The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) will sell one of its two oil paintings by artist Edward Hopper and use the money raised to increase acquisitions, particularly of contemporary art.
The museum announced the move in a press release yesterday, explaining that the sale of the Hopper, a painting titled “East Wind Over Weekhawken” (1934), “will go into the new acquisitions endowment, quintupling the funds generated annually for the purchase of art.” A good chunk of that money will be used to buy contemporary art, an area in which the museum’s collection is currently weak. The PAFA will also hire a dedicated contemporary art curator and add two new board members with contemporary expertise.
The painting in question is an oil from 1934 titled “East Wind Over Weehawken,” a cloudy scene of a street in New Jersey, where, now presciently, a “For Sale” sign stands in the foreground. The museum will sell the work through Christie’s in December, with an estimate of $22–28 million. Its press release notes that the it will keep “the more important” of its two Hoppers, a 1923 work titled “Apartment Houses.”
In the release, PAFA Museum Director Harry Philbrick explains:
“We are going back to our tradition of actively collecting contemporary art. Just as we purchased Apartment Houses when Hopper was still an emerging artist, we will use the proceeds from the endowment to build a broad base of the works of today’s emerging and mid-career artists, and tomorrow’s.”
Philbrick elaborated on this in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying that even though contemporary acquisitions are “a crapshoot,” he sees it as worth the risk. “If we don’t purchase anything, we’re not going to get it right at all,” he said.
Many people disagree. Reactions from critics have been generally negative:
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will sell an Edward Hopper for “a crapshoot”? Sheesh. http://t.co/Zx6rq3hV6E
— Christopher Knight (@KnightLAT) August 28, 2013
— Lee Rosenbaum (@CultureGrrl) August 28, 2013
Deborah Solomon tweeted in the same vein, inspiring a fascinating Twitter conversation between her and writer Joyce Carol Oates. Oates argued that the painting should take its place among other Hoppers in a more “major” museum, which is a nice but likely impossible idea. The concern among critics of the sale is that the Hopper will end up in private hands, where no public will benefit from it. The PAFA caused a similar deaccession stir in 2007, when it sold Thomas Eakins’s “The Cello Player” to help pay for a half share in another Eakins; “The Cello Player” is now owned privately.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art announced just a few days ago that it had acquired a Hopper of its own, “Blackwell’s Island” (1928), which it bought for $19.1 million at Christie’s in May. So the $22–28 million estimate doesn’t seem far off. Is there a museum out there that has the money and the prerogative to buy “East Wind Over Weehawken”? Larger museums that have the funds but already own Hoppers might not be interested; smaller ones might want the piece but lack the money.
It’s exciting and admirable that the PAFA wants to support living artists, but one can’t help wishing they’d sell some other, less important work — which of course wouldn’t do, since the whole point is to raise a lot of money. Maybe Crystal Bridges needs another?
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