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.


Zack said…
I’m generally against deaccessioning: the collection is the heart and soul of a museum. Collectors donate to museums for the preservation of art and to make it accessible to the public. When museums sell art I think it undermines trust in the mission of the museum. And in both of the cases reference in this article, the art being deaccessioned is great art, even if it falls outside of the parameters of the collection as the current leadership sees it. To me, both of these sales are short sighted and unfortunate. Museums should be required to offer art they no longer want or can care for to another museum that can do it. Maybe this is something for the state legislature to take up.
Anonymous said…
I agree that it is sad to see this happen. As an east coast visitor to the Palm Springs Museum the Frankenthaler painting is the outstanding object (I admit to a prejudice in really liking her work). But the sad truth is that a lot of the small far less valuable things in the storeroom likely will not sell for as much-- that's why they are in the storeroom. I live in Florida and the problem we see here is what afflicts Palm Springs: there is huge wealth here, but it just visits. They leave their art and philanthropy elsewhere.
The PalmSprings museum was likely founded and supported by wealth whose owners have passed and their heirs have little interest and the museum has not been able to attract newer younger wealth to pay the bills.

I am afraid that many small museums around the country may be harmed or put out of business by the current pandemic
Unknown said…
Are any representatives, or family members of the donor of the Frankenthaler painting, being given any say in this destructive, and short sighted decision? AND who, exactly are making these decisions? Sad and shameful!

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