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The War Against the Albright-Knox

On November 10, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced that it planned to sell a number of objects the directors decided were peripheral to the collection and could serve the gallery better by being auctioned off, with the proceeds going to an endowment fund restricted for acquisitions.

Five days later, Tom L. Freudenheim, a 69-year-old resident of Washington, DC, published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal attacking the board’s decision. That led to a series of challenges to the sale that more and more degenerated into ad hominem attacks against the gallery’s board of directors and staff. A great deal of misinformation has since been put out as truth, and the personal attacks have become increasingly vicious.

It is perfectly reasonable and proper for members of a community to disagree about the policies and behaviors of public and semi-public institutions and the officials who lead them, and to express that disagreement in whatever forums they can find. But it isn’t at all reasonable or proper to spread misinformation and to malign the character and actions of individuals whose only presumptive fault is to have made a decision someone with the ability and resources to make mischief doesn’t happen to like.

Disagreement does not translate to venality or irresponsibility or corruption. Nor is it reasonable or responsible to spread disinformation in a covert attempt to alter the character of an institution in the guise of trying to protect it. Nor is it reasonable to spread disinformation in a masked attack on the gallery’s director because he has spectacularly reinvigorated the gallery, opened it to a huge new audience and vastly extended its worldwide reputation as an institution that matters.

A teenager grown old

Almost everything written or said in criticism of the deaccession plan has been based, with and without quotation marks, on Freudenheim’s November 15 article.

Freudenheim has spent his career in and around museums. He worked for the Smithsonian, directed the museum program at National Endowment for the Arts and was director or assistant director at five museums. The last three of those jobs came in rapid succession: He spent two years each from 1996-2002 at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin and the Gilbert Collection in London. According to an Alicia Patterson Foundation Newsletter report, he said he left his job at the Jüdisches Museum because “his expertise hadn’t been appreciated.” There are other versions of that separation.

The second sentence of his Wall Street Journal essay about the Albright-Knox auction begins, “Included on the hit list,” which suggests where the rest of his essay is headed. Characters in spy and mafia fiction have “hit lists.” What’s at issue in Buffalo is a group of objects being put up for a sale by an art gallery’s board of directors at a time when traditional sources of funding are drying up. Why the Day-Glo mafioso novel prose from Freudenheim?

“Having grown up in Buffalo and haunted the museum’s halls until I left for college,” he writes, “I thought I knew something about [the Gallery’s] mission: providing access to all kinds of high-quality art in a medium-size, not unsophisticated, formerly important industrial city, which also boasts key examples of American architecture and has a powerful musical tradition.”

He’s right about the architecture and music, but when it comes to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery he’s playing games, or perhaps—in the 50 years since he last haunted the gallery’s halls—he’s forgotten or no longer cares what it is and does. In any case, he’s got it all wrong.

What AKAG does and is

The mission of the Albright-Knox is not now, was not 50 years ago when Tom Freudenheim last spent quality time in it, and never has been “providing access to all kinds of high-quality art.”

That is the mission of the Met in New York City, the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Pergamon in Berlin. But it is no more the mission of the Albright-Knox than it is of the Museum of Modern Art.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery is dedicated to modern and contemporary art. It always has been. It has on occasion acquired, through gifts and more rarely through purchase, other material, but that hasn’t altered its consistent focus on modern and contemporary art. Making up stories about other missions doesn’t change the reality of that.

Tom Freudenheim is claiming a role for the Albright-Knox it never had, then faulting the gallery for failing to fulfill the nonexistent role he made up for it. Who but the accuser can win in a court with such phony-baloney rules?

He follows that syllogism with what is perhaps the most indefensible accusation in his Wall Street Journal screed: “That this project has the unanimous assent of the museum’s trustees tells us a great deal about how my hometown hasn’t changed. It’s the museum equivalent of Buffalo’s 1950 demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic and innovative 1904 Larkin Building, which vies with the loss of New York’s Penn Station for high marks in public vandalism.”

Nonsense. The decision of the Albright-Knox board to sell off what it considers peripheral objects in order to increase acquisitions endowment, an action taken only after consultation with dozens of museum professionals, is nothing like the demolition of the Larkin Building, which occurred because the owners of the Larkin Building knew nothing of its value and didn’t bother to learn. Surely Freudenheim, as a longtime museum professional and onetime resident of Buffalo, knows that—or should.

Why would he make such distorted accusations? Why would he make these things up? You never know what someone’s real reasons are, but maybe Freudenheim unintentionally gives us a hint when he particularly laments the inclusion in the auction list of the bronze Artemis and the Stag. When he was very young, he writes, the stag reminded him of Bambi, and then, when he became a teenager, he “was more interested in what are now called ‘perky’ breasts showing from beneath the goddess’s drapery.”

