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Friday, 01 February 2013 05:07

Museums by the Number: 2012 in Review

Fig. 1: George Segal (1924– 2000), The Costume Party, 1965–1972. Six figures, mixed media: painted plaster, wood, glass, photo, helmet, boots, six figures. 72 x 144 x 108 inches, overall. Gift, The George and Helen Segal Foundation, 2011 (2011.3). Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Fig. 2: “The Fox and the Grapes” dressing table, Philadelphia, 1765–1775. Mahogany, yellow poplar, white cedar, yellow pine; brass. H. 29⅞, W. 35, D. 23¼ in. The purchase being made possible by the leadership support of Leslie A. Miller and Richard B. Worley, Kathy and Ted Fernberger, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, and Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, as well as the generosity of Donna C. and Morris W. Stroud II, Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Booth, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Vogel III, Peggy Cooke, and other generous individuals, and funds raised from deaccessioned works of art. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Despite worries on Wall Street and gridlock in Washington, 2012 was another good year for acquisitions at America’s major art museums. Around the country, many museums have not found donors to be “any less generous,” according to Terry Morello, vice-president for external affairs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “People give out of a commitment to the museum.” Similarly, there “was little or no change from previous years” in the gifts made to the Detroit Institute of Art, according to a museum spokeswoman, and the same was true for both the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Fig. 3: Jasper Geeraerds (Flemish, active in Holland, 1620–1654), Still Life with Lobster, ca. 1645. Oil on canvas, 34¼ x 43 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Merrill by exchange, and Gift of Samuel P. Avery by exchange (2012.3.1). Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum.
What has been acquired in the past may seem less pressing than the ability to obtain more objects in the future. Budget discussions in Washington, D.C., over raising the top tax rate for those with high incomes and eliminating or lessening deductions for such activities as making charitable gifts have significant implications for museums and other nonprofit institutions that rely on donations for their general operating support and programming. “I think the charitable deduction is a bigger issue for our field than the tax rates,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C. “People have come to expect that they can take a deduction when they give money or objects to a museum. Will they continue to give those things if the deduction is less or goes away completely? I really don’t know.” Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, expressed less concern. “Philanthropy is exactly that,” he said. “Philanthropy is not a tax proposition.”

Fig. 4: Dawoud Bey. Two Girls in Front of Lady D’s, ca. 1976, printed by 1979. Restricted gift of Amina Dickerson and Isobel Neal, 2011.144. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago.

Fig. 5: Chest of drawers, Paris or Maysville, Kentucky, ca. 1800. Walnut, light-wood inlay and ebony inlay with tulip poplar. H. 42⅜, W. 41¾, D. 21⅜ inches. MESDA Purchase Fund (5691.1). Photography by Wes Stewart. Courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem.
The nonprofit advocacy organization Independent Sector has been fighting calls to cap or eliminate the charitable deduction, claiming that doing so would limit the ability of nonprofits to provide services and, ultimately, lead to tax increases on the middle class in order to pay for those needed services. Cleta Mitchell, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who works with nonprofit organizations, called for Congress to amend the federal constitution by enshrining the right to deduct the full value of a charitable gift. On the other hand, a 2012 study on wealthy donors conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in collaboration with Bank of America found that tax benefits were far down the list of significant motivations for giving. Steven J. Tepper, associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, has stated: “I feel certain, based on psychological and sociological studies of giving and philanthropy, that we can expect only modest changes in giving behavior if the charitable gift deduction is eliminated or reduced.” The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Susan Talbott also appeared to confirm that viewpoint, claiming “much of our acquisitions are dependent on long-term relationships that have been cultivated by us with our donors. These donors have a relationship with the museum or with the collection, and the subject of the tax code doesn’t come up.”

Fig. 6: Vessel with Battle Scene, Maya, Late Classic Period, ca. AD 600–900. Ceramic and slip, 15.1 x 16.9 in. The John L. Severance Fund (2012.32). Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art.

