Everyone, myself included, is thrilled that former Monhegan Island resident Lynne Drexler’s paintings recently sold for over $1 million. I also welcome the intention to reinvest this windfall in acquiring work by other underrepresented artists of color. But the tax benefits resulting from this windfall also have long-lasting negative impacts on private donors and future support for the museum’s programs and its ability to serve the Midcoast community. This is not just an immediate concern, nor does it only affect the institution making the sale. It can and will influence long-term donor behavior and engagement, including future prospects.
Museum exits can damage donor relationships for all art museums everywhere. If most art museums can only realistically raise through donations of artworks or occasionally limited cash gifts to purchase artworks, there is a real danger that donors will simply turn away from the museum world as a whole. Whether or not there is a written contractual agreement with donors who give art to museums, there is a long-standing tacit commitment that such gifts be permanently held by the museum. Yes, museum donors get tax breaks, and that may be enough for some. But in my 50+ years of working with art museums, most donors want their gifts to be available to the public and have confidence that their gifts will be preserved for future generations.
In a world of COVID, Ukraine and God knows what next, donors are already reassessing their giving priorities; they simply no longer need reasons to unplug art museums that treat their collections as private ATMs. Given the reckless treatment of Drexler’s legacy, would Louise Nevelson and her family trust the Farnsworth today?
Housekeeping – Selling duplicate works (usually prints), or works that cannot be displayed due to their poor condition or fragility, or works that no longer fit the museum’s mission (i.e., European art in a museum dedicated to American art is) – all of these are legitimate reasons to sell. Giving employees pocket money to spend on art they like better is not. And the work of a deceased, long-neglected artist should not be relied upon to correct past and current collective errors and missteps.
So a million dollars and more sounds like a lot of money to buy new art from underrated women and artists of color. Except that the art market is already well beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest museums. I note that just two years ago, the Farnsworth could have bought the work of Lewiston-based African-American artist Reggie Burrows Hodges for a low five-figure sum. Now his work fetches half a million for a single work. Forget well-known artists like Mark Bradford, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Michalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu, and many others whose most coveted works often sell at auction for not a million or two, but many times that number. Acquisitions of work by these artists, as well as historically significant women of the same era as Drexler—Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan (who also worked in Maine), and others—run well into the eight figures.
I don’t see many museums selling important artwork just because they have an abundance of work by this artist. The Orangerie or the Musée Marmatton in Paris will never sell one (or more) of their “Water Lilies” paintings by Claude Monet precisely because their meaning and impact is based on the experience of viewing an exceptional group of disparate but closely related paintings. I can cite something similar for the six paintings by Drexler, which mark the artist at the peak of her expressiveness, reinforced and confirmed by the entire group.
And if the Farnsworth and most other museums hope to acquire works by already recognized women and artists of color, why sell a copy by an underrecognized artist the museum can never afford again? There’s also an air of Patriots trading high-paying stars for future draft picks that may or may not reach greatness (or even the Taxi team). So, yes, the museum could pick up the equivalent of a future Tom Brady. But what are the odds? Personally, I’d stick with the rising star currently on the list – the art they trade is a late-blooming Tom Brady (handsome, ageless, previously underrated, irreplaceable).
Precedents for opting out of accession also raise fundamental questions about the tax benefits for art museums that we all pay for. If museums enjoy charitable tax benefits that include exemption from local property taxes, then many would argue that art museums should at least be more directly accountable to the public they purportedly serve. Donors also receive tax benefits based on the value of their gifts – and not just gifts of artwork, but financial donations to support exhibitions and education. Again, most agree that art museums are fundamentally educational institutions that hold their collections in trust for the general public. If museums are going to sell their most important assets – some would say that the permanent collection is their very reason for being – the public might want to weigh some things up, in order to at least have an opportunity to hear why this drastic step is felt to be necessary by the board and staff of the museum museum.
I am sensitive to the notion that museum collections are not static, they must change and grow to reflect new and evolving definitions of what art is or could be; You have to watch out for living artists, especially those in the museum’s own backyard. For the same reason, museums should literally “own” and honor their own history, including errors and misjudgments. Before coming to the Farnsworth, I was the director of a small Long Island museum old enough to contain strange objects, like a mounted bison head said to have been captured by Teddy Roosevelt. We showed it once in a retrospective exhibition, The Way We Were. Not that the buffalo head was worth deaccessioning, but many who saw the exhibit were entranced by its history and the museum’s shaggy, idiosyncratic history. We learn from self-examination and changing tastes; We need museums to remind us of this, including caring for artists’ works that others might see as expendable.
I also worry that exit from accession is like death; it is irreversible. And no matter how much money it generates for key institutional priorities and goals like diversity and inclusion, key artworks that are hidden from the public eye disappear in ways that permanently impact realms of the mind and imagination.
While a particular work of art may not be considered essential to the museum’s current staff or board of directors, there are others (including the donor) who feel very differently and will deeply mourn the loss of cherished “friends” from the collection. There are many ways to approach worthy goals, including patience and paying more attention to living artists, particularly those living in the museum’s neighborhood as a regional institution. Deaccessioning is a dangerous and drastic cure for real and perceived ailments. collections of forms on demographics and availability; the Farnsworth has a fine, representative collection of contemporary women artists, particularly those with Maine connections. Of course, the museum has to contribute to this. But deaccession is akin to medieval medicine—leeches do more harm than good, and cumulative blood loss can be fatal.
Then there is the matter of simple courtesy and respect. The person who arranged the donation of Drexler’s paintings to the Farnsworth was her trusted friend and fellow artist William Manning. No one bothered to inform him of their intention to sell two large paintings from the estate’s original gift; he gave away the paintings as a group, not to sell them individually. The deaccession of works by living donors undermines future donations. It’s also a slap in the face for an 85-year-old wheelchair-bound artist who also has some of his own work in the so-called ‘permanent’ collection. Is his work also expendable?
A long time ago, my mother taught me that promises must be kept. The Farnsworth must apologize to Mr. Manning.
A toxic system allows sexual misconduct to permeate the Maine National Guard