So the hysteria over the decision by the Albright-Knox’s directors to convert some objects at the periphery of the collection into a major acquisitions fund started because a retired guy whose museum career didn’t end very well and who hasn’t lived here for more than 50 years feared he’d never again get to see his favorite ersatz-Disney animal and an erotic image remembered from adolescence? For this some people in Buffalo are tearing apart one of the few institutions in this town that really works and does us honor?

Answering the call

Freudenheim’s call to arms was answered by retired University at Buffalo English professor Carl Dennis. Dennis has a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, which is important in this narrative because without the gravitas the prize carries it is unlikely that many people or local news organizations would have paid much attention to his kvelling about the impending sale of the gallery’s deaccessioned articles. The Pulitzer, in some quarters, imparts status akin to being a well-known athlete or rock performer: Your utterances get attention, whether or not you have your facts right.

Dennis’s war on the Albright-Knox, for example, was the subject of a long, uncritical article in the Buffalo News (which had earlier published a long, uncritical article about the proposed sale). It mentioned his Pulitzer, as did coverage on one of the city’s TV stations and a barrage of letters to gallery staff and local foundations and media from a former gallery guard now living in Queens.

The UB house newspaper, the Reporter, published a letter signed by Dennis and four other English professors urging UB’s faculty and staff to send a letter to the gallery demanding a full members’ meeting “to discuss and vote on a resolution to reject the decision of the board of directors to sell at auction some 144 objects from the permanent collection.” (It is actually 204 objects, 84 of them a single group of Chinese export porcelain—teacups, saucers, plates and such.) The letter urged people who were not members of the gallery to join because otherwise their demand for a meeting to protest the sale wouldn’t count.

I can see why the UB Reporter would publish a letter from faculty members wanting a faculty meeting, but why would it publish a letter from members of another organization entirely asking members or potential members of that other organization to demand a meeting? Would the Reporter publish a letter from five professors demanding a meeting of the Buffalo Elks because they were in a snit over suspected hanky-panky in the Elks’ lodge over on Elmwood Avenue? Perhaps it would, if, as is the case here, the letter-writing campaign had been organized by the campus’s only Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet. UB has, in recent years, lost all its creative writers with international reputations: Robert Creeley and Leslie Fiedler died, Raymond Federman retired and went to California, MacArthur fellow Irving Feldman retired and disappeared and Charles Bernstein took another job. Carl Dennis and his Pulitzer are—even though Dennis is also retired—all that’s left.

The Balance of the List

Last Tuesday, February 13, the Albright-Knox released the complete list of the items from the gallery’s permanent collection that it intends to sell at auction this spring. The first auction is scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s in New York City on March 15. That auction will consist mostly of Chinese and Indian antiquities. African, Oceanic, pre-Columbian and American Indian art will be auctioned in May, along with some pre-19th-century European art. In June, the late Hellenistic/early Roman Imperial bronze, Artemis and the Stag—the piece that has become an icon in the debate about the proposed deaccession—and similar items will go on the block.

The final list has been a long time coming; the decision by the board of directors to sell a number of its antiquities and historic works was made on November 6. At that time, the board and Executive Director Louis Grachos offered a partial list of the more prominent (and expensive) pieces that were certain to go to auction; indeed, those items already were at Sotheby’s to be photographed for the auction house’s promotional catalog, also released last week. The gallery was unable to release a complete list in November, Grachos explains now, because most of the items under consideration were being researched for saleability: their provenance, their role in the collection, their potential price, the feelings of the original donors or their heirs. Grachos said that announcing the intention to deaccess before a complete list was available was a mistake, inasmuch as it has provided ammunition to those who accuse the gallery of planning the sale in secrecy.

The final list of items to be sold was accompanied by material that Grachos and the board hoped would deflect criticism of the sale, which has grown fierce: a project timeline that indicates deaccession has been a subject of discussion among the trustees since 2000; a list of the professionals from other museums who advised Grachos on how to implement the board’s deaccession plan; minutes from several key meetings regarding the deaccession plan; and, inevitably, a list of “frequently asked questions.”

Among these FAQs is the one that many on both sides of the debate have been asking for months: Which works are being sold?

The answer: “The Gallery is selling 207 objects, 84 of which are a group of Chinese export porcerlain, such as plates, platters, tureens, and teacups. These 207 objects represent about 3 % of the Gallery’s total collection. Most of them had not been exhibited in recent years. These works range in artistic signigficance from major to minor and in date from antiquities to the 14th and 15th centuries.”

