LACMA says it’s judiciously pruning collections

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is pruning its wardrobe -- literally -- having placed more than 100 items from its costumes and textiles collection for auction on Feb. 8 and 9 by Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles.

Among the offerings, according to Bonhams, are garments that belonged to actress Rosalind Russell during the 1950s, a sequined Geoffrey Beene dress that’s expected to fetch $300 to $500, and a black wool cocktail dress from about 1950 by Edith Head (right).


The elegant discards are ‘works that were stored in a warehouse, of which we have better examples,’ said Barbara Pflaumer, the musuem’s spokeswoman. The sale has nothing to do with LACMA’s recent acquisition of a coveted trove of European clothing from the 18th and 19th centuries, Pflaumer said. ‘It’s part of an ongoing project to reevaluate our collection. As we go forward, we are looking at it with ... a more gimlet eye.’

Clothes from LACMA’s collection representing California’s pioneer past and the Old West were donated recently to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and the Autry National Center of the American West, she said, because they dovetailed with those institutions’ historical interests. Also, a number of the dresses by the designer James Galanos that Nancy Reagan gave LACMA in 1996 for an exhibition of his work have been regifted to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

LACMA’s conversion of threads to cash will closely follow a Jan. 29 auction in New York at which Sotheby’s will try to gavel away paintings from the museum’s collection by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Joshua Reynolds. Sotheby’s expects Cranach’s 1518 ‘Portrait of a Bearded Young Man’ to fetch $600,000 to $800,000, and the estimate for Reynolds’ 1775 painting of St. Cecilia (left) -- which William Randolph Hearst donated in 1949 -- is $700,000 to $900,000.

Proceeds from the two auctions will go toward buying other artworks, says LACMA’s director, Michael Govan -- and are part of a continuous process of ‘sift and sort,’ by which he says the museum aims to improve its holdings. ‘It has nothing to do with the economic times.’

Selling works pruned from a museum collection, known in the field as deaccessioning, is considered OK under national museum organizations’ ethical guidelines as long as the proceeds go to buy other art.

But some museum watchers’ radar has been on extra-high alert recently. First, word got out that leaders at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art were willing at least to consider selling artworks if their financial crisis got bad enough. Then it transpired that the National Academy Museum in New York had done just that to cover its debts -- drawing a quick official censure from the Assn. of Art Museum Directors.

LACMA caught heat in the fall of 2005 when it sold 42 works through Sotheby’s, with the goal of raising $10 million or more for other art purchases. The works sold included paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, Camille Pissarro and Max Beckmann, sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore, and works on paper by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Edgar Degas.

Times art critic Christopher Knight challenged curators’ judgment that the museum possessed better examples by those artists and could thus part with the surplus. It was, he wrote, ‘as if collecting an artist in depth were somehow foolish ... and as if museum art collections have no useful function unless composed of unquestioned masterpieces.’ Besides, Knight noted, ‘tastes change, knowledge is not finite,’ and what might seem expendable in the present could come to be viewed by posterity as an essential work.

In any case, LACMA is willing to make its judgments and take its chances, year in and year out. Financial statements on the museum’s website show that it earned $15.1 million from deaccessioning in 2005-06, when the Modigliani, Picasso, et al. went on the block. The take from deaccessioning dipped the following year to $1.6 million, about average for most of the last few years. But in 2007-08, proceeds from pruning the collection were up again, to $3.9 million.

-- Mike Boehm

redits: Hollywood Museum (Head); Museum Associates/LACMA (Reynolds).