By Bruce Adams
Photo of Louias Grachos by Jim Bush.
The huntress and her endearing little stag have hit the road along with their outcast cohorts Shiva, the Eucharistic dove, and a ragtag assortment of other antiquities and historic art. Call it the November surprise, the announcement that, through a series of auctions at Sotheby’s, the Albright-Knox would deaccession, or sell, about 200 seldom-seen works falling outside the institution’s core mission�roughly three percent of its collection. The proceeds�likely in excess of $15 million�will enable the gallery to fill gaps in its world renowned collection of modern and contemporary art.
What happened next was predictable. Western New York’s sentinels of the status quo�claiming to speak for everyone�went into overdrive with the sort of histrionic hand-wringing usually reserved for threats that the Bills might leave Buffalo. Articles and letter columns offered up vitriolic protests laced with ample measures of disdain for the art world “elite.” Inevitably, the authors were quick to deny�”Some of my best friends are abstract”�any personal rancor toward modern art
Museum director Louis Grachos has taken the brunt of the ongoing criticism in what often amounts to personal attacks. He’s been unfairly labeled arrogant, vain, elitist, and not very wise, with an “insatiable appetite for new acquisitions.” Buffalo and Erie County “working stiffs”� (as one writer described himself) apparently buy into hackneyed stereotypes of an art world dominated by trend-crazed opportunists who leap on each passing bandwagon as they vie to be first to proclaim the latest artistic drivel a masterpiece. Amidst the hyperbole and strained metaphors are calls to reverse course; cancel the sale. But this month the first batch of deaccessioned items go on the auction block. What follows are the key opposition points to the sale, and my response:
The nostalgia assertion: “fond memories.” Many critics wax poetic about bygone pleasures derived from items to be auctioned. In a scathing Wall Street Journal article, distinguished art authority Tom Freudenheim, who for a decade has uniformly opposed the widely accepted practice of deaccession, refers to “the little writhing ivoryRepentant Thief before which my father and I used to stand in wonder.”� A writer to the Buffalo News is more direct: “I have often searched the gallery for these beloved works of art, only to see them replaced by ‘modern art.’ …True art lovers, speak up!”�
Note how the quotes around “modern art”� drip with contempt. It appears anyone moved by art produced later than�I’m guessing�1907 is not a “true”� art lover. My kids may one day have profound memories of, say, Lucas Samaras’s Mirror Room, but apparently that won’t cut it in the face of little ivory figures. Grachos visited the Albright-Knox as a Toronto youth too, and today he offers us clear-eyed course-setting, not wistful longing.
The education assertion: historical art provides a backdrop for the present. As an art educator, I know the merits of displaying African masks with Cubist paintings. Until very recently, the Albright-Knox didn’t seem to. The problem is that the museum’s smattering of diverse possessions didn’t come close to echoing the scope of human artistic accomplishment. The items on hand spent most of their time in storage.
The deprived Buffalonian assertion: we’d have to travel to “New York, LA, Rome, or Cairo”� to experience what we’re losing. Or maybe just to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto or the Cleveland Museum. Better still, those grieving the loss of 200 items might consider stopping by the Buffalo Museum of Science to view some of their over 100,000 often extraordinary art objects from China, the South Pacific, Greece, Africa, Native American cultures, and more. Collections and Conservations, an exhibit of objects conserved by the Buffalo State Conservation Department, begins this month.
The Oliver Stone assertion: there was a clandestine plot to compile a secret list of art to sell off. By the time it was announced it was a fait accompli. “Backroom dealings,”� “secretive process,”� “private club,”� “Grachos’ secret plan”�call it Antiquitygate. Conspiracy fans: remove the aluminum foil from your hats and listen up; this sort of decision is what museum directors and boards do. It’s their responsibility. They even follow a code of ethics from the American Association of Museums. In a phone interview Grachos explains that “the list of items to be sold hasn’t been announced (as of this writing) because we’re still performing due diligence: contacting donor descendents, verifying provenance. In every case we have received the support of the donor families. The full list will be released when this process is complete.” Grachos could have waited to announce the sale. Ironically, he chose openness.
