Busybodies, Hoarders and Egomaniacs
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles is broke, and a lot of folks are in high dudgeon.
Its profligate and irresponsible director, Jeremy Strick, classically trained and hired in 1999 out of the Art Institute of Chicago, has burned through $44 million of the museum’s endowment, leaving it with a paltry $6 million.
This is a major scandal.
Museum management is dithering over how to quickly raise the $25 million needed to keep the doors open and some of its programs going. Do they merge with another museum? Do they hit up some big donors? Do they hire Carl Bloom Associates to launch a direct mail campaign?
Uh-uh. No time.
The sentence that follows this one will be the most blasphemous concept that could ever be promulgated in the eyes of the ego-driven elitists who run art museums.
To get on its feet, MOCA needs only to sell two paintings from its permanent collection; fire the director; put some responsible, competent people on its board; suck it up and start over.
Sell two paintings out of its permanent collection?
The Worst Web Site in the World
In creating this cranky e-zine, I visit hundreds of Web sites every day. If the competence of an organization can be measured by the quality of its Web site, the Museum of Contemporary Art belongs in the Cloacus Maximus—the giant sewer that runs deep under Rome. MOCA has the worst Web site I have ever seen. Period.
How bad is it? Start with light-blue sans serif mousetype on a light-blue background.
But squinting into the computer screen, it's possible—with great difficulty—to discern that the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art contains works by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Mark Rothko, George Segal, Julian Schnabel, Frank Stella, Cy Tombly, Alberto Giacometti, Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock.
Individual works by these artists can go for tens of millions. An example: In November 2006, Hollywood’s David Geffen sold “No. 5, 1948” by Jackson Pollock to financier David Martinez for $140 million—the highest price ever paid for a work of art in the history of the world. (See the illustration at the end of this issue.)
Quietly selling off two paintings means MOCA would lose a couple of trees, but the forest would be saved.
You Do Whatcha Gotta Do
When you are running a business that is going south, don’t dither. Remember Lord Horatio Nelson’s rule for winning a sea battle: “Nevermind the maneuvers. Go straight at 'em!”
What triggered this screed was a story earlier this week that the National Academy—a relatively unknown school and museum in New York City—was in desperate need of dough ($800,000 deficit on a $3 million budget) and stealthily sold from its collection two 19th century landscapes by Hudson River School artists for an estimated $14 million and change.
So what’s the big deal?
It turns out a bunch of nosey-parkers operating under the banner of the Association of Art Museum Directors issued the following press release:
The National Academy is now breaching one of the most basic and important of AAMD’s principles by treating its collection as a financial asset, rather than the cornerstone of research, exhibition, and public programming, a record of human creativity held in trust for people now and in the future.
In the notification of its decision to AAMD last evening, the National Academy voluntarily withdrew from membership in the organization. It is not, however, membership in AAMD per se, but rather a broader commitment to ethical museum practice that demands adherence to the principles governing deaccessioning. Therefore, we have no choice but to censure the National Academy for this action. Consistent with AAMD’s Code of Ethics, we call on our members to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaborations on exhibitions with the National Academy.
Had the two pictures not been sold, Academy Interim Director Carmine Branagan told The New York Times’ Randy Kennedy, “the academy would close—and that is a sincere and honest statement.”
The National Academy owns a hoard of more than 7,000 works of art, the lion’s share hidden away and never seen by the public. What’s more, in my opinion, the sale of a couple Hudson River School landscapes is a big ho-hum. Whenever I'm in a museum and stumble into a room with Hudson River artists, I turn tail and go elsewhere—anywhere. Same thing with Ruisdael, Constable, Corot and Andrew Wyeth.
It's also my opinion that if I have clear title to something, I can sit on it, sell it, eat it or give it away to the Salvation Army—especially if that will save an institution, put bread on the table or enable loyal people to keep working and customers to be served.
I once knew a lovely couple who inherited a beautiful house stuffed with family heirlooms—magnificent antiques worth millions. They didn't have much money, worked hard, scrimped to send their kids to college—all the while surrounded by this extraordinary, museum-quality collection.
I remember a Christmas gathering at their house when I brought along my friend Charlie, an art collector and a denizen of auctions and up-market antique stores. As we were chatting, Charlie’s eyes suddenly narrowed and he said, “Holy smoke, that guy across the room is sitting on a Duncan Phyfe chair! ... and so is Peggy ... Good God, so am I! ... The stuff in this room is worth a fortune!” He counted a dozen matching Duncan Phyfe chairs.
As the owner’s wife once said to me, “We could have sold one of those big old Chinese urns and put all the children through college, fixed up the house and had money left over, but the family wouldn’t hear of it.”
They were free from the guilt that would have come from selling off their patrimony, but they struggled and essentially let life pass them by so their kids could inherit this stuff.
As I recall, the kids sold off a ton of it.
A Culture of Hoarders
The sanctimony of the Association of Art Museum Directors is pompous, patronizing and disingenuous. For many of them, their basic business is hoarding:
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York houses more than 2 million art objects. The vast majority of these will never be seen.
- The Met’s collection is dwarfed by the 7 million pieces at the British Museum in London, much of it the treasures spirited out of unsophisticated, unsuspecting countries by crafty adventurers and archaeologists. The collection of Egyptian artifacts alone totals 110,000—100,000 of which will never see the light of day.
- A number of years ago, I was in London and paid a call on the new Tate Modern, a magnificent facility on the banks of the Thames. Alas, the permanent collection is a bunch of second-rate work by first-rate artists. Yet all over the world, great art is hoarded and hidden away from public view in museum basements that the ego-driven curators and greedy directors are unwilling to deaccession.
- This is key: A work of art on the wall of a private home or a business enterprise—where it gives continual joy to all that behold and love it—is far more in keeping with the intent of the artist than relegating it to the black hole of a museum basement for eternity. It was painted to give pleasure, not to give bragging rights to curators and museum directors because, “The collection in my cellar is bigger than yours.”
- Saturday night, I had dinner with good friends who told me of a mutual friend in the South, not particularly affluent, who bought himself a 1931 Rolls-Royce. “What are you going to do with it?” they asked. “I’m going to own it,” he said with a smile.
The Barnes Mess
A major brouhaha in Philadelphia is the fate of the Barnes Foundation—the greatest hoard of privately held modern art in the world—some 2,500 objects with an estimated value of $6 billion that include 180 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 44 Picassos and 18 Rousseaux. This private museum is flat broke, the result of poor investments and lawsuits caused by onerous “indentures” decreed by the nutty founder, Albert C. Barnes, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1951. Nothing can be sold from the collection, Barnes decreed, and none of the exhibits can be rearranged. Barnes’ will has finally been broken, $150 million has been raised and this extraordinary collection is slated to be moved to flashy new digs on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway a few hundred yards from the massive Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Some years ago, I got chatting with one of the guards at the Philadelphia Museum, who told me that the most valuable work of art in the entire collection is Cézanne’s "Bathers."
Cézanne painted three huge canvases of bathers. One is in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, London. The remaining two are 5.65 miles apart—one at the Philadelphia Museum, the other at the Barnes in the suburban town of Merion Station.
All of this angst and horror of the Barnes situation could have been avoided if the directors, lawyers and Montgomery County Orphan’s Court had figured out a way to allow the foundation to sell one painting. My pick: Cézanne’s "Bathers," which would have raised $100 million and allowed the funky Barnes to remain in situ with plenty of money to comfortably operate in perpetuity. Philadelphia doesn't need two of the world’s three Cézanne "Bathers."