The answer continues to argue that these items fall outside the museum’s core mission—a position that opponents of the sale dispute.

If one were to separate the contents of Sotheby’s highlights catalog from the rest of the final list, it is doubtful that the sale would have engendered such passionate opposition. It’s true that most of the works on the list have rarely left the museum’s vaults. The items in the highlight catalog are, however, quite remarkable—an homage to an era when Buffalo was a rich city whose citizens were given to grand gestures of largesse. (And, no doubt, when the purchase of antiquities by American tycoons was not hamstrung by modern law and contemporary ethics.) Take, as an example, the first item in the catalog (pictured above), described as “an extremely important and rare massive limestone chimera” from sixth-century China. Nearly four feet long and almost as tall, the chimera is as beautiful and striking as it is rare and unusual in its carving; it was donated to the Albright in 1940 by Georgia M. G. Forman and is expected to fetch between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

Whatever the final price, it must be considered a loss to the city’s cultural treasury, even by those who support the Albright-Knox’s deaccession plan, which the board anticipates will add at least $15 million to the gallery’s acquisition fund. That is true, as well, of the granite figure of Shiva as Brahma from 10th- or 11th-century India, which appears on this newspaper’s cover. Balancing that loss, according to Grachos and his board of directors, is the Albright-Knox’s future as a healthy, living institution that remains committed to and capable of collecting and exhibiting the art of its time. No one—neither opponents nor proponents of the sale—can know how true a balance is being struck. It will take years to know that.

geoff kelly

Deaccessioning

So far as I can tell, the war started by Tom Freudenheim and carried on by Carl Dennis (they are in regular email contact) is a lot of sound and fury over nothing. With a few exceptions, the objects being deaccessioned have been rarely displayed; some have never been displayed at all. The Albright-Knox has never had a major exhibit of any of them and it has never hired a curator to deal with them or further develop their areas. They have always been seen as peripheral to the gallery’s mission.

Selling off pieces of the collection for operating expenses is strongly disapproved of by the Association of Art Museum Directors; selling for acquisition funds is done all the time. Museums get rid of duplicates, they get rid of pieces that aren’t very good and they get rid of pieces that may be very good which are part of their collections but which they’re willing to sell because the money will let them do lots of things central to their mission.

The Met, for example, got $15 million out of its February 14, 2006, sale of duplicate photographs. In 2004, Chicago’s Field Museum, which had no acquisitions budget, sold a collection of 19th-century Western art that included 31 George Catlins for $17.4 million; the money went into a restricted account that could only be used for acquisitions, as will happen with the proceeds from the Albright sale. The Art Institute of Chicago deaccessioned and sold at a Christie’s auction two Albert Bierstadts in December 1997. That same year the New York Public Library decided to sell 19 significant pieces, including two Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington, with the funds to be dedicated to acquisitions. In 2006 the Neue Galerie in New York sold three Egon Schieles at Christie’s to help pay for Gustav Klimt’s Adele Block-Bauer I, which museum founder Ronald Lauder bought for $135 million.

So the questions for Carl Dennis are, “Other than you having discovered something that museums do all the time, and which the Albright-Knox itself has done in the past, what’s new? Why kvell?”

Guilt by accusation and assumption

“Members of the gallery,” Dennis wrote in the letter cosigned by the other four English professors, “have been entirely excluded from the deliberations that led to the decision to sell. The board adopted a policy of total secrecy as part of what seems to have been a deliberate attempt to keep the membership and the community in the dark until the contract for the sale had been signed so that the protest would come too late.”

This is paranoia or hubris. There isn’t one public museum in the country that makes buying and selling decisions at a public meeting. These issues are decided by the boards of directors or trustees. That’s what museums and galleries have boards for. Museum governance by plebiscite? Nothing would get done. Or lunacy would result.

Might the board have announced earlier that it was considering deaccessioning? Perhaps. Was there a special wall of secrecy around this consideration? Not at all. The full board, the job of which is to represent the community in all matters having to do with the gallery, was involved all along.

Dennis and his cosigners are making serious charges: The board engaged in “a deliberate attempt to keep the membership and the community in the dark until the contract for the sale had been signed so that the protest would come too late.”

“A deliberate attempt?” What evidence, other than the fact that Dennis doesn’t like the sale, is there for any of this? Surely Dennis is capable of something more substantial than, “I disagree with you, therefore you are either corrupt, criminal or evil,” which is all that paragraph says. Dennis is a poet. He knows that words matter. If you’re going to accuse someone of something, it matters.

