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Abridged Crystal

“The aggressive market is operating as a passive but powerful vacuum, literally tearing important paintings and sculptures from public walls and civic galleries.” It’s old news now, but the Philadelphia Art Museum, its partners, and Kevin Bacon raised the $68 million it needed to keep Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia and out of the clutches of heartland that is the Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas. As the deadline loomed, the initial franticness in the city grew. There was at least one attempt, for example, to coat the painting in a protective layer of bureaucracy, but such drastic measures (which had succeeded before) proved ultimately unnecessary. All it took was a $10 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation, a number of smaller gifts, a loan, and—what’s upset Philadelphians again—a deal by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to sell another Eakins painting, The Cello Player (image, left).

That The Cello Player was sold to an anonymous, private collector illustrates a problem of the art market: Price threatens access. For so much of history art was desired and acquired not by individual citizens, but by public or semipublic institutions—kings, the church—because they were the only ones who could support artists. But such institutions haven’t monopolized wealth in a very long time, and art, which is not necessarily to say artists, follows the money. If money doesn’t want art to be accessible, it won’t be. This problem is discussed at length by Christopher Knight. He contrasts the de-accessioning of The Gross Clinic by Thomas Jefferson University, which negotiated only with public museums (although Crystal Bridges’ collection isn’t public owned, access to it will be public), and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, which is selling several very rare antiquities to the highest bidder. As Knight describes it,

The aggressive market is operating as a passive but powerful vacuum, literally tearing important paintings and sculptures from public walls and civic galleries.

Further, Knight argues, “Current levels of public protection are not strong enough, and we risk the loss of irreplaceable treasures. Standards need to change.” What the standards should change to is a question he doesn’t address. Suffice it to say, the prices that schools, such as Thomas Jefferson, or libraries or museums can demand for their holdings changes how they view what hangs on their walls. Paul LeClerc promised the New York Public Library would dedicate the money from the sale of Kindred Spirits to a book-acquisition fund; Thomas Jefferson sold The Gross Clinic for a new hospital wing. When such is the promise of sale, “What is access worth?” seems a question hardly asked, but it does matter. TJU deserves some credit for opening the doors on The Gross Clinic, even if the way it did so was somewhat controversial.

Part of answering “What is access worth?,” of course is answering, as Daniel Brook points out, “Whose access matters?” Much of the fight for The Gross Clinic centered around the assertion that the painting belongs to the city, historically and culturally. To this argument I’m sympathetic: I believe that a place’s value can increase as things are made in it and for it over time. If those things are removed, they become something they are not. I also believe it’s a mistake to ignore the testimony by nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists that it is nigh impossible for new money, or for that matter new worlds or new breeds to mix seamlessly with old. Bentonville, no matter how much money goes into Crystal Bridges, will never be Philadelphia, New York, Boston, nor even Los Angeles, not even if it expands across the Ozarks and joins forces with Branson. There will ever be history in these places that Bentonville cannot have. I also believe that wider access of art to all people, however, benefits the public, and if Crystal Bridges were to live up to its promises to bring a quarter of a million people to Bentonville every year it would be a good thing.

Crystal Bridges would surely be a better final resting place for American art masterpieces than, say, the guest bathroom in Uncle Richfield’s ranch in Texas. Whether such stark choices are the best options available, however, or whether they are the right options I have serious doubts. Not everything can or should be bought, even at fair market prices much less unfair prices. The fate of The Cello Player, now bound to that of The Gross Clinic, reveals that Philadelphia’s attempt to negotiate value outside the market wasn’t entirely successful.

 

Comments

so, what does this do to the kevin bacon game?

it either completely destroys it or makes it infinitesimally easier.

i don’t know that i agree with the assertion re public and semi-public acquiring of art. or at least that kings and the church were such. or perhaps better, that statement seems to imply that a similar function is operating when a museum or a city acquires and keeps art as when a king or the church (really, not the church, but powerful churchmen with a refined taste) does.

kings and the church acquired art for the same reason as private collectors, and they were private collections viewable only to those privy to the palace or the residence of the monsignor, unless, of course, we are speaking of altar pieces.

this is different than “public trust” and the mission to “educate the masses of the democracy,” which is behind the reason why cities and public institutions collect art. it’s their way of brokering power.

arguably this is a better way of or reason for collecting…

What I guess I meant was that art for kings was made in the public trust, and while not entirely accessible, needed to be somewhat visible in order to assert a king’s immortal or God-given power. Ditto the church. But in both cases it’s rather a stretch—there’s lots of ways that don’t require art to assert power—and I really didn’t need to make the argument anyway, and I wasn’t convinced of its truth. So point taken.