Next story: News of the Weird
by Geoff Kelly
On November 10, the Albright-Knox announced its intention to sell about 200 antiquities and other historic works from its permanent collection. The artworks will be sold in a series of auctions conducted by Sotheby’s, beginning with a number of Chinese and Indian antiquities in March. African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian and American Indian art will be auctioned in May, as will Old Masters and pre-19th-century European art.
A number of other antiquities will be auctioned in June—most notably the museum’s iconic, late Hellenistic/early Roman Imperial bronze, Artemis and the Stag, a piece that many local museum-goers associate with the gallery as closely as its Pollocks and Picassos.
The sale of these artworks is expected to raise at least $15 million—and, given the extravagance of today’s art market and the quality of some of the items, possibly far more.
The proceeds will bolster the museum’s already substantial endowment of $58 million, from which the museum can draw to purchase new artworks—specifically modern and contemporary works, the collection of which Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos argues has been the core of the institution’s mission since its inception in 1862.
“It is because of a tradition of successive generations of directors, curators and board members taking risks to acquire and exhibit the best contemporary art of their era that the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one of America’s great institutions for modern and contemporary art,” Grachos said in the press release issued by the museum on November 10, which described the sale—or “deaccession,” as such maneuvers are called in the art world—as an extension of the museum’s strategic planning process that began in 2000.
“But no collection of contemporary art can remain great without ongoing acquisitions of significant works,” Grachos continued in the press release. “The steps we take today will allow us to pursue this course more aggressively and with great focus.”
In short, Grachos and the board believe that the auction of these items will achieve two goals. First, the sale will rationalize the gallery’s collection. The antiquities, though exquisite and often extraordinary examples in their fields, are oddballs—having trickled in sporadically, they don’t present a comprehensive history of art, and were never representative of the gallery’s core mission. The modern and contemporary collection at the Albright-Knox is one of a kind, on the other hand, and the basis for the gallery’s international reputation. Better, Grachos argues, to focus the museum’s limited resources and capitalize on the museum’s strengths.
The second goal, then, is to put the institution in a position to add its holdings of 20th-century art and give it the wherewithal to bid for the work of the most exciting contemporary artists. That takes money. Grachos admits that the museum is not hurting financially—“Given the scale of our community, I think our endowment is pretty substantial,” he told Artvoice in an interview on Monday morning. “If you look at the other nonprofits, I think we have a pretty solid foundation here.” But the premium our culture places on the new means that even young artists command astronomical sums for their work, and the Albright-Knox—like many other public institutions—often finds itself priced out of current art markets.
Furthermore, the days in which local benefactors underwrote bold and extravagant purchases of contemporary art are in the past.
“There is nothing on the horizon in Buffalo that tells any of us who have been struggling with this decision that we’re going to be able to raise substantial funds from our community to buy art,” Grachos said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Deaccessioning has been a hot topic in the art world for decades, at least since Thomas Hoving of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art secretly sold off a Van Gogh and a Rousseau in the early 1970s in order to replenish the acquisition fund he had tapped for the purchase of a Velasquez. Boston’s Horticultural Society engendered terrific controversy when it auctioned off its collection of rare books and manuscripts in the early 1990s—a deaccessioning that, in the end, compromised the institution’s reputation and failed to solve the financial woes that prompted the sale. The Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art both have frequently auctioned off parts of their collection in order to acquire new pieces and engendered fierce controversy for doing so.
Among the common objections: a museum’s board and its directors are mere stewards of their institution’s assets and have no right to sell them; in today’s art market, few public institutions can pay the high prices commanded by significant works that interest them—so that when a public institution auctions off its work, it is often sending them into private collections, where they disappear from public view; and one should not gamble assets of proven value—in the case of the Albright-Knox, its antiquities—to speculate on work whose value may not pan out.
What Grachos has proposed is entirely aboveboard—the museum says that it has scrupulously followed the code of ethics for deaccessioning laid out by the American Association of Museums, consulting with a panel of other museum directors, with staff and with board members to identify the list of works to be deaccessioned.
But the plan has drawn criticism nonetheless—not in the Buffalo News, which published a by-the-press-release piece about the sale from Richard Huntington, followed by a tepid editorial (which staked out the bold position that the plan was both good and bad). Mary Kunz Goldman wrote a confused column opposing the deaccessioning, in which she seems to suggest that modern and contemporary art is worthless—and, strangely, that the bronze of Artemis and the Stag was, in fact, made of porcelain. It is, in fact, bronze.
