The Wall Street Journal has yesterday published the following incendiary headline:
The accompanying article goes on to discuss in heated terms what the writer characterizes as the morally flawed decision on the part of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse to sell a Jackson Pollock painting, to fund other acquisitions of greater diversity. Of course, with most cultural institutions world wide and not just in upstate New York already on the ropes well before they began to feel the crushing bottom line effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, one would assume that their ostensible goal masks their real objective- raising money to fund a huge cash shortfall in support of ongoing operations. Put another way- to stave off bankruptcy and closure.
Though the author of the Wall Street Journal article may not agree, I think the sale of the Pollock, if it can do some good to keep the museum afloat, is a good idea. I am not familiar with the Everson Museum and what its collections consists of, but frankly, an isolated ab ex work in what is otherwise a survey art museum would hardly have the effect of undermining an understanding of what remains on the walls, or in the museum’s back room. Too often, museums will retain a single work that, important in itself, does not really articulate with the balance of its collection. And, of course, that it might have been part, or perhaps all, of the benefaction of some local grandee whose generosity is woefully tempered by the limitations placed on the museum by the benefactor’s deed of gift further complicates matters- matters now so dire which no donor or curator or acquisitions committee could have foreseen at the time the gift was accepted.
In earlier times- and those earlier times were not so long ago- it was standard practice to place severe restrictions on the sale of works of art. The general rationale was to insure a level of sustained financial discipline within the beneficiary museum, assuring thereby the permanent and ongoing public acknowledgment of a donor’s generosity. Consequently, a museum’s permanent collection acquired sacred cow status, and could not be sold to support its operating budget. Or as I heard it put rather pointedly, to fund the lavish salaries paid to curators. As someone who’s had some exposure from inside the museum world, I’ve never yet seen any museum curator or director who didn’t absolutely, positively earn every cent they were paid, and most of them are paid peanuts- and fewer of those peanuts all the time. The Honolulu Museum of Art, for instance, had long had as a perk for the director use during their tenure of a marvelous Ossipoff designed home. That house has now been sold to support operations, and the director, with no increase in pay, now obligated to pay for their own housing.
Then, too, not all acquisitions, and certainly not all donations, are of, shall we say, museum quality. For every work in any given museum’s galleries, there can be many fold that number languishing in the vaults. Tate Britain and Tate Modern rotate works in and out of their galleries, but mostly, what’s in the vaults are generally subpar that in their occupation serve no purpose other than to gather dust. We’ve been treated to several TV shows in recent years featuring the likes of celebrity dealer Philip Mould and aristocratic art historian Bendor Grosvenor, sussing out treasures amongst these, but for every treasure, there are thousands, indeed tens of thousands that no one would now or ever consider as in any way important.
Other than, possibly, to the museum that now possesses them and could, in these times, use them as a source of revenue to keep the lights burning- or rather, to be able to turn them back on at some time in the hoped-for and not too distant future.
Frankly, I would consider this as an oppotrune time for some general weeding of museum’s collections, including works by artists- including Jackson Pollock- well established in the canon. One needs to bear in mind that not all artists, even those in what might be considered the first rank, generally produced masterworks. Then, too, there are works whose time has passed. I doubt too many museums could stay open even in good times if their holdings ran to Victorian era pictures with a moral message, in the manner of Luke Fildes, arguably the most famously popular painter at the turn of the last century.
But is the sale of a single painting, or any group of paintings or other works of art, selling its soul as the Wall Street Journal headline has it? I shouldn’t think so, as beyond the ability to stay open the soul of a public museum is its dynamism and the lively relationship it maintains with its constituency. The time when any museum could operate in a near vacuum, providing access only to connoisseurs or the great and good who perhaps fancied themselves as connoisseurs has long passed. The subheading in the Wall Street Journal article characterizes the sale of the Pollock painting as a betrayal of the public trust. It seems to me the forced closure of the museum when the sale of one of its artworks could have forestalled it is much more a betrayal.