This is the same kind of presumptive guilt Freudenheim asserts in his Wall Street Journal essay: “It’s not comforting to think,” he wrote, “that a ‘special advisory committee’ of fellow museum directors was invited to assist in what Mr. Grachos calls the ‘careful vetting process’ that produced the list. Museum folks are notorious for covering up each others’ missteps: Just watch the constant buying and selling that characterizes what used to be called ‘collecting’ but that has now obliterated whatever lines once differentiated the roles of curator and dealer.”

That is slimy and misleading stuff, all of it. There is no indication or evidence that anybody covered anything up in Buffalo. Freudenheim is maligning Louis Grachos and the Albright-Knox board by innuendo.

“The works of art in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery,” Freudenheim continues, “don’t belong to the directors or curators, who move in and out of communities as job opportunities present themselves. Nor are they the property of the trustees, who are meant to hold them in trust for the people of Buffalo, but who now show that they cannot be trusted.”

That’s another bogus accusation: No one on the Albright-Knox board is the kind of transient Freudenheim describes. Nearly all of the gallery’s directors are life-long residents of Buffalo and most of the curators have been on staff for years. Tom Freudenheim may “move in and out of communities as job opportunities present themselves” (those three managerial jobs in six years), but his prose fits no one here.

Who are the people Dennis and Freudenheim are convicting of various ethical offenses? You can’t make such charges in the abstract. Some members of the deaccessioning advisory committee, which Freudenheim sarcastically disparaged, are Richard Armstrong (Director, Carnegie Museum of Art), James Demetrion (former director, Hirshhorn Museum and Des Moines Art Center) Carol Mattush (Professor of Art History and antiquities specialist, George Mason University) and Ellen Avril (Curator of Asian Art/Chief Curator, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell). The members of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy Board of Directors on the Deaccession Committee were Charles W. Banta, Thomas R. Hyde, Charles E. Balbach, Steven G. Biltekoff, Gerald S. Lippes and Northrup R. Knox.

Those are all people who take their work and reputations seriously. Anyone setting about accusing and convicting without trial people like that has to offer something more substantial than pique and hypothesis. Neither Dennis nor Freudenheim comes close.

Muddying the waters

On January 26, Dennis and several of his supporters met with Buffalo Fine Arts Academy president Charles W. Banta, the gallery’s director, Louis Grachos, and several members of the gallery’s board and staff.

Three members of the gallery group have separately told me they were astonished by two things said in that meeting.

First was the suggestion by one of Dennis’s group that the museum sell one of its Clyfford Stills rather than the objects being sent to Sotheby’s.

That calls to mind the corny old gag about the guy who goes up to a woman at a party and says, “Would you go to bed with someone other than your husband for a million dollars?” She thinks a moment and says, “For a million dollars, yes, I would.” “How about two dollars?” the man says. “What kind of woman do you think I am?” she says angrily. “We’ve already established that,” the man says, “we’re just haggling about the price.”

If Dennis and his group are willing to sell a Clyfford Still, then they have no opposition to deaccessioning. It’s just the price. If the gallery needs money, they’re willing to dispense with a major piece of modern art, one of the pieces that make the gallery internationally important, but they’re not willing to give up older objects, some of which hardly anyone sees or even knows exist. Is this a vision anyone should take with any seriousness in regard to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery?

Then, when one of the trustees said the gallery needed to increase endowment funds in order to be able to continue buying contemporary art, one of Dennis’s group replied, “I don’t see why you need to buy any more.”

Which is to say, it would be fine with them if the gallery became a time capsule of art gathered from 1862 to 2007.

Those two utterances deal with the Albright-Knox as if it weren’t a real art gallery with a real mission in a real city existing in real time. If the Albright-Knox Art Gallery stops acquiring contemporary art, it becomes a museum looking back rather than one that is looking around and looking forward. If it peddles key objects at the heart of its collection, it cannibalizes itself. The suggestions offered by Dennis’s group miss the point of what the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is all about.

So what war are Tom Freudenheim and Carl Dennis and their followers really fighting? Nostalgia? Shouldn’t that be something grown men do in private? Is it reasonable to sacrifice the Albright-Knox on the altar of nostalgia?

