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Long Beach, meet Josef Stalin

June 19, 2009 |  3:00 pm

LBMA Wichner2

City officials are threatening to sell paintings from the collection of the Long Beach Museum of Art to pay off a $3-million construction bond that comes due in September. Not since Josef Stalin has a civic fiscal plan been quite so dumb.

During the winter of 1929-30, as stock markets crashed and the Great Depression brought the global economy to its knees, the Soviet dictator put into action a scheme to raise hard currency — and fast. Trolling through the vast art collections of the Hermitage Museum, a staggering czarist accumulation that had been nationalized by the Russian revolution, Stalin consummated plans to sell paintings to collectors in the West.

A young Armand Hammer, then doing business in Moscow, was approached, but he was a bit green. A better bet was Andrew W. Mellon, the super-rich Pittsburgh banker, industrialist and art collector who was also the controversial Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Mellon bought 21 Hermitage paintings in 1930 and 1931, among them Raphael's “Alba Madonna,” Botticelli's “Adoration of the Magi,” Titian's “Venus With a Mirror” and Van Eyck's “Annunciation.” Later faced with tax problems and threatened impeachment, Mellon accelerated his aim to build a National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to polish up his legacy. The Hermitage purchases posthumously became a core of the museum's collection.

Stalin, though, didn't make out quite so well. A year after the sales, the money (some $7 million) was spent, the Soviet Union was still broke, the state's five-year plans weren't panning out, brutal purges were being planned — and the art was gone, never to return.

The Long Beach Museum doesn't own any Raphaels or Titians. It is a small, neighborhood institution that grew out of a municipal art center founded in the optimistic years after World War II. But it can claim an adventurous if sporadic history of artistic achievement. One peak came in 1979, when lawyer and art collector Milton Wichner bequeathed his collection of 61 European Modern paintings, prints and drawings to the seaside museum.

The Wichner Collection is focused on three of the so-called Blue Four — the American Lyonel Feininger and Russia's Vasily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky. (Paul Klee is not included, but additional works by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Fischinger are.) Wichner was the attorney for Los Angeles art dealer Galka Scheyer, Jawlensky's closest friend and staunchest supporter. Thirty-six Jawlensky works came to Long Beach, spanning his emergence in the 1910s to 1938, when severe arthritis forced him to stop painting.

Jawlensky Late Summer 1928 LBMA Now, if Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster and City Councilman Patrick O'Donnell carry out their threat, that art would appear to be in jeopardy.

What is it worth, monetarily speaking? Next week's Modern art sales at Christie's London office include four Jawlensky paintings, three of them comparable to what's in Long Beach. (Two of the three are being sold by heirs of the late Hollywood producer Ray Stark.) Estimates range from a low of $411,000 to a high of $750,000.

The sale also includes a modest 1930 Kandinsky, its high estimate just below $1 million. The Long Beach Kandinsky, currently installed on the second floor next to four Jawlensky landscapes (above), is an elegant, equally fine, mostly black, white and gray 1935 study of the spatial tensions among geometric forms, painted in France after the artist was forced to leave Germany when Hitler shuttered the Bauhaus for good.

So if the city forced a sale from the museum's most important collections, the bond money could probably be raised. Under a cooperative agreement, the city of Long Beach owns the museum and 1,400 works of art acquired prior to 1985, including the Wichner Collection.

The question is, to what end? Why would the mayor and city council want to punish the public, which effectively owns the art collection, by selling off some of its best and most profound work to pay bills? It's a foolish, dare I say “Stalin-esque” short-term answer to a problem exacerbated by the bigger fiscal mess of the state and the nation.

The Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation owns the rest of the collection and handles day-to-day operations. Neither the foundation nor the city has a spotless museum record.

Last year a city audit discovered improper museum expenditure of funds earmarked to pay off bond-debt for the 12,000-square-foot, $6.5-million new pavilion that opened in 2000. On the other hand, since at least the 1970s the city had offered up and then reneged on multiple plans for its art museum, from an I.M. Pei-designed complex to inclusion in a new civic center design. The city also agreed to back the current outstanding bond.

LBMA pavilion The museum reportedly owes at least two months of bond-interest, but it can't refinance without city aid. City director of financial management Lori Ann Farrell told the Long Beach Press-Telegram last month that refinancing would be too costly.

She's wrong. There would seem to be plenty of blame to go around for the current fiscal dilemma — and stalemate — if apportioning blame were any way to come to a resolution. But since it's not, it's worth considering just what “too costly” might mean.

Museum director Ron Nelson told The Times that selling art from the collection to pay bills will effectively destroy any future capacity to receive the kind of magnanimous gift that Wichner made 30 years ago. He's right. And although California economic news is grim, Chapman University has forecast recovery to be felt next year.

Wichner gave the art he loved to the public, believing and receiving assurances that the city museum would protect it. If the city and the museum can no longer figure out how to do that, then transfer the collection to an institution that can. Just don't take it out on us by selling off our art, which can never be replaced.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Top, Alexei Jawlensky landscapes, 1916-1918, and Vasily Kandinsky "Points," 1935. Credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times

Middle, Alexei Jawlensky, "Late Summer," 1928. Credit: Long Beach Museum of Art

Bottom, the new pavilion at the Long Beach Museum of Art. Credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times

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