I did a déjà-vu doubletake upon reading on Wednesday that “a foundation for CBS founder William Paley plans to auction off [at Sotheby’s, in both London and New York] a trove of masterpieces long lent [emphasis added] to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for at least $70 million this fall to expand the museum’s digital footprint,” in the words of Kelly Crow’s Wall Street Journal scoop.
Here’s how MoMA’s January 1992 press release announcing its first exhibition of the late media mogul’s collection had described the transfer of his trove (an excerpt from the above-linked .pdf of the press release):
The William S. Paley Collection at the Museum of Modern Art, which constitutes one of the most important private collections to be entrusted [emphasis added] to a public institution in recent years, will be shown to the public in its entirety for the first time in an exhibition opening at the Museum on February 2, 1992. The exhibition was organized by William Rubin, director emeritus, Department of Painting and Sculpture.
The Paley exhibition traveled to many museums, including: the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (de Young); the Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AK; the National Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec. That it was commonly regarded as a donation and/or bequest (not a “loan”) is reflected in the first paragraph of this 1992 Art Newspaper article announcing initial tour plans, with stops at the Indianapolis Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum and Baltimore Museum:
The collection of works of art bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York by William S. Paley, chairman of CBS and chairman emeritus of the museum’s board of trustees, on his death in October 1990, is a handsome donation and comes at a time when American museums are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with changing tax legislation and the lure of the auction houses [emphases added].
What’s more, MoMA itself had stated, in its above-linked January 1992 press release, that Paley had “left his collection of more than eighty works of art to the William S. Paley Foundation for donation to The Museum of Modern Art, where he was chairman emeritus at the time of his death in October 1990. This exhibition pays tribute to Mr. Paley’s dedicated service to the Museum over a period of more than half a century….Many of the pieces in the collection fill important gaps in the Museum’s collection, while others further enrich areas of strength [emphases added].”
Fast-forward to last Wednesday, when MoMA issued another press release, stating this:
As described by Sotheby’s, the 29 works will be “sold to benefit the Museum of Modern Art and other charitable organizations.” You can see images and presale estimates for eight of those offerings here.
Here’s the star lot:
And here’s the New York highlight:
In other words, the “lure of the auction houses,” which at the time of the Art Newspaper‘s 1992 piece (by Roger Bevan) was presumed to have been thwarted, has now proven irresistible. This turnaround was effectuated with the approval of Paley’s son William, vice president of his late father’s foundation, and (of all people) Henry Kissinger, chairman of Paley’s foundation (and his friend).
Some indication of what the collector/benefactor might have thought about this dispersal is provided in the passage about Paley in exhaustive 621-page professional memoir of William Rubin, MoMA’s brilliant (but sometimes irascible) late director of painting and sculpture—A Curator’s Quest: Building the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art, 1967-1988:
With the collaboration of my close friend Richard E. Oldenburg, who was director of the museum through most of my curatorial tenure there, I was able to secure for the museum the whole of two other collections [emphasis added], those of William S. Paley and Gordon and Nina Bunshaft.
On pp. 48-51 of his tome, Rubin describes his arduous courtship of Paley, in which the curator “trotted out a plan for a posthumous show of his collection at the museum—he could not bear to be without his pictures at home—to be accompanied by a beautiful catalogue, and followed by a three-year series of showings of the entire collection in a number of major American and foreign museums….After this, Paley still wasn’t ready to show his cards, but he comforted Oldenburg and me, saying, ‘Don’t worry boys,’ and at his death, he turned out to be true to his word”…and MoMA was also true to its word, organizing the posthumous showings.
What Rubin likely didn’t know (and what he might well have objected to) is that these showings could turn out to be (in part) presale exhibitions. I can only imagine the profanities that Rubin (whom I knew and several times interviewed) might have uttered had he known that his hard-won Paley benefactions could be converted into NFTs or other digital spinoffs. He almost surely would have had a few choice words about the plan (as described in Kelly Crow’s WSJ article) to divert some of collection’s sale proceeds to “other philanthropic causes” that Paley had supported.
That’s not to say that Rubin was opposed to “divestiture” (one of his euphemisms for “deaccessions”). He noted that limitations of storage space meant that “there has to be a procedure to eliminate the inevitable mistakes.” But “deacquisitions” (another of his euphemisms) were not to be decided until “the passing of 15 years of ‘probation,’ so that a partially different staff would make the final cut” (from p. 47 of “A Curator’s Quest”).
As you can see if you click the “déjà vu” link in this post’s first sentence, the Paley sales are an eerie echo of MoMA’s cashing in on more than $100 million of collection sales in the late 1990s and early 2000s, also during Lowry’s tenure.
As I wrote in my 2004 WSJ Op-Ed—The Lost Museum: MoMA’s Distressing Disposals:
MoMA, throughout its history, has unloaded important objects that would have been treasured icons at almost any other museum, and that collectors have eagerly acquired. Publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, for example, purchased Picasso’s 1913 “Man With a Guitar” several years ago.
Such sales, as MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, pointed out in an interview, were “set into our DNA” at the museum’s birth, 75 years ago. Alfred Barr Jr., the founding director, believed that the collection should “metabolically” shed older works as it acquired new ones.
As CultureGrrl readers may remember, MoMA also “metabolically sheds” its professional staff, via the mandatory retirement age of 65 that felled John Elderfield (seen above, with Lowry)—its consummate chief curator for paintings and sculpture. If we can trust Wikipedia, Glenn will turn 68 later this month.
I guess the ironclad retirement policy has changed, or else directors can pardon themselves (with the concurrence of the trustees).
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