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Art for sale

Lifestyle/Technology | A museum tries to rescue its troubled finances-and lands in hot water

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

It isn't a good time to be an art museum director. Government and nonprofit support is down, museum admissions and store sales are down, yet museums must continue to pay ongoing operating expenses, including security, insurance, and building maintenance. So it wasn't surprising when one non-traditional museum in Manhattan chose to sell two paintings to help it deal with a persistent budget shortfall.

The culprit: the National Academy Museum, founded in 1825 "to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition." It is an honorary association of American artists, as well as a museum and a school. Members, invited by their peers, have included Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Eakins, Helen Frankenthaler, Winslow Homer, Jasper Johns, Maya Lin, John Singer Sargent, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andrew Wyeth. Incoming artists donate examples of their work to the Academy's collection, which now consists of more than 7,000 works, many of them rarely displayed for lack of space.

The National Academy was in trouble: Although it has an endowment of $10 million and a building on Fifth Avenue, its annual expenses regularly outrun its income. That budget crunch led the Academy to sell two important 19th-century paintings: Church's "Scene on the Magdalene" and Sanford Robinson Gifford's "Mount Mansfield," for about $13.5 million. Member artists, who govern the museum, approved the sale by a vote of 181 to 1 (with one abstention).

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Why should anyone complain about that? Well, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) did. It seems the organization has a strict policy: Museums can only sell from their permanent collections so as to "acquire works of art and enhance a museum's collection." The policy does not allow a museum to sell works to make up a budget shortfall; that would be "treating its collection as a financial asset." The horror!

Making the horror even greater was the suspicion that Alice Walton was secretly behind the purchases of the two paintings. It wouldn't be the first time the Wal-Mart heiress, who is building the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., has crossed the art establishment. In 2007 an article in The Wall Street Journal described her as a "hovering culture vulture, poised to swoop down and seize tasty masterpieces from weak hands" and "a tiger in pussycat's clothing" who "dangles before financially challenged institutions the enticement of an easy, if ethically dicey, alternative to old-fashioned fund raising."

Let's see if we got this right: Alice Walton may want to help a New York museum survive, but in the process paintings could move from Manhattan to (gasp) Arkansas? This must be stopped! The AAMD called on its members "to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaborations on exhibitions with the National Academy"-a move Carmine Branagan, director of the National Academy, described as "a death knell."

The ensuing controversy has riled the art world. Some museum directors, perhaps worried that tough economic times will cause their board members to push for selling holdings, defended the AAMD. The New York Times captured the concern of Graham Beal, director of the hard-pressed Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA): "Since we have four van Goghs, people say why don't we sell one of the van Goghs? . . . It makes perfect sense in the business world, where they're looking for assets to sell the way Ford sold Jaguar."

Many Detroit residents don't know that the DIA, like other major museums, is sitting on millions of dollars worth of paintings that are never displayed, even as Detroit's city government cuts essential services. Critics suggest the AAMD policy is too rigid and could force struggling museums to close altogether. Jack Siegel of the Charity Governance blog suggested it was better for a museum to sell a couple of paintings than "risk being forced to sell all the paintings in a bankruptcy proceeding."

Felix Salmon wrote at Portfolio.com about museums possessing art that they never show and that other museums would rush to exhibit: Why shouldn't the DIA "deaccession" some works? Architect Cesar Pelli, an academy member, told The New York Times that "Museums don't need to be black holes where every work of art that enters them can never leave."

Donn Zaretsky suggested at the Art Law Blog, where much of this debate is taking place, a policy first proposed by cultural consultant Adrian Ellis: "You can -deaccession and spend the money on whatever you want-a new roof, working capital, education programs, or even a boffo night out with your chums on the board-provided that you ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access."

Sickly garments

By Susan Olasky

Next time you see a doctor or nurse walking around town in scrubs or lab coat, keep your distance. Betsy McCaughey, chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID), says those outfits are crawling with germs, particularly Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a deadly bacteria that sickens nearly half a million people a year in the United States. The statistics she cites are frightening: "65 percent of medical personnel confess they change their lab coat less than once a week, though they know it's contaminated. Fifteen percent admit they change it less than once a month. Superbugs such as staph can live on these polyester coats for up to 56 days."

The concerns of McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, should be taken seriously. She writes that when scrub-suited people eat in a restaurant, they transfer the germs to the chairs and table. "You could easily pick it up on your hands and then swallow it with your sandwich," she writes. McCaughey's group advocates that hospitals provide laundered scrubs to all employees and forbid them from wearing the scrubs outside the hospital, citing the experience of hospitals like St. Mary's Health Center in St. Louis and Monroe Hospital in Indiana as examples.

Good losses

By Susan Olasky

Dark cloud, golden lining department: The Picower Foundation, whose $1 billion in assets were managed by the now-infamous Bernard Madoff, closed in December, causing heartburn for some on the feminist left. The Picower Foundation funded at least three pro-abortion groups. According to Salon.com, the Center for Reproductive Rights will be short $600,000; Planned Parenthood, $484,000; and the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, $200,000-totals that could be hard to make up in this challenging economic environment. Crain's New York Business reported that Planned Parenthood had to lay off 30 employees at its national headquarters.

Change they can believe in

By Susan Olasky

Cosmetic surgeons are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. According to the results of the 2008 Economic Impact Survey conducted for the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, 95 percent of cosmetic surgeons were worried about the economic downturn and nearly eight in 10 had already felt the pinch. But USA Today reported an uptick in Botox, micro-dermabrasion, and wrinkle fillers among those headed to inaugural events in Washington, D.C. Doctors in D.C, New York, Boston, and Miami all confirmed the trend. The article noted that some men had gotten treatments, but mostly they were seeing women over 35, including "Washington socialites, professionals in politics who will work and mingle socially with the Obamas . . . journalists, politicians, lobbyists and lawyers."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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