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New York museum returns to good graces after ban for selling art to pay bills

October 18, 2010 |  4:55 pm

ChurchPaintingSceneMagdalene After nearly two years of museum-world ostracism because it sold two prized 19th century American landscape paintings for about $15 million to relieve a financial crisis, Manhattan’s venerable National Academy Museum & School is being accepted back into the good graces of North America’s leading professional association for art museums.

The Assn. of Art Museum Directors announced Monday that the sanctions it imposed Dec. 5, 2008, have been suspended, “in recognition of the steps the Academy has taken toward better governance, financial planning and management.”

Art loans and collaboration between 180 AAMD member museums and the National Academy can resume, although the National Academy remains on five years of probation in which the museum directors’ association will review progress annually toward “continued institutional advancement.”  The National Academy’s galleries are currently closed for renovation and due to reopen in September 2011.

When Lee Rosenbaum broke the story of the sale on her CultureGrrl arts blog, the academy’s director, Carmine Branagan, told her that “we had a choice of selling or becoming part of the dustbin of history.”

As yet unanswered is when or whether the two sold paintings, Frederic Edwin Church’s “Scene on the Magdalene” (1854) (pictured) and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “Mount Mansfield, Vermont” (1859) might re-emerge from a private owner’s wall and again become available to scholars and the viewing public.

Keeping art for the public's enjoyment and study is the reason for having  tax-exempt art museums in the first place, and failing to do that in the case of the Church and Gifford paintings is what brought down sanctions on the National Academy.  Saying it was “breaching one of the most basic and important … principles by treating its collection as a financial asset rather than the cornerstone of research, exhibition and public programming,” the AAMD called on the 180 art museum directors who make up its membership to suspend loans of art to the National Academy Museum and refuse to collaborate with it on exhibitions and other projects.

The AAMD’s voluntary guidelines say it’s OK for museums to sell works from their collections – “deaccessioning,” in art world lingo – but only if the money raised goes toward buying other works of art that directors and curators think would be a better fit.


The National Academy Museum's collection consists of about 7,000 artworks given to it by the artists and architects who have been invited to join it as “academicians” since its founding in 1825. 

With academician status came voting rights – and the sale of the Church and Gifford paintings was a decision made by artists, in a 183-1 vote of the 370 members. The financial emergency that prompted the sale led Robert A. Levinson, vice chariman of the National Academy’s non-voting advisory board, to complain to the New York Times that financial control should be taken from the artist members. “They just live in another world and don’t understand fiduciary responsibility,” he said.

Indeed, the National Academy's director, Branagan, said Monday that the system has changed: A board of governors, with 11 academicians and 10 others chosen to bring "the necessary experience and expertise we need" is now the key decision-maker. Artworks can now be sold only if the 21-member board recommends it, she said, and a majority of the full body of academy members approves it as well. Under a new policy, artworks won't be sold to pay for operating or capital expenses. Also, Branagan said, an institution that had done no ongoing fundraising beyond an annual gala, relying instead on tuition income from its school, is now seeking donors and has adopted another standard practice among arts nonprofits by requiring its board members to make annual contributions.

When the AAMD imposed the sanctions nearly two years ago, it was viewed by some as a shot across the bow for trustees of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, who at the time were believed to have put selling artworks on their table of options in digging out of the museum's own financial crisis. Around the same time, the trustees of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., touched off a furor by voting to sell the entire contemporary art collection of its Rose Art Museum – a decision it has not yet been implemented.

When the Orange County Museum of Art controversially sold some of its early 20th century California Impressionist holdings to a private collector in 2009, the AAMD did not complain, because the museum was using the money to buy more of the contemporary art that is now its focus. Controversy centered  on whether OCMA got a fair price, and whether it should have given other museums a chance to meet its price before selling to a private collector.

The AAMD also has excused the humdinger of all deaccessions, at least in recent memory: the Hammer Museum’s 1994 sale of the Leicester Codex, Leonardo Da Vinci’s manuscript on the properties of water, which brought $28 million at auction.

In 2001, the AAMD ruled that it was OK for the Hammer to use money it received from that sale for purposes other than acquiring artworks. There were two reasons: One was the Hammer’s difficult childhood – it had been orphaned and placed in an uncertain legal position shortly after its 1990 opening by of the death of its founder, oil tycoon Armand Hammer. The other was that, in the AAMD’s opinion, the Codex was not a work of art. The manuscript continues to be on display from time to time, as its owner, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, loans it to museums around the world. It has yet to return to L.A.

-- Mike Boehm

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 Photo: Frederic Edwin Church's "Scene on the Magdalene." Credit: National Academy Museum.

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