DIA Director: Museums Should Step Very Carefully 'In Times of Crisis'

September 04, 2014, 5:58 PM

This "director's letter," posted in full, is the top item in this month's Detroit Institute of Arts newsletter. It was distributed Thursday afternoon by email and will be posted online.  

By Graham W. J. Beal

There are those who assert that selling a couple of works to save the institution is a reasonable thing to do, as has come up in the Detroit bankruptcy case. But a sudden influx of cash to address a financial bind doesn't solve anything.

Recently, there has been a lot in the press about the Delaware Art Museum's determination to sell as many as three of its most notable artworks to pay off debts incurred through an ambitious expansion about a decade ago. The first, William Holman Hunt's Pot of Basil, has already been sold.

"The museum and the community are being stripped of their masterpieces -- its very reason for being," Graham Beal says of the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington.

While hardly a household name, Hunt was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young painters who, in 1848, challenged the British art establishment with a vision entirely at odds with accepted practices. Because their brightly colored, meticulously detailed style was also at odds with most forms of modernism, their fall from prominence was precipitous and long- lasting. Now they are back in fashion with a vengeance and the Delaware trustees hoped to get $8 million out of the painting -- almost half the debt. It sold for $4 million, probably creating the need to sell more than the two already assigned for sale: a Winslow Homer painting and an Alexander Calder sculpture.

The museum and the community are being stripped of their masterpieces -- its very reason for being. The debt may be satisfied but patrons may be scared away and a new shadow cast over the museum.

A few years ago, rather than address the structural problems causing annual operational deficits, the National Academy of Design (NAD) -- the oldest art museum in the country founded by some of the nation's most important artists -- sold two paintings, one given by an original member!

There were alternatives that would have entailed sacrifice. But selling art did not solve the [Manhattan museum's] problem, and a few weeks ago, the NAD let go a significant portion of its staff.

In the Great Depression, the DIA remained open and staffed, largely thanks to the secret support of Edsel Ford. The City of Detroit arts commissioners could have sold the van Gogh self-portrait, Matisse's The Window, Ruisdael's Jewish Cemetery, or even Breugel's Wedding Dance, but the thought never seems to have crossed anyone's mind.

And if they had, not only would we not have them today, we would not have been given much of the art that came from private donors or the financial contributions that enabled so many purchases. Why give to a museum that, in times of crisis, converts your treasured donation into cash to make up for failed fundraising, bad management or poor fiduciary judgment?

Read more:  Detroit Institute of Arts

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