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Museum Inferno: Lessons from the Hellish Devastation at National Museum of Brazil

By now you have probably heard about the after-hours fire that yesterday ripped through the entire Museu Nacional (National Museum) of Brazil. The night guards in that eminent Rio de Janeiro institution reportedly escaped safely; the collections did not. Here is the 200-year-old museum, in better times: An editorial today in O Globo, the Rio-based newspaper, called this disaster, a "predictable tragedy": The tragedy of the National Museum reinforces the need for governments, politicians and society to make [budgetary] choices. It is … [Read more...]

Yale’s Intriguing “Leonardo” Examination Gets a Grade of “Incomplete”: Few Leonardos, Many Photos

Road Trip! That was my enthusiastic response to the press release and the advance publicity for the Yale Art Gallery's summer exhibition, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio (to Oct. 7). Since another Leonardo "discovery" has been much in the news of late (including this recent twist, questioning its authorship), the show has more topicality than the museum's chief curator Laurence Kanter might have imagined when he began planning it. Unfortunately, the exhibition's compelling catalogue, which "seek[s] to recalibrate the … [Read more...]

Remember the Members: Parsing Max Hollein’s Letter to Metropolitan Museum’s Most Devoted Fans

Smart is the adjective that always crops up when people describe Max Hollein, the Metropolitan Museum's new director. Yesterday, he made one of his first smart moves by issuing a detailed letter to Met members, appending an email address through which they can share "any thoughts about the museum." To convey some idea of who Max is and what he plans to do, here are extensive excerpts from his members' missive (emphases added; my commentary in brackets): I write to introduce myself and hope that we will meet in the coming months at one … [Read more...]

Profit Flop at Sotheby’s: Auction Houses’ Self-Defeating Assumption of Consignors’ Risk (UPDATED)

My critical analysis at the end of last spring's round of major New York art auctions, in which I argued that auction-house arrangements with consignors "have become too arcane, convoluted and counterproductive for the market’s (and the auction houses’) good," has been supported by the figures in Sotheby's earnings report issued Monday: It revealed that for the six months ended June 30, 2018, its "net income [i.e., profit] of $50.8 million, or $0.95 per diluted share," was "a 23% and 21% decline, respectively" from the same period last … [Read more...]

Grousing about Klaus: Is Biesenbach Right for MOCA?

Much as I try, I can't muster great enthusiasm for the appointment of Klaus Biesenbach to the directorship of MOCA, Los Angeles, mostly because the shows he organized in Manhattan, with the exception of this one (for me, a nostalgia trip), were not among my MoMA favorites. I've seen too few shows at MoMA's Queens outpost (an inconvenient drive for me from New Jersey) for me to knowledgeably evaluate his work at PS 1. And although I've heard his presentations of upcoming exhibitions at MoMA press breakfasts, I haven't approached Klaus for … [Read more...]

Jewish Simcha: Acquisition of Early, Rare Hebrew Bible Celebrated by the Getty

With Christianity predominant in religious works owned by this country's preeminent museums, two recently announced acquisitions (by the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum) of splendid Hebrew manuscripts are cause for celebration by the museums' visitors in general and Jewish audiences in particular. In last month's announcement of its recently purchased "Rothschild Pentateuch," the Getty Museum hyped this monumental volume (1,180 folios, of which some 150 are decorated), as "the most spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript to become … [Read more...]

New Slick Frick: Improved Circulation, Bigger Gallery Space, More Concert Seats (Banished Library Books)

I had a sense of déjà vu when I heard that the Frick Collection's expansion plan grew out of the necessity of repeatedly de-installing portions of the its renowned permanent collection to accommodate major temporary exhibitions, such as... "We had to take down two permanent-collection galleries to make our current Canova exhibition happen," noted Ian Wardropper, the Frick's director, during his wide-ranging conversation with me about the Frick's expansion/renovation plans. This brought to mind the Kimbell Art Museum's similarly motivated 2013 … [Read more...]

Jaw-Dropper from Wardropper: Expansion to Temporarily Expel Frick Collection’s Collection

More on this here. It was bad enough when we learned that the Frick Collection might need to close its New York home for about two years to accommodate the construction for its latest (downsized) expansion plan, designed by Selldorf Architects. But until Monday, when director Ian Wardropper extensively briefed me on the project, I hadn't understood that the entire collection would need to be banished from the building, to protect the art from the vibrations, disruptions and debris from the expansion and renovation, and the repurposing of … [Read more...]

Second Thoughts: Two High-Profile Hires Depart Sotheby’s Advisory Service

In rapid succession, two ballyhooed recruits to Sotheby's Fine Art Division (the firm's art advisory service) have left their posts: ---Eric Shiner, whose departure was reported today by Anny Shaw in The Art Newspaper, will be artistic director of the London-based White Cube gallery's new office in New York. He had come to Sotheby's from the directorship of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. ---Christy MacLear, whose departure was reported by ARTnews last month, came to Sotheby's from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, where she had … [Read more...]

Go with the Bowie Flow? Fans Usurp the Brooklyn Museum’s American Art Galleries (with video)

Ground Control to Major Anne (Pasternak): Why have you allowed the your museum's American art galleries to be commandeered by throngs of David Bowie fans? Just a month ago, I had taken the Metropolitan Museum to task for allowing its Medieval and Byzantine art galleries to be invaded and upstaged by the crowded "Heavenly Bodies" exhibition of contemporary fashions: That's nothing, though, compared to the Brooklyn Museum's mistreatment of its collection of American art. As you can see in my top photo, if you want to eyeball (let … [Read more...]

