As part of her reinvention and rebranding of the Newark Museum (which, in 2019, added “of Art” to its name, even though it also includes science exhibits and a planetarium), its current director, Linda Harrison, less than three years into her tenure, appears to be running roughshod over its own policies, not to mention the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD’s) deaccession guidelines (even under its temporarily loosened strictures). Although AAMD has broadened the purposes for which deaccession proceeds can be applied, it has not, to my knowledge, said that there should be any loosening of the criteria for selecting works to be deaccessioned. Newark’s own criteria for identifying works that it can appropriately sell are enumerated on p. 17 of its Collections Management Policy.
There has has been no showing by Newark that the specific works it is now offloading are of poor quality, compromised condition, or “redundant.” That said, Harrison did state, in a letter to William Coleman (a vocal critic of the sales, who was the Newark Museum’s Luce Foundation associate curator of American art from 2017 to 2019): “The museum’s curatorial team identified candidates based on several criteria including the physical condition, depth of holdings, redundancy and/or attribution, collection fit, and capacity for storage.”
Addressing arguments about the work whose planned disposal has been most widely condemned—Thomas Cole‘s “The Arch of Nero”—Harrison wrote:
The influence of Europe on American culture is an extremely well-told story at The Newark Museum of Art and museums around the country. I can assure you that we will still be able to share extraordinary examples and tell those stories going forwards….
The deaccession decisions were reached following a rigorous, eight-month review involving our curators and registrars, with the full support of our Board of Trustees. Our process precisely followed the guidelines set forth by the Association of Art Museums (AAM) [actually: “the American Alliance of Museums“] and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), as well as the [Newark] Museum’s Collection Management Policy. It comes with the enthusiastic support of local, state, and federal elected officials and the president of the AAMD. [More on that, below.] Proceeds will be designated to a permanent fund that supports the ongoing and long-term direct care of the museum’s collections and to help offset the economic impact of the pandemic.
Harrison was tapped to become the Newark Museum’s head In October 2018, after a five-year stint leading the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco.
As reported by Zachary Small for Artnet and Nancy Kenney for The Art Newspaper, she is now in the crosshairs of critics of deleterious deaccessions, some 60 of whom signed an Open Letter that “urge[d] greater New York and New Jersey supporters of the museum, lovers of American art, foundations and private philanthropy to work together to ensure that Newark’s art stays in Newark [emphasis added].” Some 17 Newark works have been earmarked for sale through Sotheby’s, most of them to be offered at tomorrow’s American art sale. Two of the 17 works have yet to be identified: “For now, the 15 works on the list are those that have been presented for public sale this season,” a museum spokesperson told me in response to my query. (Might the remaining two be offered privately?)
The signatories of the Newark open letter (following in the footsteps of the successful Baltimore Museum anti-deaccession campaign) include two past presidents of AAMD—Maxwell Anderson, formerly of the Whitney Museum, and James Ballinger, formerly of the Phoenix Art Museum. Also among those listed as signatories is Holly Pyne Connor, the Newark Museum’s own curator emerita of 19th-century American art. Distinguished American art experts on the list of signatories that I received include: Carrie Rebora Barratt, former deputy director at the Metropolitan Museum; Carolyn Kinder Carr, deputy director and chief curator emerita, National Portrait Gallery; Barbara Dayer Gallati, curator emerita, Brooklyn Museum; Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Kevin Murphy, senior curator of American and European Art, Williams College Museum of Art; Alan Wallach, professor of art and art history, and professor of American Studies emeritus, College of William and Mary.
Here’s Newark’s irrational rationale for its controversial actions:
For museums, thinking about the future also requires reconsidering the past. For our Museum, with its 112-year history, we need to cast a critical eye on outdated and harmful narratives that have hung in our galleries without enough questions being asked. From here, we look toward righting previous misrepresentations and ensuring that as many voices as possible are heard. Our focus is to be a modern art institution that is an agent of change for diversity and inclusion in our community, state and nation.
You have to click on Harrison’s image, at the upper left of the headshots on the museum’s Leadership page to see a description of her “3-year Strategic Vision Plan” for Newark, which includes “re-engineering of the mission, brand image, and adding the clarifying words ‘of Art’ to the museum’s name.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
For one thing, if you look at the images of the works being sold, you’d be hard-pressed to assert that they embody “outdated and harmful narratives that have hung in our galleries without enough questions being asked.” Maybe you could make that case for the Remington, but why not raise and explore the “questions,” rather than evading them by banishing the work?
