Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Kindred Spirits

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman is on the warpath. And rightly so. Kimmelman suggests that the New York Public Library conspired with Sotheby's who it at least smells like conspired with John Wilmerding, an art historian and consultant, to ensure Widmerding's long-time client Alice Walton (of the Wal-Mart Waltons who's been plotting for a while, reportedly) was able to secure Asher B. Durand's spectacular painting "Kindred Spirits" for her future museum in Arkansas. This is a considerable blow to the city. On Monday, Kimmelman explained:
The sale of this Durand is poignant. William Cullen Bryant, who in the picture peers over the cliff, as if into America's expanding future, was not just a poet and the editor of The Evening Post. Among other things, he led the movement to devise Central Park. As Thomas Bender, the New York historian, pointed out in an Op-Ed article recently, Bryant's belief in "the counterpoise of landscape and cityscape" encouraged urbanites who feared losing touch with nature to buy landscape paintings, which meant the growing success of the Hudson River School and of progressive art in New York, and it also helped to inspire Olmsted and Vaux's design for Central Park as a pastoral respite in the city.
In other words, like few other paintings, this one belongs in New York City. Unfortunately, because Sotheby's hastily organized an auction that included sealed bids, it virtually guaranteed that no local museum would be able to move quickly enough to keep the painting in NYC.
The auction entailed sealed bids, whereby a bid too high squanders a fortune. Closed bidding favors buyers with leeway to spend and no one to answer to. A private collector like Ms. Walton has both; museums rarely have either. "Closed bids are a horror," Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, said after the sale. "If you're an institution, you're terrified to put in millions too much because that would seem irresponsible. Had it been an actual auction we would have had a better chance. I could have gone to the auction with a donor who could, on the spur of the moment, cover a higher bid."
Kimmelman went on to state bluntly, "Auctioneering is an amoral business." But that was just a warning shot. Today, he's charging straight ahead, guns ablazin', shooting at museums and other public institutions, as well as the auction houses:
The last straw is my own new hobbyhorse, the New York Public Library's sale of Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits," one of the great Hudson River School landscapes, a civic treasure. The work was bought last week for $35 million by Alice Walton, a Wal-Mart heir, in a closed auction at Sotheby's.

It's time for transparency. Increasingly, we demand it from government, the media and Wall Street, in response to dwindling public faith. The same should apply to libraries and museums, which also regularly test our trust. They have many excuses for selling art (to raise money for better works, to prune overcrowded storage) and most of what's sold shouldn't raise eyebrows. But it's the exceptions that count.
I'm not sure how far down the warpath Kimmelman will get. Pretty powerful forces oppose what he's proposing. Still, he does have a point.

Truthfully, though, more transparency is not something most folks in the art world are chomping at the bit to see, which isn't to suggest there's widespread shady going-on's (although clearly, on occassion, art world folks break the law), just that being unregulated like few other businesses, it wouldn't be our first priority to join the fray.

Personally, I think most folks in the art business are fairly altruistic and above board with regards to business practices. At least on the gallery end of things. Sure, you'll hear of this or that scandal, but as a dealer I know in Washington DC told me when I confessed I wanted to open my own gallery, "Don't go into it for the money. You'll make more money opening a laudromat. Only go into it because you love it."

Which brings me to another kind of kindred spirits. Last night the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) held another of its workshops, this time on ethics, practices, and longevity as a gallerist. We new dealers were blessed to have three established and highly regarded dealers (Andrea Rosen, Jay Gorney, and Roland Augustine) share their wisdom and answer our questions. And I do mean blessed. It was an extremely helpful discussion (there are no "how to" books for dealers), and it was very generous of those dealers. If NADA critics had any idea how unlikely such an event is in other industries, I suspect they'd have much more regard for what the organization is really trying to do.

Chelsea gallerist and one of my favorite bloggers, Oliver Kamm, suggests that the entire discussion remain "off the record" because, as he notes, "names were named." But in the context of the Durand painting fiasco, I don't mind sharing that in general there was little love expressed for the practices of the auction houses.

I also wanted to highlight that I was particularly impressed with Andrea Rosen. Jay and Roland were awesome, but after I read the new updated revision of The Art Dealers (a series of interviews) I instantly fell in love with Rosen. She seemed to have the most amazing overall philosophy of what a gallery is or should be of anyone I've ever heard of. From how she chose her artists to her willingness to challenge the system, Andrea seemed entirely too altruistic in that interview to be true. I was floored when I heard her speak last night, though. She's even more impressive in real life. Again, the other speakers were great as well, but Andrea spoke with a degree of integrity and heart that made me love the art world even more than I already do.

I'm sure, like all of us, Andrea, Jay and Roland have their off moments (and this is a business, so in one sense we're definitely competitors), but kudos to NADA for doing whatever they did to get them to share their experiences with us. I really appreciated the insight.


