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Bada bing: A hit job on a New Jersey art museum?

April 17, 2009 |  2:39 pm

1913museumfacade

The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece Wednesday that made my eyes bug out. James Panero, managing editor of the conservative culture magazine the New Criterion, claimed that New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum was selling art from its collection in order to shore up endowment funds to secure an outstanding expansion loan.

If true, that deaccessioning practice would be, as Panero asserted, a "sorry example of an institution cashing out on art in the public trust."

Professional standards generally forbid art museums from using their collections as loan collateral. Panero wrote that, in order to get around the restriction, Montclair had decided it would be "selling their art along certain subjective guidelines, earmarking that revenue for future acquisitions, and then using the endowment money raised from the sales to back their loans."

That's shocking, and it set some art blogs that follow deaccession debates aflame. What is his evidence for this breach of public trust? I've read the article five or six times now and -- beyond innuendo -- there is none. It's strictly circumstantial.

The essay is padded with lots of irrelevancies, including past horrible deaccession activities at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery and New York's National Academy Museum, the chaotic current situation at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum, complaints from a former Montclair trustee (20 years back) about other deaccessions years ago and more. It's all guilt-by-association stuff, masquerading as context.

There's also boilerplate about the deaccessioning process, which is a hot-button issue in these economically horrendous times, guaranteed to be noticed. Out of 15 paragraphs, though, just five directly address the extraordinary claim that Montclair decided to deaccession in order to collateralize a tax-exempt bond issue. And those five are holier than Swiss cheese.

How large is the bond Montclair is paying down? Panero doesn't say. It's all of $5 million, issued in the dark days after 9/11.

Nowhere does Panero ask what happens if the museum's endowment falls below a mandated level acceptable to the bank. That happened last year, a museum spokesman told me, when the collapsing economy first took its toll on the endowment; the museum paid "a modest fine," in the form of a slightly increased loan rate from the bank.

Nor does Panero say what amount of money the museum needs to add to its accounts in order to meet the loan requirement. It's about 1 million dollars, the spokesman said. The auction house estimates the sale of art will generate between $2.9 million and $4.3 million -- three or four times the "necessary" amount. How does that square with Panero's claim of a nefarious plot?

Neither did Panero report that he spoke with a representative of the bank to determine what, if any, demands it was making on the institution.

Montclair art museum It's entirely possible that the lender, not the museum, is being loosey-goosey in this difficult economic climate. Perhaps the lender is willing to accept restricted museum-deaccession funds, as well as general endowment funds, as fulfilling the technical requirement; after all, the museum appears to have been a responsible client, meeting the regular payment schedule for more than seven years, including last year's penalty. I have no idea what the lender's position is -- but the point is, apparently neither does Panero. Yet he's making a damaging claim against the museum's reputation, so he should.

I spoke at some length by telephone with Montclair's director, Lora Urbanelli, about the planned deaccessions and the WSJ opinion piece. Pairing her reasonable explanations with Panero's sloppiness, I'm persuaded the article is at best misleading and, at worst, a clumsy hit job. Opinions are nice, but they're better when built atop some reported facts.

Could the museum director have been jiving me? Sure (it wouldn't be the first time). But mind reading is an entertainment for the carnival sideshow, not for journalists. It's the essay that doesn't pass the smell test, because the preternatural feat of mind reading is precisely what the author of the poorly reported opinion piece engaged in. Panero has assigned definitive motive, but so far it appears to be based on nothing but bad faith.

The final time I read the piece my eyes bugged out again, but this time not because of anything the Montclair Art Museum had done.

-- Christopher Knight

Images: 1913 rendering and current photo. Credit: Montclair Art Museum

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