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San Diego museum leader criticizes OCMA's sale of paintings

June 18, 2009 |  3:50 pm

HughDavies Saying it was an "unexpected and uncollegial" move by Dennis Szakacs — a museum director he likes and respects — the veteran director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego has added his voice to a chorus of critics of the Orange County Museum of Art's recent quiet sale of 18 California Impressionist paintings to an anonymous private collector.

And the chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento joined two small Orange County museums that showcase early California art on the list of institutions disappointed they didn't get to bid on OCMA's cache -- and hopeful of acquiring it if the buyer decides to donate or resell them.


“I don’t want to cause pain and suffering for my friend and colleague Dennis,” Hugh Davies, the San Diego museum director, said Wednesday. “I’m doing it because there’s a larger issue at stake here: civic behavior and collegiality. If that gets eroded, it’s dangerous.”

The civic lapse, as Davies and other critics see it, is the decision to sell the early 20th century paintings to a private buyer rather than taking pains to see that they remained in a collection open to the public. Szakacs has said the paintings were sold in March to a Laguna Beach collector known to champion the style and who has lent works to museums.

Acknowledging that OCMA may have sacrificed transparency, he has said an important motivation for the private sale was a wish to keep the paintings in Orange County rather than risk an auction that could disperse them. The buyer had no previous connection to OCMA, he said, and the money is being used in keeping with museum world guidelines that consider it unethical to sell — or “deaccession” — holdings from a collection except to raise money to buy artworks.

Asked to respond to Davies’ criticism, Szakacs, who is traveling, said by e-mail Thursday that “the OCMA process was appropriate and respectful of professional guidelines and the right decision for our institution.” He noted once more that the abundance of other California Impressionist works in local museums played into OCMA’s decision to sell its group to a private collector.

SpringintheCanyon The sales price -- $963,000 -- also has raised eyebrows among dealers who specialize in California Impressionists. They say that two key works, William Wendt's "Spring in the Canyon" and Granville Redmond's "Silver and Gold," could each alone have fetched that much. Szakacs said OCMA wanted to "move forward on our own timetable" toward acquiring new art in a buyers' market, rather than risk a public auction or wait for other museums to raise money.

Like other critics, Davies, the San Diego Museum's director since 1983, agreed that OCMA had a good reason to deaccession paintings from a genre it no longer exhibits or collects, having shifted its focus six years ago to post-1950 art. But first, he said, OCMA should have donated or struck a deal with the Laguna Art Museum, where the paintings were housed for years before going up the coast a few miles to Newport Beach in a 1996 merger. If that didn't work out, Davies said, OCMA should have offered them to its other neighbor, the Irvine Museum, which specializes in California Impressionists. Both Bolton Colburn, the Laguna museum director, and Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum, have criticized OCMA for not giving their institutions a shot at acquiring the works.

Funneling the paintings to the Laguna Art Museum should have been OCMA’s priority, said Davies, a former president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, because “to have the history of your community captured in a public art museum is a very important civic art function.”

Because the sold paintings hark back to Laguna Beach’s beginnings as an art colony and were donated by the artists or their friends and heirs, he said, “there is a local umbilical connection ... . This is literally the patrimony of that community, and you take it very seriously.”

Szakacs Szakacs and OCMA’s board of directors, which approved the sale, should have taken that into account, Davies said, even if it meant waiting while the Laguna museum tried to raise money. 

Davies was among the first outside observers to publicly condemn Barry Munitz, head of the J. Paul Getty Trust, when Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribbon resigned suddenly in 2004. Munitz later resigned as well amid allegations that he had misspent funds and mismanaged the world’s biggest visual-arts institution.

Now, Davies said, it’s important for museum leaders to shine a light on and debate controversial deaccessioning practices because “in this economy there is tremendous pressure on museums to sell their assets, their collections. Business people [who often dominate museum boards] look on these as fungible assets; they don’t look at them as cultural patrimony, held in a trust. That kind of cannibalization is very short-term, a quick fix that takes people off the hook in terms of raising money.”

Art museums typically rely on gifts more than purchases to build their collections, and Davies worries that the spigot of donated works will go dry if private owners come to view museums as willing to sell off art whenever the economic going gets tough.

"Dennis is an absolutely first-rate museum director, there’s no question about it,” Davies said, and he probably will make excellent acquisitions with the money from the paintings. But, he added, “I wouldn’t want to be in Dennis’ position right now. This is why public institutions, as much as possible, keep things transparent. It’s the old mantra: ‘Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to read in the newspaper.’ ”

Jenkins Shannon, executive director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, which organizes and hosts exhibitions but does not collect art, said the OCMA deaccession makes her “feel very uncomfortable. I was very surprised that those 18 pieces didn’t sell for more, and I’m disappointed that other collectors and art institutions didn’t have the opportunity to bid. Whenever transactions are done in secret it raises questions. It leaves us wondering why they were doing it this way.”

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art also collects California Impressionists and has works by Wendt, Redmond, Guy Rose and others. A spokeswoman, Allison Agsten, said Thursday that “we typically don’t comment on the activities of other museums.”

In Sacramento, the Crocker Art Museum’s associate director and chief curator, Scott Shields, says he’s been shopping recently for California Impressionists. It’s a weak link in the museum’s comprehensive California art collection that he hopes to have bolstered by October 2010, when a $100-million wing is due to open, more than tripling the Crocker’s size from 50,000 square feet to 175,000 square feet.

Shields said he would like the chance to make a pitch for acquiring the OCMA 18 from their new owner. “We’d be able to show them all. It would fill in a key part of the story, and be up all the time.”

He said the Crocker has bought 15 California Impressionists over the last six months. “Overall, the market is down right now, but I think the great pieces still fetch high prices, and the pieces we want haven’t dipped that much.” Asked whether the $963,000 OCMA received for its paintings was a good return, Shields chuckled and said, “I think that was a pretty good deal for the buyer. I wish I had that deal.”

-- Mike Boehm

Related stories:

OCMA sells paintings to private collector, prompting criticism

Laguna museum hopes to beg or buy 18 paintings OCMA sold

Dogging the Orange County Museum's surprise Redmond sale

No more coasting for OCMA

Photos, from top: Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; "Spring in the Canyon" by William Wendt; Dennis Szakacs, director of the Orange County Museum of Art.

Credits, from top: Yvonne Venegas / MCASD; Laguna Museum of Art; Los Angeles Times

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