It’s old news to Colorado Springs that art museums are struggling. We learned that a few years ago when Colorado College acquired the adjacent Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Its endowment depleted, its revenue hollowed out by the Great Recession and its donors reluctant, the once proudly independent institution had little choice. It was a forced marriage, one that gradually folded the CSFAC into CC. It wasn’t a bad deal, but it meant that the goals, beliefs and aspirations of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College will forever be those of a top-tier liberal arts college.
Absent CC, what choice did the FAC Board have? Having exhausted any other options, they might have tried selling stuff from their collections. That wasn’t a viable option, since the few pieces of real value in the CSFAC’s holdings are community treasures such as John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Elsie Palmer. To remain independent, the FAC would have had to raise tens of millions of dollars, thereby gutting the collection with a massive fire sale. You’d end up with a building, an endowment and not much else. In any case, guidelines by the American Association of Museum Directors that forbade museums using the proceeds of deaccessioning for anything but acquisitions made it virtually impossible to mount such a sale.
As it turns out, the FAC wasn’t an outlier but a harbinger. Museums throughout the country have seen their attendance shrink during the pandemic, and can’t afford to pay their staff. Diversity advocates who believe such institutions are tax-free bastions of white privilege want reform. Thanks to new pandemic-inspired guidelines from AAMD, museum boards can now sell objects from their collections and use the funds for operations — a broad category that allows a great deal of flexibility. Two major museums are among those cashing in: the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
The Baltimore Museum is selling three extraordinary paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol through the auction company Christie’s. Expected haul: $65 million. The museum is financially strong — it doesn’t need the money to fund deferred maintenance or cover operating expenses. Museum director Christopher Bedford plans to use the proceeds to fund diversity initiatives. Two former board chairmen, who have rescinded $50 million in planned donations, have opposed his plan. A former board chairwoman has asked the Maryland attorney general to intervene.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but to me, any opposition to that effort — which is so many decades overdue — is itself an investment in a system of operating institutions that is very deeply centered in white power and white privilege,” Bedford told the Baltimore Sun. “I have absolutely no doubt that institutions like ours will be on the right side of history when history is written.”
Is Bedford selling the museum’s birthright for a mess of pottage, as his opponents claim? That’s for posterity to decide.
The Brooklyn Museum has already sold half a dozen old masters, as well as a Monet and a DuBuffet. The museum hopes to raise $40 million from the sales, which will help mitigate an ongoing structural deficit and support staff salaries. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse sold a Jackson Pollock for $13 million through Christie’s while the Palm Springs Museum of Art has consigned a Helen Frankenthaler to the auction house.
The Brooklyn Museum isn’t selling “anything that could be considered a crown jewel of our collection,” Museum Director Anne Pasternak told the weekly Crain’s Chicago Business.
Here in the Springs, every museum is suffering from sharply reduced attendance, thanks to pandemic restrictions. None, as far as I know, have Abstract Expressionist masterworks in the basement to sell and none have vast endowments that can be used to support operations into the indefinite future. The Pioneers Museum relies on city funding, the FAC relies on Colorado College and the Ent Center for the Arts is part of UCCS. The erstwhile sugar daddies have their own problems now, but what about everyone else?
Consider all of our stand-alone museums, galleries and arts-related nonprofits and imagine their fate if COVID-19 hangs around for another two or three years. Without steady infusions of cash from thousands of small donors, many will disappear — so what are we waiting for? In this our winter of discontent, it’s up to us.