Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Weekend fix-it, NYT edition

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Puzzling passage in Jori Finkel’s story in Sunday’s NYT, which was headlined “A Museum That Lives Within Its Means” — and then went on to describe how the Hammer goes well outside AAMD-mandated industry norms. Or, to put it another way, the Hammer has been living beyond its means for years. Here’s the key passage:

The Hammer can thank Bill Gates for its annual acquisition budget, which was about $600,000 last year and is expected to be closer to $800,000 going forward. In 1994, a few years after Mr. Hammer’s death, the museum put up for auction a gem from his collection: a 72-page scientific manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci covered with musings and drawings. It was called the Codex Leicester after one of its earliest owners, Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester. Mr. Hammer renamed it the Hammer Codex. Now Mr. Gates presumably has naming rights: he bought it at Christie’s for $30.8 million.
Since then the yearly interest on that money has been split. Half has supported Hammer exhibitions and collections. The other half was initially used to pay off a bank loan. When that loan was repaid last year, the money was freed up for acquisitions. In the future, [director Annie] Philbin hopes to use all of the interest for acquisitions, in keeping with industry guidelines on deaccessioning.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Reynolds and Hugh Hart got the story right back in January when they wrote that the Hammer’s Codex-related expenditures constitute “a move that, at first glance, conflicts with the code of ethics that major U.S. museums have endorsed for decades.”
At second glance too. (Why aren’t the two organizations sanctioning the Hammer/its director Annie Philbin instead of making excuses for it? I mean what’s the point of having an industry association when…)
I can’t link to the LAT story, so I’ll quote big chunks of it:

… Philbin said, when she arrived, the institution was spending some or all of the codex interest revenue every year on exhibitions and programs and other expenses — and none of it on buying art.
Philbin and the board kept that strategy in place, she said, and in 2001, with the release of the principal coming up and no legal challenges imminent, Philbin put the situation before the leaders of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors.
“I went to them and said, ‘Look, here’s this money. We are totally dependent on it.’ The museum had absolutely no donor base at the time,” she said. “When I first got here, we solely used that money for our exhibitions and programs.”
Association Executive Director Millicent Gaudieri said the board decided that Hammer’s unique circumstances did exempt it from the usual restrictions on de-accession spending. This was in part because of the institution’s chaotic first years, Gaudieri said, and in part because the codex, for all its value as an artifact of science and history, “wasn’t a Renoir.”

There are lots of museums and kunsthalles that managed to live within their means. If Philbin’s Hammer couldn’t they should have intensified fundraising or made cuts. Next, as I’ve noted here as recently as a few paragraphs ago, just because the world’s most spineless industry association has given the Hammer a pass doesn’t make what it’s done right. (AAMD gives everyone a pass — just ask Jay Gates and Malcolm Rogers.) Just because the Hammer has wanted to live beyond its means doesn’t mean that it should be dipping into deaccessioning-related funds to do it. Ever. Back to the LAT:

[I]n April 2006, Philbin said… she and the museum’s directors agreed to start spending half of the codex interest for acquisitions — about $650,000 yearly — and half or less on exhibitions and programs. The first purchase was a set of drawings by Raymond Pettibon.
The art-world discussion of the Hammer’s strategy has been conducted mostly in whispers until now, but [a] new exhibition puts the museum’s collection and acquisitions-policy center stage.
If the Hammer had been spending the codex interest on acquisitions all along, Philbin acknowledged, its collection would be far richer — but “we would have been severely limited” and many of the museum’s well-regarded exhibitions might never have been mounted.

There’s the crux of the matter: The ambitions of the Hammer’s director and her board outpaced their ability to pay for the museum they wanted to run. So they broke the rules and raided their future. (I’m not inventing the wheel here: Christopher Knight and, later, Lee Rosenbaum have been writing about this since 1994.)
Yet somehow the NYT gives the Hammer a free pass on a 13-year long ethical screw-up. And a headline writer there even thinks that the Hammer has lived within its means.
In a related story: NYT culture editor Sam Sifton, who presumably approved all of this boosterism, is doing the NYT’s ask-an-editor gig this week. Last time Sifton sat for Qs his As were smartly entertaining, so I suspect he will be this week as well. Especially if he’s called to account for this story. Or for why the NYT’s chief art critic is going to Berlin and not to Seattle or Kansas City. Or about why the NYT has done almost as many stories (including one with a lazy error) on Hirst’s skull as on the iPhone, or if the paper’s critics understand what the issues are at the Smithsonian. I could keep going (and in the archives I do).

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