The Delaware Art Museum is Under Fire for Selling Art

The Delaware Art Museum is Under Fire for Selling Art

The Delaware Art Museum is Under Fire for Selling Art

This past June The Delaware Art Museum was formally sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which has asked its members not to lend artwork to Delaware or assist with its exhibitions.

The sanction came one day after the museum sold a painting from its collection, William Holman Hunt's "Isabella and the Pot of Basil." Museum trustees say that the sale was the only way to help settle a $19.8 million expansion debt and enhance the museum's endowment. The museum is now confirming that it will sell two more works. The first, Winslow Homer's "Milking Time" (1875), It will be offered in a Sotheby's auction this fall, unless they find a buyer first. Gerret Copeland, the chairman of the Delaware Museum board, said."That is our plan of attack. If we find a private buyer, it will go sooner."

The second work to go on sale is Alexander Calder's "The Black Crescent," a mobile which arched gracefully above the museum's double-height East Court. Timothy Rub, the president of the museum directors group, as well as the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, "They're just cherry-picking the best things in the hopes they get to where they need to be. If, as with the Holman Hunt, they fall flat on their face, it's going to be a double tragedy."

Christie's, entrusted with the Holman Hunt, estimated its value at $8.4 million to $13.4 million, but the painting sold for $4.25 million, only half the low estimate, evidence of the riskiness of auctions.

The situation in Delaware could be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of overexpansion. The museum double its space in 2005, but in spite of that the museum's membership is down to 1,600 from a peak of about 3,000 in 2001, said Jessica Jenkins, a museum spokeswoman.

Selling artwork to fund operations is viewed as self-defeating since museums are supposed to safeguard art for future generations, not cash in or out, and as the sale of the Holman Hunt showed that sales don't always go as hoped. Michael Miller, chief executive and director of the museum, said, "We're disappointed that it didn't go for more, and so is Christie's and everybody else. Is it a fair price? Who knows? I don't know."

Former director of the Delaware Art Museum, Danielle Rice said of the situation, "Trustees always talk about selling things, but I was very clear on the fact that it was not a viable course of action. Unfortunately, it does look like I was the only thing standing in the way of their taking action."

The Delaware Art Museum remains sanctioned by the museum association, which represents 242 art museum directors who tend to agree about the need for professional standards. Mr. Miller, who said he resigned from the organization the day before selling the Holman Hunt, says of the association: "It's a club that I don't need to belong to. The good news is that people who support us don't really care about what they say." He continued to say, "I reached out to the A.A.M.D., and I told them, 'We would like to talk to you and see if there's any way we could work something out.' They were appreciative of the contact, and we had a lot of discussions."

Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the group, says that she recalls events unfolding in a different way. She said that last November she received a phone call from an unidentified woman who tipped her off to a proposed sale and then she and Mr. Rub contacted Mr. Miller and arranged to visit Wilmington to try to convince him that there were better ways to raise money than liquidating a museum's collection. Mr. Rub recalls the meeting saying, "Gerret Copeland said something during our meeting that absolutely astonished me. He said: 'We need to do this. We simply haven't been able to persuade donors to support us. There will be cheering in the streets when we do this.' I wanted to use the old John McEnroe line with him, 'You cannot be serious.' "

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Photo Credit: Winslow Homer's "Milking Time."Credit- Delaware Art Museum