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Delaware museum criticized for saying it must sell art or die

Arts and CultureArtArtistsMuseumsUnrest, Conflicts and WarBusinessThe Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

North America’s leading professional organization for art museums isn’t buying the hard-luck story advanced by the Delaware Art Museum, which this week announced it will sell four as-yet unidentified valuable works from its collection to bail itself out of a financial bind.

The museum in Wilmington, which focuses primarily on American art from the 19th century to the present and British pre-Raphaelites of the 1800s, says the sale, which it intends to complete within six months, will raise an estimated $30 million — enough to stabilize its finances while paying off $19.8 million in construction debt from a wing that opened in 2005. 

The Delaware Art Museum said it explored “all reasonable options” for solving its financial problems without selling the art, including seeking “guidance” from the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. But its board announced Wednesday that it had decided "with heavy hearts but clear minds" to sell rather than shut down.

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The AAMD’s response in a written statement Thursday said it doesn’t believe the Delaware museum has no alternative but selling art and urged its board to think again.

“The AAMD remains hopeful that … the Delaware Art Museum will further consider the many problems, reputational as well as operational, that can arise” if a sale goes through, the announcement said.

The text didn’t explicitly threaten sanctions, but just two weeks ago the AAMD, whose guidelines are not legally binding, imposed sanctions on the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in Virginia because it had sold George Bellows’ 1912 painting “Men on the Docks” to the National Gallery of Art in London to raise $25.5 million to meet the college's general expenses. The AAMD urged the museum world not to cooperate with the Maier Museum, including a ban on loans of artworks for its exhibitions.

Selling collection items is not considered unethical as long as the proceeds go back into the collection itself — used to buy other works a museum’s leaders consider more desirable or more in keeping with its collecting objectives. But the museum profession considers it taboo to barter art for cash to pay any other kinds of expenses — as Randolph College did and the Delaware museum intends to do.

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The reason, as the AAMD pointed out in its response to the Delaware situation, comes down to trust. The economics of art museums make it virtually impossible to cover expenses with earned income from admissions and profits from museum stores and cafeterias. They need donations to survive, and given the high price of certifiably museum-quality art, it's extremely unlikely that their collections will grow and flourish if private collectors stop donating or bequeathing important works.

Take away trust that a donated artwork is coming to a permanent home where it will be accessible to the public and to scholars (or at least will be used to fund more desirable future art purchases), and prospective art donors might wonder why they should bother giving their pride and joy to a museum. If a museum’s collection is deemed fungible, it raises the question of why private donors or government agencies should fund its operations when it could earn its own keep by selling valuable holdings — making a business practice of using its expertise and connections to identify underpriced art that’s likely to appreciate in value, then turn around and sell high.

The Delaware Art Museum’s situation calls to mind a comparable L.A. area case from 40 years ago. The Pasadena Art Museum had gotten in over its head financially by borrowing to build a new venue it couldn’t afford, which opened in 1969.

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According to a 1975 essay in Artforum by the Pasadena Art Museum’s former senior curator, John Coplans, in 1974 a faction of the museum board urged selling collection pieces to solve its financial woes. The proposal was “barely defeated,” Coplans wrote, and a group of board members instead reached out to Norton Simon, a prominent collector and vastly wealthy businessman, in “a last desperate plea.”

Coplans in fact bemoaned Simon’s 1974 takeover, saying it turned the museum into “the private economic plaything of a rich man.” Lovers of contemporary art were unhappy with Simon, who wasn’t interested in post World War II art and changed the museum’s emphasis.

Simon did, in fact, sell some pieces from the collection he took over but not to pay the museum’s bills. The proceeds went toward purchasing other works for the Norton Simon Museum, which is now considered to harbor perhaps the most consistently outstanding array of art on the West Coast.

L.A.’s disenfranchised contemporary art lovers soon set about launching the Museum of Contemporary Art, whose collection of post-World War II art has largely come from donors and is considered one of the world’s finest. The question of selling art to pay expenses came up on MOCA’s board during its 2008 financial crisis. The idea did not go far.

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