Museums have continued to struggle in the wake of the Great Recession, with the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore closing in 2012 after twenty-three years. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art reduced its hours by 12 percent and laid off twenty staff members and security guards. The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, cut its operating budget almost 15 percent, laying off a number of staff, including its chief curator, and the Art Institute of Chicago began selling approximately $100 million in bonds in order to cover its pension benefits.

Museums everywhere have been focusing on getting more people through the doors by upgrading eateries, creating free downloadable apps to keep in touch with people, and offering a growing number of events and social activities, some quite unrelated to art. The Dallas Museum of Art announced that, beginning in 2013, general admission will be free. Entry fees have been the subject of a lawsuit filed by two museum members against The Metropolitan Museum of Art. While, according to the museum’s 1893 charter with the City of New York, admission is free, the museum has always suggested a “recommended” entry fee, which nowadays is $25. The lawsuit claims that the fact that admission is free is not indicated on the museum’s website and only in “fine and tiny print” on signs near the museum admissions cash registers. The confusion does not appear to have bothered the 6.28 million visitors during the last fiscal year, the highest recorded number in forty years.

Fig. 7: William L. Hawkins (1895–1990) Coral Lion (Self-portrait), 1989. Oil on Masonite, 48 x 54 inches. The Lanford Wilson Collection (M2012.375). Image credit: John R. Glembin. Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum.
So, let’s look at what some of the major museums added to their collections last year. Renowned art advisor Thea Westreich and her husband Ethan Wagner donated five hundred works by seventy American artists (including Christopher Wool, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, Cady Noland, Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, and Diane Arbus) to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The children and heirs of art dealer Ileana Sonnabend made a gift of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine Canyon (1959) to the Museum of Modern Art. (The donation resolved a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over its valuation and whether or not the artwork even could be sold.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased The Penitent (1612–1613) by Jusepe de Ribera for what dealers in the field estimated to be $1.3 million. The Met also acquired Blue Balls V, a 1962 oil by Sam Francis, donated by the Sam Francis Foundation. In a similar vein, the George and Helen Segal Foundation gave sculptor George Segal’s 1965–1972 The Costume Party (Fig. 1) to the Guggenheim Museum.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which has been looking to acquire more works by African-American artists for its permanent collection, purchased Robert Seldon Duncanson’s Still Life With Fruit (1848), as well as Glenn Ligon’s 1988 painting Untitled (I Am a Man) and fifty-one collages by James Castle. The Baltimore Museum of Art acquired two paintings and nineteen ink drawings by Morris Louis—a gift from the estate of the artist’s widow.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased for an undisclosed price a mid-eighteenth-century mahogany dressing table with a carved decoration depicting Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes” fable (Fig. 2), which had been on loan to the museum for thirty-six years. The dressing table has a companion high chest that had been donated to the museum in 1957. The museum, said its director Timothy Rub, “has now realized its cherished dream of keeping [them]…together.”

Fig. 8: Mark Rothko (1903–1970), No. 210/No. 211 (Orange), 1960. Oil on canvas, 69 x 63 in. Photography by Edward C. Robison III. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

At the same time, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts added to its Roman collection with a 13-foot-tall, 13,000-pound marble statue of the goddess Juno, the gift of an anonymous donor. Longtime museum trustee Saundra Lane strengthened the museum’s American art collection with a gift of more than 6,000 photographs (including 500 by Ansel Adams, 100 by Imogen Cunningham, 2,500 by Edward Weston, another 100 by Brett Weston, and the entire 2,500-work photographic estate of Charles Sheeler), along with 120 watercolors, drawings, and other works on paper by Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Hyman Bloom, John Marin, Davis, Franz Kline, and Charles Sheeler.

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, added sixty-nine new additions to its permanent collection, two-thirds of which were gifts, according to its director, Susan Talbott. Among the additions were a 1992 sculptural Daisy Chain by Kiki Smith, a 1670s silver-gilt ivory covered cup from Germany, a circa-1870 fall-front desk by African American William Howard, and a Still Life with Lobster (Fig. 3) by Flemish artist Jasper Geeraerds. West Coast philanthropist and art patron Eli Broad has been very good to his alma mater, Michigan State University, providing $21 million in 2007 for the design and building of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, as well as another $7 million for acquisitions. In the past year, the Broads donated eighteen works of contemporary art to the museum, including Roxy Paine’s 2009 sculpture Containment 1, Jonathan Borofsky’s Chattering Man with 9 Framed Drawings (1986), Peter Halley’s 1990 painting Cell with Smoke Stack and Conduit (1990), and Robert Longo’s drawing America on Wheels (1991).

