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Breach of Trust? Rothko Gave SFMOMA Its Soon-to-Be-Auctioned Painting at the Museum’s Request

Dear SFMOMA and Sotheby’s: Have you no shame?

In my previous post on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s ill-conceived deaccession of an important Rothko, I noted that there were “circumstances specific to this disposal that make it uniquely problematic.”

Let me elaborate:

In its online sales pitch for Rothko‘s “Untitled,” 1960, to be auctioned in New York on May 16, Sotheby’s claimed that the painting “is distinguished…by its connection to Peggy Guggenheim, preeminent philanthropist and patron of the 20th century.” But SFMOMA undid that “connection,” having become disenchanted with the early Surrealist-influenced Rothko that Peggy had given to the museum:

Rothko, “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea,” 1944, now owned by Museum of Modern Art
Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation

In 1962, SFMOMA “made the direct request to Rothko to exchange the work for a more contemporary example of his oeuvre,” as recounted by Sotheby’s. Rothko acceded, and SFMOMA selected for its collection the 1960 painting, below, that it now plans to unload in order to bankroll purchases of diverse works (as yet unidentified) that catch its eye now or in the future:

Rothko, “Untitled,” 1960
Presale estimate: $35-50 million

It’s bad enough for a museum to decide it no longer wants a work that it had specifically requested from its owner. It’s much worse when that owner is the artist himself. How will future potential donors regard such caprices?

This latest Rothko switcheroo is being executed in the “spirit of experimentation, diversity of thought and openness to new ways of telling stories,” according to Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s director. But a comprehensive museum of modern art shouldn’t deplete its displays or its holdings of works by time-honored favorites in order to fixate on “new stories.”

To borrow an overused Twitter meme, it’s like this:

Why must SFMOMA dispose of the old in order to engage with the new? Several commentators (notably the Art Newspaper‘s Ben Luke) have questioned why the museum can’t apply to its collection-building the same fundraising skills that successfully bankrolled its 2016 expansion.

I have a theory about this, and its name is the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection. When I visited SFMOMA at the beginning of last month, at a time when several galleries were in transition between recently closed displays and new installations and exhibitions, I was struck, more than ever, by the dominance of the Fisher Collection on the three floors that are named for them.

This gave new relevance to my August 2016 warning about the possible ramifications of the Fisher strictures (which limit non-Fisher works to no more than 25 percent of what’s on view on SFMOMA’s three Fisher floors):

What other collector would want to make major art donations [or, for that matter, donations of acquisition funds] to SFMOMA under these fishy Fisher circumstances? No wonder the museum was reluctant to divulge the full terms of this deal: Its windfall could become its downfall.

That “windfall” was a long-term, renewable Fisher loan (not a permanent gift) of some 1,100 works, focused on the following: American abstraction; American Pop, figurative, and minimal art after 1960; German art after 1960. As I speculated here, the Fisher pact may have helped Stanford University to clinch its deal to acquire the highly important Harry W. (“Hunk”) and Mary Margaret (“Moo”) Anderson Collection.

Had the Andersons’ collection gone to SFMOMA (to which they had previously donated important works), their gift might have been overwhelmed by the larger Fisher trove. The Anderson Collection is considerably smaller than the Fisher holdings but, to my eyes, of higher overall quality. (I’ve viewed in person the Anderson works displayed at SFMOMA and at Stanford.)

As it happens, one preeminent Fisher-owned work was recently removed from SFMOMA and transported to Stanford: Richard Serra‘s monumental “Sequence,” the first work installed in SFMOMA’s Snøhetta-designed new wing, has been returned (no small task) to its previous outdoor site beside Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center (which adjoins the Anderson Collection’s facility).

During my last visit to SFMOMA, I gazed upon the enormous void left by “Sequence,” whose ghostly outlines can be seen on the floor of the glass-walled gallery that had been designed to accommodate it:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That desolate space will be animated for 11 months, beginning in late May, by The Chronicles of San Francisco—a scrolling digital mural of the city’s neighborhoods and inhabitants by the artist JR.

As noted in this report by Adam Brinklow in Curbed San Francisco:

Before its [“Sequence’s”] trek to SFMOMA, Stanford characterized the move as a for-keeps transition, calling the museum “its permanent location.”

SFMOMA, however, now refers to the acquisition as a loan.

Which raises another question: What happened?

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