The most scathing criticism of the Albright-Knox’s deaccessioning plan has come, instead, from an expatriate: Thomas L. Freudenheim, a native Buffalonian and a former museum director who served as assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution. Freudenheim has been writing critically about deaccession in the art world for a decade, a practice to which he is almost monolithically opposed.
This was the first time, however, that Freudenheim had occasion to focus his attention on the activities of the museum that he credits with awakening in him a love of art and propelling him toward a career in museums.
“And so another museum goes to market”
Last Wednesday the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Freudenheim in which he skewered the Albright-Knox for proposing to liquidate what he believes is the community’s legacy, and justifying the sale by what he considers a distortion of the museum’s mission:
Having grown up in Buffalo and haunted the museum’s halls until I left for college, I thought I knew something about that mission: providing access to all kinds of high-quality art in a medium-size, not unsophisticated, formerly important industrial city, which also boasts key examples of American architecture and has a powerful musical tradition.
This is the place I have often cited in lectures and in writing, describing how my local museum inspired me to enter the art history and museum world.
With no claim to an encyclopedic collection, the Albright Art Gallery (as it was known then) nevertheless helped me to see a wide range of wondrous art objects that became my friends through repeated viewings.
“It’s irresponsible,” Freudenheim told Artvoice in a phone interview over the weekend, speaking from his home in Washington, DC. “First of all it’s dishonest: They claim that the gallery has traditionally collected in this field, modern and contemporary artists, and it’s simply not true. Just go look at the history of the gallery. Look at the statements they make when they acquire things. I’ve been involved with the museum since I was a child. I have all the copies of the gallery notes from when they acquired things that weren’t modern or contemporary.”
Indeed, the museum has always acquired objects, both through donation and purchase, that fall outside the scope of the mission as defined by Grachos and the museum’s board. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, even as Seymour Knox and his celebrated director, Gordon Smith, pursued contemporary works by DeKooning and Pollock, among others, the two also brought home antiquities from Peru and China and around the globe. All found their way into the Albright-Knox—and their juxtaposition with the gallery’s more comprehensive modernist collection arguably has provided an intriguing tension, opening a window into its influences. Picasso, for example, was heavily influenced by primitive art; there is value in exhibiting his work and a statuette of a Mesopotamian mountain god—also on the auction block—under the same roof.
“Many museums lack the resources to be encyclopedic; nevertheless, their often sporadic range of works assists in forming a sensibility about art’s endless scope and roots and possibilities,” Freudenheim wrote in his Wall Street Journal article. Part of the mission of a public institution like the Albright-Knox is to provide such educational opportunities. The antiquities in the Albright-Knox do not compromise the integrity of the museum’s contemporary and modern collections, Freudenheim argued, but they do illuminate them.
Another part of a public institution’s mission is stewardship, according to Freudenheim. He says that the Albright-Knox’s collection belongs not to the board or to the director, but to the community. “There has got to be some sense that there is meaning to public patrimony, that there is meaning to things not belonging to individuals but belonging to community,” he told Artvoice.
“It’s one thing for museums to say selectively that this or that doesn’t fit our mission, or isn’t an important work—which I don’t support, but I understand,” he said. “I’m conservative about it but I’m not an absolutist about it. But it’s another thing to simply say we’re going to get rid of whole categories of material that no longer fit our mission—and basically they’ve redefined their mission. I question whether they have a right to do that.
“Please don’t misunderstand me: I love the contemporary art,” he added. “I go there to pray in front of the best Gorky in the world. It’s not because I’m a fuddy-duddy about it. I think the contemporary art collection is singular and wonderful and I love it.”
Indeed, Freudenheim agrees that Grachos and future directors should continue to focus on and invest in the gallery’s exemplary collection of contemporary and modern art. However, he thinks that Grachos, and more especially the board, should find other ways to raise money for new purchases. If the community dug into its pockets to rehabilitate the Darwin Martin House, he argues, why wouldn’t they dig deeper to support the Albright-Knox? Monetizing the gallery’s collection is the easy and, in Freudenheim’s view, the less ethical way to build an acquisition fund. It’s a tactic that he says too many institutions take nowadays.
“We were brought up to look at the art collection as wondrous stuff,” he said. “Now [museum boards and directors] look at the art collection and all they see is dollar signs. That’s what an art collection is—it’s a lot of money. If you, the visitor, were being taken on a docent tour in a museum, and you were standing in front of a painting and you said, ‘How much is that worth?’—the docent would very snottily say, ‘Oh, we don’t discuss that. That’s not what this is about.’ Which is bullshit. That’s all that it’s about.
“It’s just money; it’s just underutilized assets, or whatever they call it in the corporate world.”
