More than 75 art historians, curators, and scholars have signed an open letter against an upcoming sale of works from the collection of the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey, as reported by the Art Newspaper. The letter, which was reviewed by Hyperallergic, denounces the “senseless monetization” of 17 pieces slated to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s next week, including paintings by Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler.
The letter’s co-authors are William L. Coleman, a former curator of American art at the museum; author and historian Tyler Green; and a third collaborator who has asked to remain anonymous. The trio laments the loss of one work in particular — Thomas Cole’s “The Arch of Nero” (1846), an oil on canvas depiction of the Roman arch that has been interpreted as an admonition of tyrannical rule.
“The painting urges Americans to be on guard against the dilution and potential dissolution of their republican experiment,” the authors write. “For northeasterners such as Cole, the prime source of corruption of American republicanism was the Southern slavocracy and its unjust influence within the federal government.” Cole’s work is expected to fetch between $500,000 and $700,000, making it among the most valuable in the trove.
“We beseech you to cancel the self-diminishment and monetization of Newark’s art,” the letter concludes. “Take this opportunity to tell the intertwined story of art and the American nation better and louder than before.”
Among the letter’s signatories are Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, and James K. Ballinger, director emeritus of the Phoenix Art Museum, both past presidents of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).
In an email to Coleman provided to Hyperallergic, Newark Museum of Art director Linda Harrison stood by the decision, explaining that it had been approved by the museum’s curators, registrars, and board of trustees following an eight-month review. The 17 artworks selected for sale represent less than one-fifth of 1% of the Museum’s 130,000 objects, she added, and the Hudson River School movement — to which Cole’s “Arch of Nero” belongs — is strongly represented throughout the collection.
Ben Martin, a spokesperson for the Newark Museum of Art, told Hyperallergic that proceeds from the sale will go toward a permanent fund for long-term care of the collection, and to help “offset the economic impact of the pandemic.”
“The decision precisely follows the guidelines set forth by the Association of Art Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), as well as the Museum’s Collection Management Policy, and comes with the support of local, state and federal elected officials and the President of the AAMD,” Martin said.
“For museums, thinking about the future also requires reconsidering the past. For our Museum, with its 112-year history, we need to cast a critical eye on outdated and harmful narratives that have hung in our galleries without enough questions being asked,” he added.
The missive comes in the midst of a heated debate around museum deaccessioning, or selling artworks in public collections. Proponents defend the practice as a source of much-needed funding at a challenging time for the sector, but critics fear institutions will come to depend on deaccessioning money for operational expenses, liquidating their most prized assets at the public’s expense. Last year, the Baltimore Museum of Art faced a wave of backlash when it announced the sale of three paintings by Clyfford Still, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden from its collection to support staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions by underrepresented artists. Succumbing to public pressure, the institution canceled the sale on the day of the auction.
There are many arguments against the current spate of museum deaccessions (sale of works of art from permanent collections). Among the least often cited is the irreparable damage to public trust among past, current and future donors of art works. Private donors have long been the principal source of acquisitions, especially for works of art of high value and lasting importance–almost always the case for the very art works defining the unique strengths, identity and quality of an institution. And while most museums will avoid deaccessioning their most iconic works, the chilling effect of selling past gifts from private donors (importantly, including gifts by artists of their own and fellow artists’ work) operates insistently in the increasingly small and rarified world of major art donors.
Museum directors should take their cues from professional conservators: do no harm but also do nothing that cannot be reversed. Deaccessioning is irreversible and exigencies of the present moment deny future directors and curators the ability to build on an absent past. “The past is prologue” as our National Archives tells us with an inscription at its entrance. I would argue, it’s why we even have museums and why deaccessioning is fundamentally self-destructive–acts of institutional arrogance, curatorial blindness, and regretful futures absent donors of great artworks.
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