Get it fast, but get it wrong?
I did a double take at the New York Times‘ front-page report this morning of the Metropolitan Museum’s acquisition of “Bélizaire and the Frey Children,” attributed to Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, “a French portraitist of Louisiana’s elite.” The purchase was described by the museum as part of the Met’s “larger effort to reframe how it tells the story of American art”:
Through impressive detective work by Katy Morlas Shannon, a Louisiana historian who “researches the lives of enslaved individuals” (as described in the Times article but not in the Met’s press release), and with the assistance of conservators’ restoration a previously overpainted portrait of an African-American, who is “depicted with the family of his White enslaver,” the painting became “the first naturalistic portrait of a named Black subject set in a Southern landscape to enter the [Met’s] American Wing’s collection,” as proclaimed by the museum in its announcement.
But the the narrative got muddled by the Times: “I’ve been wanting to add such a work to the Met’s collection for the past 10 years,” said Betsy Kornhauser, the curator for American paintings and sculpture who handled the acquisition, “and this is the extraordinary work that appeared.”
Problem is: Met-Museumologists (i.e., me) know that Elizabeth Kornhauser is no longer the Met’s “curator for American paintings and sculpture.” A recent press release that I received about her from Olana, Frederic Church‘s home, studio, and designed landscape in Hudson, NY, revealed that Kornhauser was retiring from her Met position and “joining the Olana Partnership as Consulting Senior Curator and Chair of The Church 200 Committee, effective Aug. 1 [emphasis added].”
Seeking clarification, I sent an emailed query to the Met’s press office today at 11:20 a.m. An hour later, the museum’s press release, with the complete story (including the curator’s correct ID info), hit my inbox, confirming that “Kornhauser was formerly [emphasis added] the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at The Met; upon her retirement this summer, she was named Curator Emerita at the Met and Senior Curator and Chair of the Frederic Church Bicentennial Committee at The Olana Partnership.” (Her current post was unmentioned in the Times piece.)
The reporter for the Times’ story, Alexandra Eaton, is described on the newspaper’s website as “a senior video journalist at The New York Times,” whose “work focuses on new approaches to visual storytelling across breaking news, politics and culture.” Given her seeming lack of deep art expertise, the Times’ fact-checkers should have been more careful in vetting her reporting.
I did another double take at Eaton’s video for the Times, exploring the story behind this acquisition, which makes a fall guy of the New Orleans Museum’s former director, John Bullard, with a gotcha quote (beginning at 3:01 in the video) that makes him look foolish:
There are very few museums that can exhibit everything they own. One solution is to go through and decide what might be appropriately deaccessioned and sold.
And Bullard, at 3:28:
I think, in hindsight, it was a mistake [to let go of the painting], yes. But mistakes happen.
“Mistakes happen”?!? That triggers flashbacks to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “stuff happens” remark about looting in Iraq.
Perhaps reflecting the haste with which the Times wanted to claim its “exclusive” (see below), the Art & Design section of the paper’s website does not, at this writing, include any link to the Met acquisition story.
You may now be eager to eyeball the painting itself, but you’ll have to be patient: The Met’s press release states, “The painting will go on view in Gallery 756 of the American Wing this fall” [emphasis added].
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