Chicago’s Art Institute, which operates on a fiscal year basis, acquired 1,537 objects as of June 30, compared to the 801 pieces added in the previous year. The larger haul, according to a museum spokesperson, reflected acquisitions by the photography department, which included a complete set of 25 black-and-white photographs by Dawoud Bey (Fig. 4), not seen together since first exhibited at New York’s Studio Museum in 1979, and purchased by money raised by the museum’s auxiliary photography committee.

During the past five years, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and Old Salem chief curator Robert Leath has been “focused on acquiring masterpieces from Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.” Among the purchases for 2012 was an iconic chest of drawers (Fig. 5), made by a member of the Calvert-Tuttle-Foxworthy family of cabinetmakers in Mason County, Kentucky. Says Leath, “This chest of drawers is one of the greatest pieces of American furniture made west of the Appalachian Mountains and is one of the most important acquisitions MESDA has made in its nearly 50-year history.”

Fig. 9: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Intermission, 1963. Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Purchase in memory of Elaine McKeon, chair, SFMOMA Board of Trustees (1995–2004), with funds provided in part by the Fisher and Schwab Families; © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art; photograph courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, which has been in the midst of a multi-year renovation and expansion, added to its antiquities collections with a late classic period (600–900 a.d.) Mayan ceramic vessel on which is painted a victorious lord viewing the results of a successful battle (Fig. 6), as well as a marble sculpted head (post-23 a.d.) of Roman emperor Tiberius. On the contemporary side, the museum also purchased American painter Jared French’s Evasion (1947) and British artist Martin Creed’s installation Work No. 965. Half the art in a given space (2008).

Although better known as a playwright, Lanford Wilson, who died in 2011, was also a collector of folk art, and his more than three-hundred-piece collection was donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Many of the objects are self-taught artists’ sculptures, but there also are two painted game boards, a grid-painted table by Z. B. Armstrong, a two-tiered thread-spool table by an unknown maker, and Coral Lion (1989), a self-portrait by William Hawkins (Fig. 7).

Criticism periodically has fallen on the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, for its lack of any significant postwar works of art. In the past year, the museum has sought to fill in that gap, most notably by purchasing a 1960 Mark Rothko, No. 210/No. 211 (Orange), from a Swiss collector (Fig. 8).

Edward Hopper’s Intermission (1963), one of the last works by the artist remaining in private hands (Fig. 9), was purchased by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from that city’s Fraenkel Gallery. The price was not revealed; the museum deaccessioned and consigned to Sotheby’s Hopper’s smaller, more atypical Bridle Path (1939) to help pay for the acquisition. Gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel also gifted the museum twenty-six photographs by Diane Arbus.

In the past year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought widely, including Albrecht Durer’s engraving Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), a five-foot-tall pastel Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1787) by Mariano Salvador Maella, who was first painter to the Spanish court, and two 1970 screen prints by Robert Rauschenberg.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles was given twenty-five photographs by Ansel Adams by Carol Vernon and her husband Robert Turbin, and, from an anonymous donor, received a collection of eighty-two prints by German Expressionist Max Liebermann. Always in a buying mood, the museum purchased a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript from Flanders by Lieven van Lathem, a 1782 drawing The Pancake Maker by French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Jean-Antoine Watteau’s circa-1720 Italian Comedians, along with twenty-nine color photographs by painter Cy Twombly and fourteen works by fashion photographer Hiro.
Despite all the forces working against them in 2012—the still sluggish economy, jittery stock market, and strong auction prices that could have lured potential donors—many museums were able to maintain their missions of acquiring material and expanding their collections, while being creative in welcoming visitors to enjoy and learn from their holdings.

Daniel Grant is the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books (Skyhorse Publishing).