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[Moderator's Note: Thanks to Richard Jensen at H-Net Central for digging this up.--TMC] New-York Historical Society Sells New York Heritage WALL STREET JOURNAL 01/19/95 By Lee Rosenbaum New York -- Having failed to unearth any modern Medicis, the financially troubled New-York Historical Society last Thursday turned for help to Lorenzo himself. It auctioned the Renaissance Florentine banker and art patron's own painted wooden birthplate last week at Sotheby's for $2.2 million. That was the high point in a $12.21 million sale of 183 European old masters that marked a low point in cultural stewardship. Teetering on the brink of insolvency, the society had originally intended to sell the paintings five years ago, but the outcry from museum professionals was so great that it backed off. Even the richest art museums sell or "de-accession" art, but they aren't supposed to use the money to pay the staff. Proceeds from art should go to buy more and better art, or to preserve a collection: That is the generally accepted code of ethical museum practice. And the Historical Society also has circumvented the conditions of the original gift of some of the paintings it put on the block. Nevertheless, the society freely admits that it will use some of its sale proceeds to spruce up galleries, pay curators, collateralize a loan and help eliminate its operating deficit. And last week's selling spree was not the end. The disposals, from which it hopes eventually to raise $20 million, will include, most notably, one of only 24 known surviving copies of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence. The society maintains that its actions conform with the ethics codes of two leading professional organizations, the American Association of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History: Both permit sale proceeds to be applied not only to acquisitions but also to care of the collection. (The society is not a member of AAM; its library does belong to AASLH.) While not criticizing the society directly, Edward Able, AAM's executive director, made it clear in an interview that the society's announced plans for use of the sale proceeds far exceeded the direct object- preservation activities contemplated by his organization in its guidelines. Even after it pockets its auction windfall, the notoriously mismanaged 190-year-old society may not be able to save itself. Nor is it clear whether, under the latest in its dizzying succession of administrations, it now has a cultural mission worth saving. "We are not a museum of art; we are a historical society," declares its new executive director, Betsy Gotbaum, who says there will now be less emphasis on scholarly connoisseurship and more on informing general audiences about "how New York got to be New York." Formerly the city's Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, she admits to no previous experience running cultural institutions. "This place has been screwed up by people who had run arts institutions," she observed succinctly. "It needs management." With its building across from Central Park (and some of its collections) in extreme disrepair; a fiscal '93 accumulated operating-fund deficit of $2.8 million, which its auditors said raised "substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern"; and a board that for many years showed little interest in or talent for attracting public involvement or private support, the society closed its museum two years ago. Scheduled to reopen in May, it is undergoing a $10-million renovation jointly funded by the city and state. Last week's sale was part of this recovery plan, but it raised the eyebrows of people who think a historical society shouldn't dump paintings from a collection that exemplifies its own history as New York City's first public art collection. The society claims it must sell to survive, and argues that European old masters are now irrelevant to its new mission, which it expediently redefined in 1993 to focus on the heritage of New York City and State. But the donor of the most important old masters in the Sotheby's sale, Thomas Jefferson Bryan, clearly stipulated in his 1867 agreement with the society that his 381 paintings were either to remain there forever or be transferred to another institution or his heirs. Although the society has on three separate occasions obtained court permission to ignore those requirements, (and will retain 46 Bryan paintings if the Sotheby's sale goes through), a Bryan descendant, Gloria Hillman Valdez, challenged the latest auction's legality in court, in an effort to keep at least the most important Bryan works available to the public. Her attorney, William Pauley, said yesterday that the parties were "on the threshold of a settlement that would involve preserving the most important works for public institutions in New York." This would mean that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other local museums might be able to retrieve the de-accessioned paintings. The Sotheby's sale occurred under a dispensation devised by the New York Attorney General's Office that allows qualifying New York State public institutions to preempt the winning bidder on any item auctioned by the society, with a discount off the hammer price under certain circumstances, and with up to five years to pay. Eight institutions, including the Met, have qualified. At this writing, the Met's European paintings department hopes to buy the Medici birthplate (which it had on long-term loan), and expects to announce its final decision today. The ethical issues will remain, no matter what. In its agreement with the society, the Attorney General's office made it clear that the disposals were to be "a fund-raising tool of last resort," not to occur unless the society showed that it had made significant efforts "to maximize sources of endowment revenue." The Attorney General's office professes to be satisfied that these conditions have been met, but the society's board members have not even satisfied their own fund- raising goals as expressed in 1993. At that time, the board as a whole announced that its own members would need to contribute $1 million a year in unrestricted funds. Now it anticipates only $250,000 -- a mere $13,000 per member. On the job since August, Mrs. Gotbaum has managed to raise funds for some specific programs and exhibitions, but she concedes that major, recurring support for endowment and operating expenses is not likely to pour in unless potential supporters are convinced that the society has its house in order. With this prospect uncertain at best, there are still many who feel that instead of struggling to build an endowment and a constituency, the society should simply close for good, transferring its collections to viable institutions that can care for them, such as the Met, the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Public Library. Nevertheless, Mrs. Gotbaum is gamely proceeding with the planned reopening show of 250 objects from the collection, including such quirky and quotidian artifacts as the now-infamous 19th-century ceramic roach trap that the society's critics have gleefully seized upon as a symbol of its skewed curatorial priorities. Works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon have left the premises, but Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are soon to be sighted -- in a traveling exhibition of artists' depictions of the two pop icons, organized by a private exhibition-packaging firm. Charles Giuliano, reviewing that show for the Improper Bostonian weekly at its first stop, described it as "blurring the aesthetic distinction between high culture and kitsch" and "hopelessly obscur[ing] the vital issue of taste." May that not become the epitaph of the new regime at New York's oldest museum. --- Lee Rosenbaum is contributing editor of ARTnews and author of "The Complete Guide to Collecting Art." ==================================