In an unfortunate coincidence, the Whitney Museum sold seven works from its collection on the evening of and on the day after the museum’s May 16 gala celebration and studio party honoring the exhibition of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map and marking the imminent conclusion of the distinguished 20-year directorship of Adam Weinberg. In March, he announced that he’d hand over the reigns to Scott Rothkopf, senior deputy director and chief curator, effective Oct. 31:
The celebration of Adam’s exemplary leadership may have been somewhat tempered by the dispiriting effect of bad timing: Distracted gala attendees may have been checking their mobile devices to see how the star lot of the Whitney’s seven offloads at Sotheby’s (sold May 16-17 “to Support Future Acquisitions,” as stated in the catalogue) made out in the saleroom. The answer was: Not Very Well.
Estimated to bring a hammer price of $8-12 million, Cobb’s Barns, South Truro—the only seven-figure lot (and the only oil painting) of the Whitney’s four Hopper castoffs—fell way short of expectations, with the bids stopping at $6 million ($7.29 million total price, including fees):
A Sotheby’s catalogue image showed then President Obama gazing at “Cobb’s Barns” in 2014, when it had been prominently displayed in the Oval Office. But the Presidential seal of approval, the prestigious Whitney provenance (acquired by the museum from the estate of the artist’s widow), the very substantial museum exhibition histories (both at the Whitney and on loan) of some of the works (as documented in the sale catalogue), and the promotional video narrated by Lisa Dennison, the ex-Guggenheim Museum director and currently Sotheby’s Chairman Americas (whom you can see by scrolling down here to view her video), failed to confer much value-added, as evidenced by comparing the hammer prices to the low-to-high estimates of the hammer prices, recorded in the Sotheby’s-supplied chart, below. (“Aggregate” is the final price, including the auction house’s fees.)
Only the image of a scene in Gloucester, MA (Cape Ann region)—one of three Hopper watercolors sold by the Whitney on the night after the Cobb’s Barnstorm stalled—eked out a bit more than the low end of its estimate:
Lisa had touted the Whitney’s disposals by noting that “what’s special about this offering is that South Truro, Gloucester, Vermont and Charleston (depicted in the museum’s consignments) are four of Hopper’s iconic locations [not to mention NYC, the focus of the Whitney’s recently closed Hopper show] and the group illustrates all of these [but not NYC], highlighting four distinct moments in the artist’s career.
In all, some seven works—four by Hopper (the one seen above, plus Group of Houses; Red Barn in Autumn Landscape; The Battery, Charleston, S.C.), one Prendergast (Under the Trees, Number 2), and two Marins (Sea Piece; Movement, Boat, Sea, Rocks and Sky, Maine)—were sold by the Whitney. All seven Whitney’s works hit the block with prearranged guarantees and some also secured prearranged irrevocable bids, so there was no suspense about whether these works would sell. But if director-designate Rothkopf was hoping for a head start in building a substantial nest egg to fund collection upgrades, he must have found the anemic results (in keeping with this auction season’s general market letdown) to be an unexpected setback.
And then there’s the question of whether the Whitney should be disposing old museum-worthy works to bankroll purchases of newer works. Jane Panetta, the Whitney’s curator and collection director, recently told ARTnews that “the collection has to evolve. We have to try and close critical gaps, and having endowment funds for acquisitions is a key means to doing that.”
Maybe so. But acquiring those means shouldn’t mean monetizing works that have previously been deemed worthy of the walls of the Whitney and/or other museums (via Whitney loans), in order to come up with the cash to pursue the new. Cashing in on works that Hopper’s widow, Josephine, had left to the Whitney, “where they have resided now for more than 50 years” (in Lisa Dennison’s words about the deaccessioned Hoppers), is no way to inspire the confidence of future donors.
To say that the pictures being sold “were duplicative within the collection” (in the words of a Whitney spokesperson quoted by artnet‘s Taylor Dafoe) belies the fact that these are one-of-a-kind creations that were considered of sufficient quality to have been previously displayed at the Whitney and other museums.
Such was the case with this oil painting that, since its acquisition in 1957 by the museum from Edith Halpert‘s legendary Downtown Gallery, New York (which acquired it from the artist), has been displayed 10 times in permanent-collection installations at the Whitney, not to mention displays at the Guggenheim Museum and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, among others:
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that the Whitney haplessly picked an inopportune time to sell. As Robin Pogrebin and Zachary Small of the NY Times noted in their insightful but downbeat market analysis, which went online yesterday (but, as far as I can determine at this writing, hasn’t yet appeared in the hardcopy).
Compared to the stratosphere of the past few years, this series of auctions fell considerably short, with less exciting inventory, lower price points and some serious discounting….The art world is now confronting the idea that the market correction [emphasis added] it has been bracing for is finally here. Its arrival, experts say, is largely due to fears about inflation, a limited supply of trophies and an excess of B+ artworks.
Whether private galleries can add luster to a market that public auctions have temporarily dimmed remains to be seen.
UPDATE: Pogrebin’s and Small’s NY Times report on the auctions finally showed up in the “Arts” section of the 5/24 newspaper, two days after it went online. But the headlines markedly differed.
Here’s what appeared on the front page of the hardcopy of today’s “Arts” section…
…and here’s a screenshot of the head and subhead from Monday’s online version:
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