The bait and switch assertion: the mission of the museum has been altered. The relevant parts of the museum’s mission statement have been the same for years: “The Albright-Knox Art Gallery “�has a clear and compelling mission to acquire, exhibit, and preserve both modern and contemporary art. It focuses especially on contemporary art, with an active commitment to taking a global and multidisciplinary approach to the presentation, interpretation, and collection of the artistic expressions of our times …” Critics counter that pre-modern art was welcome in the past. For the sake of argument, let’s say the mission has changed. The old plan was to collect modern and contemporary art along with a smattering of stuff that didn’t fit. The new plan focuses on what made the gallery famous.
The big mistake assertion: the auctioned art will be sorely missed. The poster child for this contention is the classical bronze, Artemis and the Stag, though I’ve yet to personally run into anyone who recalls ever seeing this winsome statue. For years many of the antiquities were incongruously gathered in a small upstairs gallery�the land of museum misfits. On most days you could rehearse the rumble scene from West Side Story in there without bumping into a visitor. Recently I asked a senior museum guard, “Has anyone ever complained that Artemis is not on view, or grumbled that Indian or Chinese art is absent?” “Not in my years here.” “You do get complaints when things are missing though, right?”� “Oh yeah, plenty.” “About what?”� “This.”� He gestured toward the nearby impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. “That’s what they want.” Forever sighting our historic shortsightedness�notably the demolition of the Larkin Administrative Building�Buffalonians have grown resistant to all change. It took forty years to begin developing the waterfront, we still haven’t built a new bridge to Canada, the Buffalo Zoo nearly lost its accreditation, and the Richardson complex sits vacant. Not all change is bad. Some moves us forward. The Albright-Knox is building on�rather than resting on�its laurels.
The “spending bender”� assertion: Grachos wants to gamble a sure thing worth millions on a load of unproven trendy art. Yeah, he’s cruising the New York art boutiques with Paris Hilton now. Reality check: proceeds of the sale go into an interest-bearing endowment, of which only five percent can be spent annually. Grachos explains that the added capital will place the museum in a stronger position to compete in the global art market for many years to come. But a conservative Wall Street mentality arises again and again among vocal critics. A letter to Artvoice states, “The value of the objects the Albright plans to peddle far exceeds any monetary value or exchange value their sale would bring to the gallery in terms of new acquisitions.”� An artwork’s value to a museum’s collection isn’t determined by market worth. And no, not every new purchase will be another bargain like Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, but today’s artists continue to make exciting work worth collecting. If you’re not aware of this, that’s your problem.
The democracy argument: the community that supports the museum should have a say. Hey, there’s a swell idea: art collecting by popular opinion. Like selecting the prom queen! So what does the public have to say on the subject of new art vs. old? Here are actual quotes from published letters and articles: “What I have seen are rectangles and circles. I’ve seen blobs and drips.” “…I thought that my glasses were dirty; what did this canvas mean?” “Interminable, boring.”� “How in the hell did this piece get in here?”� “Inconceivable vulgarity.”� “…Made from chewing gum that was regurgitated by lab rats and sewn together with dried sinew and rubber bands.” “…More properly…on view at a garage sale.”
The public has spoken. Except, only half the quotes above were reactions to the announced deaccession. The rest were penned over a hundred years ago about the work of Edouard Manet and the impressionists. Then too, Convergence was none too popular in its day either, and Picasso’s La Toilette had many fuming. And I’m old enough to recall Andy Warhol’s soup cans as the folding-page punch line in the back ofMad Magazine.
Manet. The impressionists. Picasso. Pollock. Warhol. If the public had its say on art of its time, these names would likely be absent from our collection. We’d probably have Artemis, though.
Bruce Adams is an art teacher, artist, and critic living in Buffalo.