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Will Venice Sell Art to Stay Afloat?

On Jan. 1, I wasn’t paying too much attention to the news, but The Wall Street Journal posted an article that day that should not go unremarked. Headlined As Venice’s Debts Mount, Mayor Pitches Sale of Art, Other Moves to Keep Finances Afloat, it said that the city is some $65 million in the hole at the moment and added that the mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, has listed among his remedies a plan to sell art from the city’s public collections. Among those mentioned are Klimt’s Judith II (at right) and a Chagall that “don’t belong to the city’s history and tradition.”

Judith II, Salome, 1909...BFKEAH Judith II, Salome, 1909

It adds, a bit later:

Art lovers and politicians in Rome have expressed outrage, but Mr. Brugnaro says he isn’t cowed. “I’ll sell the paintings rather than sit here and admire them while rain drips onto children’s school desks and public libraries have no toilet paper.”

This raises all sorts of questions, including:

  • Is he bluffing?
  • Isn’t his criterion, about art needing to belong to a city’s history to be necessary to its attraction, stupid?

In my opinion, yes and yes. Someone should definitely refute his ideas about what art belongs in public museums, or encyclopedic museums the world over should simply empty out their galleries and storeroom. (On the other hand, some “national treasure” definitions, which sometimes apply preposterously to items that have no national connection, should also be challenged. But I digress.)

But I have not heard any refutations, at least not public ones. Which leads me to believe that art, once again, is becoming the political football it was in Detroit. We need to nip this in the bud, as it has already spread to smaller cities in Britain and Germany, which in the last two years or so have deaccessioned works (if my memory serves) to raise operating money.

Brugnaro has made other proposals–charging day-trippers to enter St. Mark’s Square, asking for donations from cruise ship lines, which annually disgorge some 2 million passengers into the city without paying a thing in taxes but which heavily use the city’s infrastructure, etc.

Those are more acceptable, and I think Brugnaro may be trying to force consensus on them by ransoming the art. But crying wolf is never a good idea. Isn’t that the morale of the fable?


  1. Christopher Riopelle says

    The mayor is so wrong. Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) has everything to do with Venice’s “history and tradition.” What’s more Venetian than the Biennale? The painting was shown at the ninth Biennale, in 1910, and bought directly from it for the city’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna, the incomparable Ca’ Pesaro. It was the art scandal of the year and where would Venice be without its art scandals?
    Christopher Riopelle
    Curator of Post 1800 Paintings
    The National Gallery

  2. David Mayernik says

    If it wasn’t for the fact that the city’s many churches and religious houses sold art in the 18th and 19th centuries to “stay afloat,” the world’s great museums would be much the poorer. It’s complicated. Detroit was prepared to sell off what little it had, Venice has art in abundance. And no, it’s not “stupid” to make an argument about which art makes most sense in which place, since one can’t have everything. Every curator makes choices of acquisition on that basis.

    • I certainly was not saying that deciding what art makes sense where is stupid. I believe in specialization in museum collections and have argued for it here several times. Too many museums have cookie-cutter collections. But deaccessioning something supposedly because it has no historical connection with the history of the city–which another commenter, by the way, refutes–is not smart, imho.

  3. Graham W. J. Beal says

    A correction: Detroit was not “prepared to sell off what little it had.” Creditors sought to seize the DIA’s great art collection, technically owned by the city and made vulnerable through the tactics of the State-appointed Emergency City Manager. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Inc., the private 501c3 operating the museum on behalf of the city, was prepared to fight any attempt to sell art. The State’s attorney general issued a strong opinion that the art was a public trust and, had we gone to court, there would almost certainly have been year’s of legal proceedings before a single work of art was sold. In the end, a political solution was found and a combination of state, foundation and private funds enabled the refunding of city pension funds, in exchange for which, the city transferred ownership of the collection and museum buildings to the DIA Inc. in perpetuity.

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