Archive for the ‘Eakins Countdown’ category

A Tale of Two Rands

April 13, 2007

The first Thomas Eakins canvas sold this Philadelphia cultural season brought $68 million. The third, Thomas Jefferson University’s portrait of Eakins’ anatomy professor, Dr. Benjamin H. Rand, brought a reported $20 million. One could surmise that the Pennsylvania Academy’s Cello Player, the second Eakins to go (and arguably a more important work than the departed Dr. Rand) fetched something in between.

If that is the case, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts parlayed the debt from its share of The Gross Clinic into a tidy profit. If that is not the case, The Cello Player fetched a price far lower than its real value. Either way, in 2007, the two institutions that displayed these two paintings for the last 240 (cumulative) years withdrew their paintings from public view, sold them, and refused to share details of this newly active trade in Philadelphia cultural treasure with the public. The public that supports them.

This same season, another RAND – the think tank – issued a study entitled Arts and Culture in the Metropolis: Strategies for Sustainability. It’s authors make the case that Philadelphia’s future depends on aggressive, comprehensive support for its cultural assets. The study favors those parts of the sector with burgeoning growth, at the expense of the others.

“Between 1995 and 2004,” the RAND study tells us, “the number of nonprofit arts organizations in the five-county Pennsylvania portion of the region increased by 91 percent, and gross receipts more than doubled. This growth is manifest in the dynamism of the theater sector; the opening of the Kimmel Center and the Avenue of the Arts . . . the growth of art galleries, community-based arts organizations, and the folk arts.” In other words, part of Philadelphia’s “arts ecology” is healthy and has a future.  Then there’s the part that deals with history and heritage, which suffers from “disorganization and fragmentation” and seems on the verge of disaster.  Moreover, “collapse of the historical sector may draw funds and attention away from the arts.”

Old, collection-burdened institutions constitute a drain in this vision of a cultural ecology.  But they do have assets – assets that can become liquid. In fact, their collections runneth over.  If we can conclude anything from this tale of two Rands, it is that the spillage we’ve seen is only the beginning.

Goosebumps from Speed Bumps

March 15, 2007

What’s the best way to experience art?

In an interview with Joel Rose for a December 23, 2003, NPR story, “Funding Debated for Barnes Art Collection” John Neff, then at Florida’s Naples Museum of Art, placed great value on “deep looking.” It was, he suggested, falling by the wayside. “Deep looking is something that is pretty hard to do when you have a blockbuster atmosphere.”

This was one of those ideas that lingers, even years later.

In a new story on the recent Eakins churn, Rose, who is the WHYY FM Arts Reporter, interviewed Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Herbert Riband, who praised The Gross Clinic in an effort to justify the sale of The Cello Player. The former gave him goosebumps; the latter failed to.

More and more, we notice the impact of this inclination.  Context and meaning lose traction  as greater value is placed on immediate reactions. (Museum folks used to call this “wall power.” But that was tongue-in-cheek.) In our version of a wall-power world, art and artifacts that give goosebumps are placed around town like so many speed bumps. The intended result? More tourism; more heads on beds.

But there are other, unintended results. And sooner or later, we predict, the scholars, curators and educators who’ve spent careers as proponents of “deep looking” will be compelled to cry out.

Or will they? Could the goosebumps-from-speed-bumps crowd chill their voice and kill their advocacy for”deep looking?”

Masterpiece Theatre

March 12, 2007

Tomorrow (March 13th, 2007) folks will gather to hear about the “Best and Worst Practices in Deaccessioning.”


Ever since the recent sale of two major paintings by Thomas Eakins, the most signficant and interesting conversations have been private, quiet and out-of-public earshot. During this one-day seminar on the legal, ethical and professional guidelines for sewardship of collections, held at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, much (one hopes) will be said and shared. Far too much of this drama, which at times resembles Masterpiece Theatre, also calls to mind episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs.

Seminar organizers, the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, promise a day-long conversation about the factors that contribute to “good” and “bad” deaccessioning.

Seminar planners ask: Can this practice be an important part of a comprehensive collections management program? Can it strengthen an institution? Can it bring an institution negative publicity, diminished interpretive capacity, financial problems and even lawsuits? Yes, yes and yes.

Since we know that our region’s collecting institutions have been deaccessioning and plan to continue (if not intensify) the practice, this bit of transparency is not only welcome, it is sorely needed.

“A heart-wrenching decision”

February 5, 2007

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?

Off To A Good Start

December 22, 2006

Gross Clinic ParodySo, we won’t have to resort to re-enacting The Gross Clinic, after all.  That’s how Eakins’ students consoled and humored the artist after his masterpiece was diverted from display among the American art at Philadelphia’s World’s Fair in 1876.

What role did The Sixth Square play in framing issues and introducing context during those 40 days when The Gross Clinic’s future hung in the balance? We’d like to think the last 27 posts, 54 comments and more than 5,500 visits helped fuel the public conversation. We’d like to think of this as Citizen Culture. And as the “Eakins Countdown” comes to a close, the The Sixth Square gears up to continue with other themes, ideas and issues, all cultural, all civic — and all Philadelphia.

Who and what is The Sixth Square, anyway? Today we finally post an “About” tab, so you can see who we are. And the reason for the blog’s alliterative name? We think it is kind of obvious in a city originally designed with five squares, and a far better name than “Discourse-Based Epistemology.”

The Sixth Square is intended as a shared place about a city with a powerful sense of place and a dynamic and increasingly meaningful arts and culture community.

Stay tuned in weeks to come.

5 Days: The Gross Clinic Stays

December 21, 2006

The Gross ClinicUPDATE – RadioTimes program (announced below) cancelled due to illness.  Check the schedule at for future programs. 

If museology ever rises to the level of mythology, that would be the day Philadelphia rises to a challenge like the one it has faced these past forty days and forty nights.

Today it was announced: the Eakins stays in Philadelphia, the place where it has the most significance, the most context, and the place where it (now) has the most friends. 

Read about the announcement here and tune in to 91FM for updates. Plus, you can hear more about the painting that stirred Philadelphia’s passions tomorrow from 10AM-11AM on Radio Times (91FM in Philadelphia or online).  Among the guests are Marc Porter, President of Christie’s Americas, Project Home’s Sister Mary Scullion and Philadelphia artist Moe Brooker.

6 Days: Looking Like a Cultural Capital?

December 20, 2006

It used to be that a “world-class city” (or the now popular forward-leaning term “next-great city”) had an architectural style all its own. And then this style would inspire copies among the also rans. 

That design idea is so old millenium.

When it comes to looking like a cultural destination, what does the new millennium have to offer?



We couldn’t help but notice how the proposed addition to the Free Library of Philadelphia (top) by Moshe Safdie looks like his Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (bottom). Or is it visa versa?  We have to wonder which one is the original.

When it comes to the ebb and flow of cultural influences, are we on the “ebb?” or are we, as we like to think of ourselves in Philadelphia, on the “flow?”