Saturday, November 3, 2007

Out with the old, in with the new

This is my first post, and allows me a chance to vent on an issue that I think is emblematic of what is wrong with the art world, namely the sale of the core collections of the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo, NY. Anyone with an interest in art must know about this sale already, it received a fair amount of publicity, and the controversy was well covered by the art section of the New York Times, and I am sure other venues. However, even so, the magnitude of the sale does deserve even more comment and coverage. The sales themselves have been over for awhile now, but the implications and lessons to be gleaned remain important.
First to review some of the highlights of the collection and sale from the least prominent to most. This is a personal selection, there were many works of art sold, and others might select other pieces to highlight the travesty of this sale.

First, a rather beautiful Gandharan head of a bodhisatva, underlife sized and well preserved, but not truly exceptional. Very beautiful example of its type, but there are others in the world that one might like more. Its estimate was high, $250,000. to $350,000. and it sold for $600,000., including the buyer premium. That is allot for a Gandharan head and reflected the markets opinion on its exceptional quality and the importance of a stellar provinance.

Second, a modest, if beautiful female torso fragment, Khmer period Cambodia carved of sandstone. It was estimated at $60,000. to $90,000., and sold for a whopping $504,000. including buyer premium. Now that is allot of money for a good khmer torso, again reflecting the markets valuation of its quality and provenance.

One of my favorite pieces in these sales was the granite Shiva statue, Indian, Chola period. About life sized, the piece stands over six feet tall, and is in my opinion one of the most sublime Indian stone sculptures I have ever seen; complete, in wonderful condition, and truly beautiful. Oddly, it did not sell for much of a premium, it was estimated at three to four million and sold for $4,072,000., with buyer premium. I cannot explain why it did not go much higher as it is a priceless sculpture, but that is still a significant amount of money for what it is.

Now here we come to the stars of the sale, first the Chinese Archaic vessel, Shang Dynasty, which sold for 8 million dollars, a huge amount of money for an archaic chinese bronze vessel.

The top was reached by the Roman bronze statue of Artemis, estimated at three to five million, sold at $28,000,000., more than any sculpture of any period or type, at auction. More than any contemporary sculpture certainly. (all photos courtesy Sotheby's)

detail of the Artemis statue showing the deer and the delicate chasing of the fur, and exquisite detail.

The last two objects were obvious stars, but even so the prices they realized were beyond expectations and illustrate the hunger for great objects of impeccable provenance. They also point out how highly the rest of the world values great objects of the past, something that the Albright Knox apparently ceased to. I have never visited Buffalo but it was on my list of places to go precisely because of these pieces which I have known since my college days. Now, I have no compelling reason to go to visit the Albright Knox if and when I finally do get to Buffalo. They have ripped the heart out of their museum, and impoverished their town.

I think having great objects from other cultures and periods creates the ability of the viewer to make comparisons and enriches the art viewing experience. Certainly they provide a foil for contemporary art and a welcome refuge for the eyes and soul. Also as someone who grew up with modest means and not able to travel until later in life, seeing objects from other cultures allowed me to make a connection with places far away in space and time. Now where will children from Buffalo go to learn about the art of the past? They have been deprived of the chance and must travel to NYC, probably the only civilized place left in the country.

The reasons given for the sale was that the director and board wanted to focus on collecting cutting edge contemporary art under the pretext that the mission of the museum was to collect the art of its time, and somehow all these old works of art were superfluous. If the quality of these objects was less outstanding, a case could be made that they were correct. But the fact that these objects have been recognized as being some of the most outstanding examples of their kind in the world since the museum acquired them, contradicts this premise. The founders and patrons of the early days of the Albright Knox certainly knew what they were doing, they were creating a world class repository of the very best art they could buy. They were not incidental to the core mission, they were its core. Of course the board and director on some level recognized the quality of what they were selling, they wanted the money such masterpiecs would and did in fact bring. The sale was expected to raise 15 million. The examples above brought several times that, and the final take from the 207 works of art was $67 million.

My biggest problem is that even that amount of money will not go far in buying top works of modern and contemporary art. If this money also goes to buying cutting edge art, which while less costly, is unproven and will not hold its value, either monetarily or in terms of sustained interest and perceived significance. So now Buffalo has lost a pan cultural, cross time collection of significance to become a narrow, focused and limited one. I pity the residents of that benighted city.

At least the Metropolitan has not allowed a director to destroy its museum, and of course Philipe DeMontebello is one of the greatest custodians of art and a respector of curatorship in the world. There you still find obscure and highly scholarly exhibitions that require curatorship, conoisseurship and expertise. Sadly I think this is something the world is going to see less of and I fear for NYC when Philipe does finally retire. Will they do like so many other museums and try to find a businessman to run what should be a proudly non profit institution dedicated to being a custodian of precious works of art. Other museums that formerly had great curators have been remade by egotistical directors, the Brooklyn museum comes to mind as does the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Everyone is chasing the new ignorant wealthy, people who have struck it rich but have no depth or breadth of knowledge and who value nothing they cannot grasp in an instant. Old art is too much of a challenge to them, so they like the new. Museums are now chasing these people to help support them. Rather than trying to elevate these people and educate them as to great art, the museums are now following the lead of these new ignorillionairs. They know nothing but what they know and respect nothing they don't know already.

The only good thing about these sales is that Buffalo's loss is other collections gain, the prices paid indicate that all is not lost in the world, someone values these works of art, and hopefully they have gone to places where luckier publics will be able to enjoy them. I hope other museums don't follow Buffalo's lead.

1 comment:

dan in hudson said...

Auspicious beginning, Tom. Congratulations and I look forward to more insightful posts.