either PAFA’s website or Christie’s website. As it happens, the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, AR, proudly announced on Monday that it had acquired a major Hopper, “Blackwell’s Island,” 1928, which, as Salisbury noted, was auctioned in May at Christie’s. It fetched $19.16 million.

The Association of Art Museum Directors gave PAFA a pass for its last deaccessioning binge. But if there were ever a circumstance that called for AAMD to reverse what seems to be its unspoken policy of never criticizing any deaccession when the proceeds are used for acquisitions (as distinguished from use for operating or capital expenses, which it condemns), this is it.

And if there were ever a time when a colleague’s reckless deaccessioning called for a firm rebuke from the professional organization, it is now—the moment when the Detroit Institute is fighting for the integrity of its collection against those who would monetize it to address the city’s financial problems. How can Detroit successfully (and rightfully) argue for the sanctity of its collection when other museums regard their masterpieces as expendable?

As it happened, the current AAMD president is Philbrick’s Philadelphia colleague, Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s the one who issued the statement quoted in the second paragraph of this post that described the Detroit Institute’s collection as having been “entrusted to its care for the benefit of the public.” Rub should take a short drive over to Philbrick’s place to explain why “Weehawken,” entrusted to PAFA’s care, must remain in Philadelphia for the benefit of its public.

Given the strong reluctance of museum colleagues to second-guess each other’s decisions, I doubt that this imagined conversation will ever take place. Little did Hopper know when he painted the “For Sale” sign in the foreground of his Weehawken picture how bleakly prophetic it would turn out to be.

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