“A heart-wrenching decision”

Last week’s sale of an Eakins was “a heart-wrenching decision” according to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts board vice-chair Herbert Riband on today’s Radio Times. Listen to the full program here. And there are still many unanswered questions about the sale of Thomas Eakins’ The Cello Player to help defray debt incurred with the purchase of Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. The best comment on the situation is by museum law expert Stephen Urice, also a guest on the same program. Urice stated that “transparency and accountability”are hallmarks of best practice in museums. So, with transparency and accountability in mind, here are a few of those outstanding questions:

– How can PAFA agree to sell The Cello Player for an undisclosed amount to a buyer whose identity, according to Riband, is unknown?

– How do we know that the pressure of the debt (which, we have heard, amounts to thousands of dollars per day) did not drive PAFA’s “unanimous” decision to sell a major work by a major artist core to its history, identity and mission?

– And how do we know for sure that billionaires are not going shopping for treasure in the galleries of Philadelphia’s museums and the halls of its other many institutions?

The Cello Player is a picture, according to Lee Rosenbaum (also a guest on the same Radio Times program) “that rewards close, careful looking.” (Rosenbaum blogs as Culturegrrl.) It displays the “empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists,” writes Michael J. Lewis.

Heart wrenching for sure. But could this also be a case of art wrenching?

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2 Comments on ““A heart-wrenching decision””

  1. Len Klekner Says:

    I find it difficult to imagine a more shocking or disturbing turn in the course of the rescue of “The Gross Clinic.” Having failed to raise the funds required for the purchase of “The Gross Clinic” through donations, the trustees of the PAFA have moved unconscionably in haste and in secrecy to sell a painting by Eakins which, while it may not be as artistically significant as “The Gross Clinic,” is of considerable historical moment.

    “The Cello Player” was, on its purchase in 1897, the first work by Eakins to enter a museum collection. More significantly, it was aquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the very institution that eleven years before had dismissed the artist from its faculty. If it did not mark a rapprochement between institution and artist, it did signal an acknowledgement on the part of the institution of Eakins’ accomplishment. “The Cello Player” was by virtue of this fact, this event in the lives of both the artist and the institution, “the PAFA’s Eakins” in a way that no other Eakins can or will ever be. It is absolutely shocking, that with total disregard of this history, which is their own, the trustees of this same institution have now sold it.

    The way the trustees executed this sale in haste and a secrecy so thorough even the institution purports not to know who it sold the painting to, makes the trustees of Jefferson University and the New York Public Library look like paragons of civic responsibility. It represents a new low in trustee irresponsibility. This action is absolutely shameful. And the historical and institutional ignorance it displays is damnable. The trustees of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts should immediately resign. Whatever public official in Pennsylvania is responsible for the oversight of charitable institutions should see to it.

    The new trustees of the PAFA and the trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art should be put on notice that the sale of works from their collections is not an acceptable way to finance the acquisition of “The Gross Clinic.” The fund raising effort should now be redoubled with a new seriousness and greater purpose. That effort must also display a transparency it has lacked up to this point. If the trustees and officers of these institutions are not up to the task they have taken upon themselves, they should find people who are.

    For those of us who care about art and culture in Philadelphia, this is a wake up call. We have seen the price of failure in this effort. Neither that price nor failure itself is acceptable.

  2. Marius Fischer Says:

    Len’

    Your speech is as forthright as your eye is keen!

    Please respond.

    Marius


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