Comment: The largest museum art sale to date is ineligible

The recent explosive news that conservatives in the United States Supreme Court are about to erase abortion rights is a clear sign that the Reagan revolution of the 1980s continues to have a profound impact on life. American. Courting the conservative religious image of Reagan-appointed Antonin Scalia took time; but, now that it is done, indescribable damage is inflicted on the nation.

What is less obvious is how the right turn continues to disrupt the country’s cultural life.

Reagan’s embrace of the religious right was designed to halt and, if possible, reverse the hard-won civil rights gains of previous decades. His anti-government philosophy also advocated the privatization of state assets to solve pressing social problems. This destructive idea has been championed by some art museum leaders.

Top of the list: Selling significant art from museum collections is foolishly seen as a good way to raise money to support diversity initiatives. To fund the hard work of community-driven institutional change, a counterproductive raid on the collection is forbidden.

In Baltimore, San Francisco, Newark, NJ, Brooklyn, Syracuse, NY and elsewhere, major art from major artists has been pushed out of the local museum in recent years, with tens of millions of dollars being welcomed. The latest example is in northwest Ohio, where the venerable Toledo Art Museum has put over $48 million worth of art – and possibly as much as $62 million, if estimates are accurate – to monetize on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York on May 17.

This is the largest alienation sale to date.

A painting from 1923,flowers (Flowers)” by Henri Matisse, has been part of the museum’s collections for 87 years. The almost abstract landscape of Paul Cézanne around 1895,Clearing (The Glade)”, entered the collection during World War II. 1912 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir »nude wiping (Nude Drying Herself)” came in 1955.

Paul Cézanne, “Clearing (The Clearing)”, circa 1895, oil on canvas

(Toledo Art Museum/Sotheby’s)

I know these paintings. As a graduate student in the mid-1970s, I was a fellow at TMA. At the time, it never occurred to me that the word “permanent” in the museum’s stellar permanent collection apparently meant 67, max.

But that was before Reagan and the vogue for spinoffs for privatization.

Current TMA director Adam Levine was unborn when the former California governor moved into the White House. He grew up in an era of privatization. It is a standard. Many museum directors recently engaged in the sale of collectible works of art to finance their projects belong to the same generation. Rather than holding on, they follow the market.

Still life, landscape, figure – at auction, a range of subjects in the influential formation of modern French painting will surely pass from public to private ownership. Hardly any museum could afford to buy a $40 million Cézanne or an $18 million Matisse. Call it a forced retirement. All three images come with guarantees, which means that if no bidder is successful, the auction house buys the painting for a pre-agreed minimum.

The wondrous Cézanne, an almost abstract spatial structure constructed from flat, plane brushstrokes of green, blue and ochre, even has an irrevocable bid. An unidentified buyer has a cloudy financial interest in the sale and, if they outbid, gets compensation from the auction house for setting up the irrevocable bid in the first place.

The casino game, of sorts, with a large Toledo board as the blue chip.

The shame of the sale makes comes from no question about the relative quality of the three paintings. The Cézanne and Matisse are great, the Renoir not so much (although he is solidly representative of his late work). In a Zoom interview, Levine readily acknowledged this. “There’s no doubt that these are strong images,” he said.

A painting of a nude woman

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “nude wiping (Nude drying herself)”, 1912, oil on canvas

(Toledo Art Museum/Sotheby’s)

In the absence of a curator specializing in the field, outside opinions were sought. Levine said anonymous experts largely agreed on quality assessments, while differences of opinion were recorded on the wisdom of removing art from collection and sending it to market. The Toledo Blade, the local newspaper, editorialized against the sale.

I am on the side of those who said no. More than 10% of the painters in the TMA collection are represented by multiple copies, but apparently two Cézannes are one Cézanne too many. It’s odd for a guy familiarly known as the father of modern art — but maybe not for a painting that’s expected to fetch $40 million on its own.

The shame is that the museum feels no obligation to keep these works in the public domain, where they have resided for generations. The artists are unquestionably major figures in the history of modern art, and these paintings illuminate important aspects of their work; holding them is one of the main reasons why an art museum exists.

The sale of Toledo comes following a serious blunder directed by Levine just over a month after he stepped into the director role two years ago. When a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd — a horrific crime captured on cellphone video that went viral — cultural institutions across the country were pressed on their stories of racial, gender and other exclusions. Nine days later, as righteous protests exploded across the country, Levine issued a thoughtless statement condemning plunder and saying the museum would remain “non-partisan and disinterested” on the issue because the museum “does not have a political position”.

A lack of awareness of systemic white supremacy is certainly not in the same universe as wanting shoot some demonstrators marching against him, as we recently learned former President Trump hoped to do. But the reaction to Levine’s stupid statement was swift and fierce, with justly angry activists soon arriving on the steps of the TMA.

With good reason, our major conservative museums have little or no political credibility. Levine apologized, reconsidered and issued a formal notice diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion plan. An audit of the collections was ordered and, unsurprisingly, indicated that the greatest imbalances exist between nationality, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.

That’s not to say that selling exceptional museum art to rectify disproportionality makes sense.

A painting with a body prostrate on the floor with sketches above

Kerry James Marshall, “Beauty Examined”, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas

(Loma Linda University/Sotheby’s)

Coincidentally, a crucial 1993 Kerry James Marshall painting, ‘Beauty Examined’, hits auction two days after the Toledo photos, given to Sotheby’s by Loma Linda University, just outside San Bernardino, for raise funds for research at the school’s Genome Center. (The estimate is $8-12 million.) Marshall, as a black American, insists that the legacy of white European painting is as much his as anyone else’s. “Beauty Examined” seamlessly – and analytically – merges elements drawn from sources as diverse as Rembrandt, Charles White, Paul Gauguin and Yoruba court art.

The Museum of Toledo has built up its extraordinary collection since 1901 thanks to the generosity of the founders Edward Drummond Libbey and Florence Scott Libbey. Prodigiously wealthy through glassmaking, they left endowments of around $40 million. About half of investment income, which is expected to be $1.6 million this year, must be used to purchase artwork.

This purchasing power has diminished as the art market has exploded. (Levine claimed that a Cézanne sale had been discussed internally for years, and market realities made up the difference in now pulling the trigger.) Sotheby’s sale revenue is expected to at least double annual insured expenses. of the museum.

For the foreseeable future, it will be geared towards correcting these collection imbalances, although Levine did not identify any specific collection target. The overall goal is “to diversify our collection, pursuing beauty without bias,” as the director said in a letter to museum members announcing the sale.

That’s fine – even despite the brand management’s buzzing brilliance of the “beauty bias” tagline.

Not so good: The museum turns its famous art collection into a market-timed piggy bank to pay for essential structural changes.

Call it the path of least resistance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Saying that “when the going gets tough, the tough guys go shopping” is a ridiculous way to run an art museum.

The for-profit market dominates much of the non-profit museum world today. But the museum’s primary mission is to collect, research and preserve great art, and a conservative strategy of privatizing irreplaceable public assets in the name of liberal progress is backwards. The sale of Toledo is ineligible.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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