Freudenheim said he thinks Grachos is a great guy—and there is general agreement that Grachos has brought a great deal of energy to the museum. It’s not personal, Freudenheim says, but his opposition is unshakeable: “I think it’s irresponsible, it’s scandalous, and it’s rape of the museum, and it shouldn’t be permitted.”
“You’ve got to keep moving”
“Deaccessioning has certainly become a more common practice for museums, in terms of taking action and supporting themselves and enhancing their endowments…It certainly raises issues whenever it happens and wherever it happens,” Grachos acknowledged. “And it happens a lot more often than most people think. The Museum of Modern Art actually deaccessions at almost every single board meeting, and they have for 25 years.”
Grachos, of course, disagrees with almost everything Freudenheim wrote in the Wall Street Journal, though he acknowledges the validity of his detractor’s position: “It was a wonderfully articulated and impassioned letter that comes from a man who’s been involved in nonprofits and the museum world and grew up in Buffalo,” Grachos conceded. “It was a very strong argument not to deaccession.”
However, Grachos said, “If you’re building a collection that’s modernist and contemporary, you’ve got to keep moving. You can’t just stop collecting. It’s our responsibility to bring the best ideas, the best and most creative artists, into the collection and into the community. That’s what happened with Mr. Goodyear in the 1920s, who was ridiculed because he brought in Picasso’s La Toilette. It literally drove him off the board…Mr. Knox was ridiculed when he brought the Jackson Pollock into the collection. These are landmark artworks that have defined this collection, and to limit or restrict the next generation from that ability to continue the tradition would turn this into a mausoleum. Which is not what this museum should be. It should be a moving institution, continually connecting to the leading artists of our time.”
Grachos insists that, despite Freudenheim’s arguments and the occasional acquisition of antiquities and Old Masters, the museum’s board, its directors and its greatest patrons have chosen at every juncture in the museum’s history to reaffirm the institution’s commitment to collecting contemporary art.
In 1905, when the E.B. Green building opened, there were only 36 works in the collection—a perfect time, Grachos says, to have launched a comprehensive purchasing program across all era, if the museum’s goal had been to amass an encyclopedic collection of the history of art. With a new building and plenty of financial patronage available from the great industrialists of that era—many of whom were more likely to favor the staid over the cutting edge—the Albright-Knox certainly could have attempted to collect pieces from a wide range of eras.
“At that moment, it did quite the opposite, in fact,” Grachos said. “Not only did it collect artists of our time, so to speak—in those days it was Monet, it was Cezanne, it was the great French Impressionists—but the exhibitions they chose were really outstanding commitments to the cutting edge. We were the first institution, 1910, to show the Stieglitz group, when the debate whether photography was even an art form was very much brewing. Subsequent exhibitions of German Expressionist art, that were really the currents in Europe, were brought to the Albright-Knox.”
The commitment to contemporary art was confirmed again in 1939, when the Room for Contemporary Art was founded. In 1938, the Albright-Knox was the first museum in North America to purchase and exhibit a work by the sculptor Henry Moore. The acquisition of work by the likes of Mondrian, Miro and Matisse reiterated that commitment, as did the legendary partnership of Knox and Smith from the 1940s into the 1970s.
“At key moments in our history, the core mission has been be reaffirmed over and over again—that we are a museum that supports the best of what’s happening today in the visual arts,” Grachos said. “Because of that great commitment, because of the patronage of men like A. Conger Goodyear and many of the directors and curators of the 1920s, and then the late 1930s and the 1940s, and then of course the great story with Mr. Knox and Mr. Smith in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s—these individuals supported the mission by bringing in some of the most cutting-edge work. And because of that we now have this incredible collection of modernism.”
Some critics of the sale, including Freudenheim, have suggested that directors like Grachos come and go between institutions, building their resumes with dramatic purchases and blockbuster traveling shows—increasingly relying on deaccession to pay the bills. Grachos, who has certainly proved to be a dynamic and activist director since he arrived at the post in 2004, insists that deaccession has been “on the table for at least a decade,” predating his tenure. And the intention is to strengthen the institution, not to fund a raft of quick, high-profile purchases to burnish his established image as a go-getter. The board’s careful, conservative management on the museum’s endowment wouldn’t permit that. The sale may add $15 million or more to the museum’s $58 million endowment, but the director and curators will continue to limit their draw on that endowment to five percent for purchases of new work.
