Should a Museum Be Able to Sell Its Works of Art

In a recent article in the NY Times, Julia Jacobs reports that the self-governed Association of Art Museum Directors voted 54% in favour of allowing the sale from their collections to pay for the preservation of other parts of their collection.   The devil’s advocate might wonder whether this means that the Chief-Curator and the entire curatorial staff can get paid from the proceeds of selling off a few unpopular works of art?  Is this the classic slippery slope?

I can appreciate that the COVID19 pandemic had a major impact on museums and galleries across the world.  With attendance and ticket revenue at zero for a number of months, a great many public museums relied on governments to step up and cover the shortfall.  Loans, grants and one-time funding were part of the short-term life-raft that many institutions needed to survive.

But this blog is not about the COVID19 pandemic, or museums struggling with attendance, but about whether the bond between the donor of work – often the artist – and the recipient of the donation – the museum – can be severed.  Does a museum ever have the right to sell work that has been given, or acquired?

Is it a reasonable expectation that an artist who donates work to a museum can expect future generations to be able to view their work in perpetuity?  While the museum may not be required to always have the work on display, is it a reasonable expectation that the work should at least be available from the stacks to be viewed by researchers, or other interested parties?

Many museum directors have voiced opinions about the new policy, but this is not a discussion for one museum, or the next, but rather whether it is a reasonable expectation on the part of the artist that forever actually means forever.  That a gift is permanent and cannot be sold to either buy other work, pay salaries, or keep the lights on.

In a recent auction sale at Hindman in Chicago, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts sold a group of Eugène Atget Photographs.  There was much celebration surrounding the successful sale.  One might argue that in the photography realm, doubles of the same photograph exist and perhaps having the right to sell doubles would be acceptable, but where does this stop.  The tip of the iceberg, perhaps?

I know several photographers who are working feverishly not to leave their heirs the challenge of finding a home for their work.  They are attempting to settles their estate during their lifetime and being happy in the knowledge that a gift to a great museum is going to give them and their descendents eternal peace of mind.  However, the new policy from the Association of Art Museum Directors and perhaps future decisions by this self-governed association, may well suggest that any gift or donation, or acquisition comes with an * giving consent to unilaterally sell it later.

Imagine if a photographer’s work falls out of fashion, and can be sold to the highest bidder because a Director, or Board of Directors, says it is appropriate to do so to pay for the salary of a new curator, or a new frame for a work by another artist.  What is a reasonable expectation?

Can one museum be deserving of our confidence, while others are ‘maybes’, and yet others are outright ‘high-risk’.  What is the Government’s role in preserving our past and not bowing to trends, pressure groups, or political correctness.  It is one thing not to show particular work, but selling it, or worse, is that a decision for the here and now, or is that a decision that we should happily kick down the road for future generations?  There are no backsies, once a sale has been made.  There is no coming back from a decision that in the future could be deemed poor, or even terrible.

Is it morally acceptable for a future Board of Directors of a given museum to sell off work with a simple vote by a temporary majority?

Harbel

Ending Appropriation of Photographs by So-Called Artists

When the Marlboro Man met the hedge fund manager and his unscrupulous Art Advisor.

For a very long time, I have rejected the so-called ‘artists’ who appropriate and re-introduce someone else’s work as their own, which in turn, by way of the non-discerning eye of the opportunist art advisor, finds its way into the collection of a Wall Street hedge fund manager with more money to burn than a forest fire in Colorado.  A collection where bigger is better and expensive is an attribute.

For the past 30-odd years I have followed the ups and downs of the judicial system, which has interpreted a single word: ‘transformative’ in any number of ways with wins and losses awarded to one side, or the other.  More often than not, the victims have been photographers with great talent, but not so deep pockets.

There may finally be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  2021 may well turn out to be a key year in the fight to take photography back from the copycats:

In August 2021, the photographer Lynn Goldsmith – probably best known for her portraits of musicians – was successful at the New York Second Circuit Federal Appeals Court, in her appropriation case against the Andy Warhol Foundation.  The ruling overturned a lower court decision and states that Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of Goldsmith’s 1981 portrait of Prince was an appropriation and was not sufficiently transformative.

Goldsmith, Lynn – The Artist Prince 1981 | Warhol, Andy – Prince

In December 2021, the New York art gallery Metro Pictures closed it’s doors for the final time.  The gallery was opened in 1980 by Janelle Reiring, an assistant to Leo Castelli, and a partner. Metro Pictures legitimized appropriation, mostly at the expense of photographers, who did not have a chance to benefit from the collectors who made Metro Pictures a huge success.  Not to suggest that the closing of a single gallery in any way changes what has been happening, but perhaps in a small way there is justice for the photographers who for years have tried to fight against overwhelming odds for their rights and their photographs.

Appropriation in the modern context probably originated with the ready-mades that the Dadaists exhibited.  A urinal, a metronome, an iron.  In the 1960s, things get a little fuzzy when Andy Warhol made Brillo Boxes and placed them in a gallery.  More fuzzy yet, when Marilyn Monroe’s studio portrait was turned into the now famous silk screen series, along side Liz Taylor, Mao, Elvis Presley…..  

I don’t know if it hinders or helps, but I think of ‘transformational’ as something more than taking a two dimensional image and changing it to another two dimensional image, where you can still recognize the original image.  I don’t care if you go from colour to black and white, or the other way around; add paint; frame it, or unframe it; enlarge it, or shrink it; digitize it; re-photograph it….  If a photographer who in most cases has a difficult enough time making ends meet cannot count on society to protect her or his work, where exactly are we?

On March 1st, 2018, Richard Prince tweeted, attaching a photo of one of his Instagram appropriations:  “Last night at LACMA. Artists don’t sue other artists. They get together, have a cup of coffee, argue, kick the can, hash it out, talk about Barnett Neman, and how aesthetics for an artist is like ornithology is for a bird.”  Maybe, just maybe, 2022 is the year where the appropriated laugh last.

In his commentary on the work of 100 photographers called “Looking at Photography” Professor Stephen Frailey writes of Richard Prince: “Richard Prince’s work as a component of the hollowing of cultural authority is particularly perverse and savvy; the transaction from yard sale into the ranks of high culture, with the resounding approval of the financial market place.”

I guess the market speaks and the lemmings follow. Be that as it may, but answer me this: Where does Norm Clasen go to get his just rewards.

Harbel