The museum, which has scheduled its post-Covid reopening for June 3, has already sold the first of the 17 castoffs—de Chirico‘s Horse and Zebra by the Sea, which trampled its $250,000-350,000 presale estimate, fetching $2.32 million (including fees):
Here’s the aforementioned Newark deaccession that has raised the most hackles:
Why this much-decried deaccession decision was especially regrettable was explained in a note to me from Coleman, Newark’s former Luce associate curator of American art, whose name comports with his professional focus: A specialist in 19th-century American landscape painting with a doctorate on (who else?) Thomas Cole, he is currently director of collections and exhibitions at the Olana Partnership, which works to support the restoration and improvement of the Olana State Historic Site—the Frederic Church estate in Hudson, NY.)
A key player in efforts to halt the Newark sales (including the open letter), Coleman sent me this polemic:
It’s evident that she [Harrison] and the current staff…blundered badly by selecting “The Arch of Nero” for sale on the grounds that “the influence of Europe on American culture is an extremely well-told story at The Newark Museum of Art and museums around the country.” It’s more than a little alarming that she [Harrison] is not aware that this is a highly political painting that actually serves her desire for a revisionist, critical art history. Nero had the same associations in 1846 that he does now—the personification of late imperial decadence—and this was a transparent allegory of the fate of the American republic as the same cultural currents that continue to divide the nation loomed in Cole’s mind, two years before his own death.
The multicultural museum audiences of this great, global American city deserve to have such things on the walls of their museum, where tough questions can be asked of them as we all work through the partial nature of what is preserved of our common cultural heritage and what is lost when not all have access to cultural power….The loss of “The Arch of Nero” in particular is indefensible from any financial, intellectual, or political perspective and must be stopped at any cost [emphasis added].
The odds of stopping this sale are now slim to nil: The Sotheby’s auction is slated to take place tomorrow. That said, CultureGrrl readers will remember the Baltimore Museum’s last-minute withdrawal from Sotheby’s of works that were controversially slated to be sold. Another “open letter” was a key factor in causing its director, Christopher Bedford, to reverse course. Among its signatories was a former director of the Baltimore Museum, Arnold Lehman, as well as Mary Sue Sweeney Price, the Newark Museum’s widely respected retired director (and a former AAMD president). Sweeney Price chose to remain silent about the current contretemps at her former institutional home, in line with the customary reluctance of museum professionals to interfere in the actions of their successors. Also not heard from, to the best of my knowledge: Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the Newark Museum’s curator of American art, whom I last saw at the 2018 press preview for The Rockies and the Alps (which included works by Cole):
AAMD appears to be taking a hands-off posture regarding the Newark controversy. Here’s what its current president, Lial Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, told me in response to my queries:
From what I have read, the Newark Museum of Art’s plans are to use the funds realized to support the direct care of their collection, which is within the bounds of AAMD’s April 2020 resolutions. The resolutions, absent any further action by AAMD, will expire in April 2022. At that point, the only appropriate use of any dollars remaining would revert to acquisition.
AAMD does not review or evaluate the works of art that any member museum decides to acquire or deaccession, provided that such decisions are in line with Professional Practices in Art Museum. Collections management decisions are rightly the province of the specific director, curators, conservators, and other museum staff, who have the relevant knowledge and expertise about both any given work of art and how that object relates the museum’s collection overall. But ultimately the decisions on acquiring or deaccessioning collection objects is a governance issue.
That would seem to fall short of the “enthusiastic support” from AAMD that Harrison claimed to have received (as quoted at the beginning of this post).
I have visited the Newark Museum sporadically over the years, and I confess that I haven’t returned since viewing the above-pictured “mountains” show, three years ago. But during my past visits, I acutely sensed that the museum wasn’t attracting an audience whose demographics came anywhere close to reflecting the composition of the local population: 50% black.
Apparently Clifford Blanchard, a former co-chair of the museum’s board (no longer listed as a trustee), had sensed that as well: “We didn’t feel we were getting all the traction with the community we could,” he was quoted as saying in the profile of Harrison in the January 2020 issue of New Jersey Monthly.
Linda Harrison may be the right leader to redress that audience imbalance, but not, one hopes, at the expense of traditional museum values of collection stewardship and deep scholarship which Newark’s superlative collection richly merits. In that regard, the upcoming sales and the backlash they have provoked from American art experts are a troubling sign.
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