Laguna Sells a Matisse; Palm Springs' Frankenthaler May Be Next
|Henri Matisse, Jeune femme allongée, 1941. Laguna Art Museum, to be sold at Christies|
The deaccessioning virus has hit southern California, with a Matisse drawing from the Laguna Art Museum going on the block today at Christie's. Meanwhile, Christopher Knight reports that the Palm Springs Art Museum is "finalizing discussions" to sell a major Helen Frankenthaler painting, Carousel (1979). Although details are scanty, it's presumed that both sales are by motived by the Association of Art Museum Directors' temporary decision to allow deaccessioning to pay "expenses associated with the direct care of the collections." This relaxes a longtime rule requiring that proceeds from art sales be used only to buy art.
Under the latter rule, smart deaccessioning can improve a collection. The Matisse drawing is an example of the sort of thing that might rationally be deaccessioned. It's an outlier in the Laguna collection, otherwise devoted to California art. Were the sales proceeds used to fill a gap in the museum's holdings—and many of the California paintings Laguna prizes and shows are cheaper than a Matisse drawing—that could be a win for visitors. But Christie's says only that the drawing is being "sold to benefit Laguna Art Museum." That could mean they're selling to pay for basic operating expenses. Obviously the pandemic has pummeled museum finances, but in some ways the Laguna museum has been lucky: It's been open since early September.
|Helen Frankenthaler, Carousel, 1979|
In comparison, the contemplated Frankenthaler sale makes no sense at all. It is arguably the most important painting in the Palm Springs Art Museum's collection. Seventeen-feet wide, it's a landmark in a survey of international modernism that skew towards small pieces by big names and medium-size pieces by small names. Selling Carousel would diminish the collection.
I know: Times are tough. But even if you accept the proposition that the museum has to sell art, and can't possibly raise a penny any other way, Carousel should be the very last thing they think of selling. You don't sell the Mona Lisa, you sell a dozen lesser works from the storeroom.
Some museums have sold art by white males to diversify their collections by ethnicity and gender. This can be justified, provided they're not selling their best or only piece by a pivotal artist in the museum's area of collecting (as with the Everson's Pollock). But as Christopher Knight points out, that's another reason why selling the Frankenthaler is crazy. Most museum directors would love to be able to say that their best painting is by a woman.