“I want to dispel this notion that if we get substantial sums for the endowment—which are restricted funds for the purchase of works of art, they’re not funds that can be used for anything else…I mean, it’s something that raises the level of our draw from the endowment, but we’re very conservative about the way we draw from the endowment. We stick to a five-percent draw to purchase art. So it’s not like we’re going to get all this resource and go out on a spending spree. What it’s about is ensuring that the next director and the next generation will have the resources to continue to build the collection.”
In fact, Grachos is by most accounts a savvy judge of contemporary art—and the board of directors clearly trusts him, just as previous boards trusted Gordon Smith. Asked what he would buy if the opportunity arose, Grachos said he’d like the museum to have a major video work by Bruce Nauman, work by the late Felix Gonzales Torres and additional works by artists from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that are already represented in the collection. The key, he said, is to have the resources available when opportunity knocks. The decision to buy Pollock, Rothko and DeKooning were quick—no hemming and hawing, no fundraising efforts required. The decisions were made and the money was available. This sale, Grachos said, might put the gallery in a better position to make such decisive moves.
“I think at the end of the day, if you talk to someone in Moscow or Paris or Prague, they might know the Albright-Knox…Cultural tourists travel to Buffalo to see certain works in this collection. And they are not the antiquities, they’re not the Chinese material, they’re not the few Egyptian pieces we have. They are the modern works.”
The contention that the Albright-Knox is the only place in town to view antiquities, he said, is “myopic.” The Buffalo Museum of Science has a tremendous collection of Egyptian and Chinese antiquities, far better that the Albright-Knox’s. The Royal Ontario Museum, an hour-and-a-half drive away, has better antiquities, and so does the Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, two and half hours away by car. Those opportunities still avail to the public. He also hinted that a number of public institutions with considerable acquisition funds have expressed interest in specific items the Albright-Knox wants to sell, meaning that not all of these items will disappear into private collections. Some will remain in the public trust. Although, he added, “Not in Buffalo, certainly.”
“Yes, we’ll miss certain objects, there’s no question,” he said. “But I don’t see it as pillaging our cultural resources. I think it’s really reinforcing one of the great museums in the country.”
The six-month discussion
Change is hard sell in Buffalo. Grachos described his conversations with the heirs to the donors of the antiquities for sale as “rough.” But, once he explained that artwork bought with funds raised by the sale of particular objects would continue to bear the names of the original donors, most were assuaged.
“[Change] becomes a six-month discussion in our community,” Grachos said. “That’s just the nature of the community. It’s what makes it rich and complex and textured.”
That’s certainly one way of putting it. Grachos is convinced he’s doing the right thing by the Albright-Knox; Freudenheim is certain that he is not—and that the deaccession of an entire wing of an American art gallery is a bad precedent that other institutions will surely follow. He has vowed to fight the sale and says that others in the nation’s art press will do the same. “I’m not saying we’ll win,” he admitted.
Freudenheim’s article prompted a flurry of email across Buffalo last Thursday and Friday. Some of the attending comments were pointed and strident, such as those of Matthew John Pasquerella:
If the institution was so interested in expanding its collection, why wasn’t a community-wide effort initiated to raise funds, corporations encouraged to underwrite acquisitions or a few of the rich white guys sitting around the table, encouraged to open up their wallets?…
…This is Buffalo and shit like this happens all the time. Maybe in the eleventh hour the public will roll over and groan a little bit louder before they are struck with the velvet club once again.
(You can find much more of this sentiment in this week’s “Letters to Artvoice” on page four.) Many more correspondents expressed wistfulness, or even sadness, about the loss to the community of cultural assets—the latest, it might seem, in a long train of departures, notwithstanding the promise of new treasures to come.
Most were circumspect, finding weight in both sides of an argument that has been consuming galleries nationwide and has finally found its way to Buffalo. Consider this, for example, from the painter Peter Fowler, who runs Kepa3 Gallery:
The hardest thing for a museum and/or a gallery to do is to meet the bills, guard the patrimony and stay dynamic all, at the same time. It has to be a balancing act. However, if you need the director to tell you why the new purchase is valuable then things might get tight with your powerful donor base when said director moves on. (Remember, a sexy, three-ton blob of red wax by Anish Kapoor is in the end a blob of wax, and a shark in formaldehyde is a fish in a tank.) And I do know that in the long run, you have to guard the core values to stay real for yourself and the community. I certainly am not an expert, but I think all of us learn in life that one doesn’t know what he’s got ’til its gone. In the last century someone went out of their way to acquire these antiquities. Those stories have value and are part of the city’s history.
The auctioning of the Albright-Knox’s antiquities will soon become another chapter in the city’s history; Louis Grachos believes it will be a happy chapter. It will likely take a generation before we know for certain.
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