Jackson Pollock, “Red Composition,” 1946

Faced with vocal criticism and new legal challenges, the Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse, New York, is defending its decision to deaccession a prized painting by Jackson Pollock to fund the diversification of its collection.

Pollock’s “Red Composition” (1946), one of the earliest examples of the artist’s distinctive drip technique, had been in the Everson Museum’s collection since 1991 when it was donated by the late Dorothy and Marshall Reisman. This September, the museum announced plans to auction the piece at Christie’s Evening Sale of 20th and 21st Century Art in New York to finance the acquisition of work by artists of color and women artists. Funds from the sale of the painting, which was estimated to realize between $12 million and $18 million, would also go toward maintaining objects already in the museum’s collection.

The Everson’s decision to sell the painting drew cheers from some and ire from others. Following the museum’s announcement, op-eds written by Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times and Terry Teachout for the Wall Street Journal were highly critical of the sale. Knight wrote that when the museum announced the sale, “it was obvious that museum officials were worried — and maybe more than a little embarrassed — by the inexcusable move they were about to make.”

On October 6, “Red Composition” sold at the lower end of its estimate, $13 million, to an anonymous bidder. However, there was a hiccup with the highly anticipated sale. A note on the Christie’s website states: “This lot is the subject of a petition filed with the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Education challenging that Department’s approval of the work’s deaccession under New York regulations.” While the museum chose to move forward with the auction in spite of this, finalization of the sale “will not occur until the challenge is resolved,” Christie’s said.

When asked for additional information about the petition, a Christie’s representative told Hyperallergic: “The petitioner has abandoned his claims against the Dept of Education as they relate to both the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum of Art.”

The petition, which is dated September 30 and was filed by Pierre Ciric, alleges that the New York State Department of Education violated the New York public trust doctrine when it approved deaccessions by three state museums. The document refers to the Everson Museum, which sold the Pollock to fund the diversification of its collection; the Brooklyn Museum, which jettisoned 12 works at Christie’s this month to finance the care of other collection works; and the Georgi Museum in Salem, which auctioned off several pieces of furniture to pay for the maintenance of the museum’s facilities and collection.

Removing these prized artworks from the public domain, the petitioner argued, would cause “immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damages” to the New York public. The petitioner claimed that none of the cases met the 10 criteria for deaccession in New York and underscored that during the strains of the 2008 financial crisis the state implemented rules that blocked museums from using their collections as collateral.

“Because the Commissioner may be required to rule on an appeal or appeals arising from this issue under section 310 of the NYS Education Law, we cannot comment,” department officials told Hyperallergic.

The topic of museum deaccessioning has been hotly contested in museums across the US, in the wake of the Association of American Museum Directors’ loosening of restrictions regarding the sale of works during the pandemic. Just last week, the Brooklyn Museum announced its intent to sell 10 additional deaccessioned works, including pieces by Matisse and Monet, at Sotheby’s later this month.

On October 15, nine days after the Jackson Pollock painting was auctioned, the Everson Museum Board of Trustees President Jessica Arb Danial spoke in support of the sale in an article published by the Art Newspaper.

“While fine arts experts and critics may try to shame the Everson and other like-minded museums for the decision to deaccession for the purpose of creating an endowment to diversify the collection, these voices are echoing decades of status quo art history textbook and gallery etiquette, rather than the realities we are living today,” Danial said.

“We are slowly building a collection relevant to our community, with art that is representative, inspirational, and more current than ever before–an accomplishment, to me, that is greater than any single piece in the collection.”

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