Wanna Direct the National Gallery of Art? (Job Description Below)

When Earl (Rusty) Powell III announced his intention to retire in early 2019 from the directorship of the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, I wrote that our country's "two preeminent [art] institutions could be going head-to-head for top candidates." With the vacant Metropolitan Museum directorship's chair soon to be occupied by Max Hollein (after what turned out to be his brief transitional gig at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), the NGA's top spot stands alone as this country's biggest prize for a distinguished … [Read more...]

Trend Bender: Baltimore Museum’s “Canon Correction” Needs Correction

In the interests of "canon correction" (as he calls it), Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore Museum of Art's director, is doing the wrong things for the right reasons: He has acquired seven recent works (five of which were created within the last two years) with some of the proceeds of sales from the BMA's collection of seven older contemporary works by artists who have stood the test of time. To my mind, Bedford's admirable ends don't justify the means. He is intent on acquiring of-the-moment works by men and women of color, exemplified by … [Read more...]

What’d I Miss? News Flashes from the Berkshire Museum & Frick Collection

I leave town for a five-day vacation and news breaks out on several important art-museum stories that we've been following (not to mention on several much more important national news stories that we've been roiled by). Here's what my family (including my three little grandchildren) gazed upon while I took my eyes off the ball: And here's the first of my catch-up posts (with my commentary): ---The Berkshire Museum today announced that the embattled Van Shields is retiring from its directorship. An interim successor was named: Museum … [Read more...]

BlogBacks: Cultural Property Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire & Getty Spokesperson Ron Hartwig on the Getty Bronze

Cultural property lawyer (and blogger) Ricardo St. Hilaire responds to Antiquities Ambiguities: Parsing the Legal Arguments in the Battle of the Getty Bronze. I'm glad you are covering this case. Cases in Italy can be dragged out for years, as you know. But if the Italians ultimately win, there next big challenge will be to enforce the judgment in the U.S. It's one thing to win a court case overseas and get an award of cash and then have an American court enforce the money judgment. It's an entirely different scenario, however, when a … [Read more...]

Antiquities Ambiguities: Parsing the Legal Arguments in the Battle of the Getty Bronze

Italian Judge Giacomo Gasparini's June 8 decision giving the laurel wreath to Team Italy in the Olympian legal contest over the Getty Bronze seems to me persuasively well-reasoned (although awkwardly worded in the Getty's 46-page translation). Americans who (like me) have ogled the Getty Museum's celebrated nude would be loath to lose one of the world's few surviving life-size ancient Greek bronzes, let alone one of such outstanding quality. But the Getty has not, to my mind, made a convincing legal case that the statue's secret removal from … [Read more...]

Never-Ending Saga of “The Getty Bronze”: Italian Criminal Judge Rules It Belongs to Italy

In the latest development in a tangled legal dispute that will probably outlive us all, the J. Paul Getty Trust announced that it plans to file an appeal with Italy's Court of Cassation of a June 8 Italian criminal court decision calling for the California museum to relinquish its celebrated statue, "The Victorious Youth" (aka "the Getty Bronze"). For now, it's the centerpiece of the gallery devoted to "The Hellenistic World," which is a highlight of the sweeping reconception and reinstallation of the Getty Villa, which reopened on Apr. … [Read more...]

Infernal “Heavenly Bodies”: How the Directorless Metropolitan Museum Went Astray

Where's Max Hollein when we really need him? Several "what-were-they-thinking?" moments jolted me recently at the Metropolitan Museum, reaffirming my belief in a bedrock principle of museum management: An art museum, particularly a complicated operation like the Met, needs a director who has had substantial curatorial experience and also, preferably, has served elsewhere as a respected director. The Met's president, Daniel Weiss, lacks that background but has been running the operation as a CEO-in-search-of-a-director since last June, … [Read more...]

Deaccession Deception: Baltimore Museum’s Castoffs Leave Holes in Its Collection

Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said all the right things in explaining his decision to deaccession seven of the museum's works in order to purchase works "created from 1943 or later, allowing the museum to strengthen and fill gaps within its collection [emphasis added]." In the recent press release announcing the planned disposals, Bedford expressed the museum's desire to build "a collection that is more relevant to the community it serves" (i.e., women and artists of color). The problem is that in … [Read more...]

Berkshire Museum’s Murky “Transparency”: Parsing the Half-Truths in Its “Open Letter”

If this is transparency, we can only wonder what opacity looks like. The Berkshire Museum today posted an open letter to its community that is intended to show its "commitment to transparency, cooperation, outreach," according to an email from its spokesperson that hit my inbox late this afternoon. But the "open letter" was less than transparent in describing what happened to the priciest of the museum's deaccessions: "Shuffleton’s Barbershop" by Norman Rockwell is on its way back to the Berkshires, to the Norman Rockwell Museum, … [Read more...]

AAMD Sanctions Berkshire Museum and La Salle University Art Museum (& what it should do next)

We knew this was coming (for what it's worth). The Association of Art Museum Directors today issued this statement: The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced today that its Board of Trustees has voted to impose sanctions on the Berkshire Museum and the La Salle University Art Museum. This follows the decision made by each institution to use the proceeds from recent art sales to support operating budgets or expansion initiatives, a decision that violates one of the core principles of art museums. These actions are in … [Read more...]

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