Back in November I wrote a post in which I complimented the Albright-Knox on its thorough, transparent deaccessioning. In contrast to much-larger institutions such as MoMA and LACMA, who deaccession major work in as close to the dead of night as possible, the Albright was strikingly forthcoming. It even printed a list of all the objects to be sold, put them in a lovely green folder, and sent it to anyone who asked.
At the time I pointed out that the museum was selling the work that didn’t fit its mission; it had been over 50 years since the A-K spent substantial institutional energy on non-modern/contemporary art. It made sense to me that a small museum in an economically struggling community focus on its core mission.
Unfortunately that November morning was the high-water mark. Since then the museum has repeatedly gotten in its own way. A partial list:
- The museum says it is deaccessioning so that it can continue to acquire modern and contemporary art. Great. Then why, does the acquisitions section of the A-K’s website stop at 2004? If you’re selling-to-buy, don’t you want to demonstrate to your community that you’re actively buying — and not just buying a high-profile Turrell or a Whiteread?
- The A-K is deaccessioning through Sotheby’s. The daughter of an A-K board member is a Sotheby’s vice-president. I asked A-K director Louis Grachos why this conflict wasn’t more carefully avoided, or why the process of choosing Sotheby’s wasn’t at least substantially more transparent. “It was a competitive process with the two major auction houses in New York,” Grachos said. “And those discussions and decisions were made at a very different level before [Lauren Gioia, a Sotheby's VP who works in communications] was privy to the issue. We got a very favorable contract. We worked very hard to make it favorable to the advantage of the Albright-Knox and the decision to go with Sotheby’s had more to do with the basic details of that contract.”
- The A-K’s collections policy states that the gallery should deaccession “no masterpieces.” But when the A-K decided to go ahead with its deaccessioning, which includes several of the A-K’s self-determined masterpieces, its board merely passed what looks like a slapdash resolution designed to allow the deaccessioning to go forward. (In essence the resolution gave the goals in the gallery’s strategic plan precedence over its long-standing collections management policy.) The museum could have taken an opportunity to refine its collections policies and to adapt them to the museum’s financial realities. Instead it took the easiest way out.
- The museum is selling some pre-modern art, but not all of its pre-modern art, a decision that doesn’t seem to jive with the museum’s claim to want to focus on what it claims is its modern and contemporary art heritage. For example the museum is selling its Shang and Chola dynasty sculptures, but not its Hogarth.
- To the best of my knowledge the gallery didn’t address this point until I raised it. “In terms of the pre-modern material, the curators have worked hard to maintain key objects that they felt were helpful in telling some stories,” Grachos told me. “There’s a cycladic figure that our curators and such like to refer to in terms of its relationship to early modernism, so we kept certain objects in the collection. They were objects we felt we could utilize in terms of educational opportunities but that weren’t central to the mission. So we didn’t do a complete deaccessioning of everything that was not in the realm of modernist thought and the evolution of modernist thought, and we were also very conservative in that we wanted to [keep] our Hogarth or our David. These were artists who were starting to lead to something that came in the 19th-century, and we could see the seeds of how things were starting to change through the collection.”
- (Grachos’ response echoes the argument made in a 1979 collection catalogue quoted by Christopher Knight in the LA Times: “The acquisitions policy of the Gallery has long held that efforts to add certain works which elucidate affinities and parallels with the art of modern times is an important pursuit.”)
- Which brings us to the Albright’s persistent claim that it is a modern and contemporary art museum, its history indicates such, and that it makes sense for it to sell pre-modern work in order to continue to collect new art. That’s mostly true, but the A-K’s leaders have over-reached with that argument. From about 1910 until World War II the A-K was not as focused on modern and contemporary art as it has been since, say, 1950 or 1955. If in its argument the museum had focused on the last 52 years of its history, it would have had a much stronger case.
- The economics-of-the-region argument. Obviously Grachos and the A-K’s in-house leadership can’t make the points I’ve made about the sad state of the Buffalo-area economy and the prospect of regional economic improvement. But they should have had outside-the-region friends and allies ready and prepared to make those arguments for them. There are regionally polite ways that the A-K could have made the economics argument more forcefully. For example the A-K should have more loudly pointed out that two years ago the gallery’s county funding was cut by $500,000 — a figure that represents almost ten percent of the gallery’s operating budget.
- Finally, there’s the question of market timing. Given the state of the art market it looks like the A-K was merely eager to sell high. I asked Grachos about this and he insisted that his answer be off-the-record. Alas: It’s a fair question and the museum shouldn’t answer it only in private.
So after initially doing the fair and transparent thing, the A-K has thoroughly muddled along, stepping on its own two left feet at every opportunity. I originally thought that its decision to deaccession was a good idea, an opinion I reached for two reasons: regional economic circumstances and the museum’s admirable yearning to remain prominent in collecting recent art.
(It’s important to note that there is nothing inherently more noble in collecting the art of the past than in collecting the art of the present. The two offer similar, even equal, educational benefits and opportunities. It is braver to want to be fully engaged with the present than to live in the past. But the A-K hasn’t made this point and hasn’t found anyone to make that point for it; you’d think the A-K could have found a contemporary museum director or three to pipe up in its defense!)
So, ultimately, I’m still reluctantly in favor of the A-K’s decision. From day two forward, the museum has bungled and bungled. Certainly the A-K should have first offered its self-declared masterpieces to the Getty, Cleveland, the Met and other major museums in a private sale that could have ensured that its masterpieces remain in the public sphere. (It could — and should — still broker such a sale, but now Sotheby’s would get a cut.)
Ultimately the strength of the museum is modern and contemporary art and that area has been the museum’s focus for decades. Continuing and enhancing their focus on that makes more sense than not. But unfortunately the way the museum has done it has made a difficult process into a painful mess.