Anonymous crionna said...

If NADA critics had any idea how unlikely such an event is in other industries

Actually, its quite common in business. Mortgage brokers, for instance, have many conventions throughout the year to help them become better at their jobs.

Now that I think about it though, maybe its different where the suppliers are less, say business savvy, than their retailers. This would certainly be true (for the most part) in the art world, antiques too, I'd guess. Whereas in other industries it behooves the suppliers greatly to have ever more and ever more well educated retailers of their goods, so they sponsor all types of help sessions. Additionally, most groups have pretty sophisticated groups that can be joined to help bring the new business owner up to speed.

5/18/2005 10:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Actually, its quite common in business.

This was less structured and more sort of pro bono mentorship with no questions off limits. Perhaps that too is common, but I've never seen it.

5/18/2005 11:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

OK, I've read this a couple of times and I don't really get this:

like few other paintings, this one belongs to New York City

I can see how one of the subjects in the painting has a unique and important connection to NYC. However, this particular painting seems to "belong" to the frontier or perhaps its spirit. That desire to leave the known for the unknown. NYC is an example of the known in this painting wouldn't you say?

5/18/2005 11:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think it's more than just a desire to leave for the unknown, Mac. Kimmelman continued to note:

In time, Central Park came to include the Metropolitan Museum, which Bryant also helped to found, in 1870. Had the Met been a more formidable institution by 1878, when Bryant died, who knows? He might have bequeathed "Kindred Spirits" to it.

[...] After the earthquake in central Italy in 1997, news accounts here fixated on the basilica in Assisi with its famous frescoes by Cimabue. Italians worried about works that were the heritage of small towns. In Montefalco, the mayor, Luigi Gambacurta, a geography teacher, woke up when the quake hit in the middle of the night, rushed to check out the schools, then dashed over to the museum to make sure the paintings by Benozzo Gozzoli, Montefalco's favorite son, were intact. Benozzo is "our soul," the mayor said, "because he connects us to our history."

When a policewoman was out of sight, Mr. Gambacurta took me up 40 feet of fresh scaffolding to show off a fresco of St. Francis blessing the birds, with medieval Montefalco painted rising above Assisi. Benozzo signed the picture with an inscription in Latin: "For what I am as an artist take a look for yourself."

"Benozzo is what we are," the mayor said.

Durand is who we were as New Yorkers.

And more than that, having been in the Library for so long, it became who we are now, informing generation after generation, and simply "being here" to reassure us.

When I lived in London, I used to pop ito the National Gallery from time to time just to see two pieces, if I was in Trafalgar Square. I'd make a bee line for both (Da Vinci's cartoon and van Gogh's Sunflowers). That was it. After I had seen them (tagged up, so to speak), I'd continue on my way.

When I return to visit these days, I'll do the same thing. Just a quick check on "old friends."

After a while, art can become part of your landscape or even your extended family in a way. Kimmelman is clearly very upset the Durand isn't here anymore. I didn't feel that way about this particular painting, but I totally understand his grief.

5/19/2005 08:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

Couple of points, OK I think the long tenure in the library coupled with the subject strengthens the argument a bit, but who owned the painting before it sold? Isn't that who would be the real culprit who "betrayed" NYC?

As an aside Montefalco is wonderful town in Umbria and one of my favorites. It's a lovely little wine town and I think they make some of my favorite Italian reds.

5/19/2005 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The Library is certinaly a culprit in this, I agree, as does Kimmelman. They've betrayed the public's trust. But that doesn't mean the Walton heir or her consultant or Sotheby's are blameless either, IMO.

5/19/2005 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

But that doesn't mean the Walton heir or her consultant or Sotheby's are blameless either, IMO.

Can't say I agree. The library is Col. Mustard and arguing whether they should have used the wrench or the candlestick is pointless. Or worse it shifts blame from where it should be. It was clearly the library's decision to maximize $$ over any other consideration.

5/19/2005 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You're probably right, Mac. I know myself, however, if I knew what a painting like that meant to a city, I'd not take it from them. So I see Walton as more than just a tool in the Library's devious plot.

5/19/2005 11:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

Hey it could be worse. At least she's getting it for a museum and it's in the US.

5/19/2005 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

yeah, HER museum.

Vanity x 10.

5/19/2005 01:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

A Mr. Soloman Guggenheim is on line 2 for you Mr. Winkleman...

Where would art be without vain rich people?

5/19/2005 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I knew I should have clarified that a bit first. Here's my point, Mac, Solomon and Frick and Whitney and Barnes and most of the others began collecting without an eye on a namesake museum, but rather with a passion for the art itself. Walton doesn't seem to be.

5/19/2005 01:19:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home