Some facts

A lot of misinformation appeared in Freudenheim’s Wall Street Journal article, his emails to Buffalo bloggers, in letters to the editor at Artvoice and the Buffalo News, in Carl Dennis’s public statements and in emails. Here are some corrections and other facts that should be part of this discussion:

■ The Albright-Knox is a museum known for its contemporary collection and its Modernist collection. With very few exceptions, it has always bought contemporary or close to it. The first item brought into its permanent collection—an 1859 Albert Bierstadt landscape—was only four years old when it entered the collection. The now-classic works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, de Chirico, and the landmark pieces of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art and Minimalism, all came in as recent or contemporary acquisitions. Not one of the 11 directors before Louis Grachos ever appointed a curator to deal with the antiquities or Southeast Asian material or to develop those materials into large, coherent collections. No board of trustees ever asked Grachos or any of the other 11 directors to do that.

■ The cost of art has been going up and resources with which galleries and museums can acquire art and carry out their daily operations have been going down. Because of severe money problems the Albright-Knox recently made major staff cuts. Buffalo no longer has a Seymour Knox who will come in and write checks that bring into the city’s artistic heritage hundreds of terrific works people from around the world will come to see. State, county and city funding for the gallery—for all the arts—has been slashed. If an arts institution is going is survive now, it’s got to survive on its own.

■ Dennis said at a public meeting he called in the Crane Library on February 17 that the older works were being auctioned because the directors of the gallery were too lazy to raise funds by other means. That is untrue. Fundraising goes on constantly and the directors of the gallery (contrary to what some of the letters have said) are themselves major annual contributors to the operations and acquisitions funds. But they can’t do it all. There is no public or private Medici ready to pay the price. If everything were as it was when Tom Freudenheim was a boy fantasizing about Artemis’s “perky breasts,” it might be possible to do everything, hold on to everything. But everything is not the same. These are hard times in the art world and museum directors everywhere are making hard decisions in order to survive.

■ The Albright-Knox is known in the art world as trailing only New York’s Museum of Modern Art as the premier museum of modern and contemporary art. The Museum of Modern Art has an endowment of $650 million (its uptown neighbor, the Met, has $2.1 billion), while the Albright-Knox has only $58 million, of which approximately $22 million is restricted for acquisitions. This auction of some older objects in the collection has the potential of more than doubling the Albright-Knox’s acquisitions endowment. It will have a profound effect on the gallery for as long as the gallery exists.

■ The gallery’s Art Committee had discussed deaccessions in general for years before Louis Grachos was hired. The present sale was not his idea and it was not undertaken at his instigation. The impetus came from the gallery’s directors. Like all previous executive directors of the Albright-Knox, Grachos does not have a vote in any of the board’s decisions, including this one.

■ Some people are outraged that all these pieces are about to be sold so the money can be squandered on the purchase of a few items in today’s high-priced art market or for new construction. That is not what will be done with the money. Proceeds from the Sotheby’s auction will go directly into endowment and will be earmarked for acquisitions. The funds will be identified with the original donors, just as if the donors had given the gallery cash to be placed in its acquisitions endowment. The board voted at its November 6, 2006, meeting that “the entire net proceeds of sale of the deaccessioned works be added to the endowment and held in as many restricted-purpose funds as necessary to preserve the names of the original donors” and “that any amounts expended from these endowment funds be used only for the acquisition of works of art.” (Carl Dennis knows that, but when asked about it at the February 17 Crane Library meeting, he pretended he didn’t.)

■ The proceeds from the sale (which should be considerably more than the announced $15 million) will, like the rest of the money in the acquisitions part of the gallery’s endowment, be spent at a maximum rate of five percent per year. The amount available in any year will be calculated on a three-year rolling basis, which means the five percent is figured on an average of the endowment’s return on three successive years, thereby protecting the acquisitions fund from up and down spikes in the market. Five percent is considerably less than the rate at which the gallery’s endowment has performed, which means whatever is acquired from the sale will grow and will continue to grow for as long as the gallery exists.

Now what?

All these letters have been written, meetings taken and meetings planned, lawyers hired. Now what?

The gallery’s board has the sole legal authority to decide what to buy, what to keep, what to sell, what to build and whom to hire. The vote of the membership Dennis is working so hard to organize is meaningless, and the threatened lawsuit he and a few other people are funding seems equally pointless. How likely is it a judge will block a sale undertaken within the terms of the organization’s charter, undertaken after consultation with top professionals in the field and vetted in advance by New York’s attorney general?

This vendetta has already done real harm to the Albright-Knox. Some potential donors who see these unfounded accusations about the motives and ethics of the directors will believe them and the gallery will not receive support it would (and should) otherwise have received.

If the successful future of the Albright-Knox is what is really at issue, the most responsible course would be to end this futtering now. The attack begun by Tom Freudenheim in the Wall Street Journal and carried on by Carl Dennis and his group serves only to harm the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the city of Buffalo. The gallery and the city deserve better.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB. In 2000, the French government named him to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest honor in the arts and humanities.