Come and Go —- Thoughts About the Recent Acquisition and Deaccession

Museums are always collecting. I have found a tea pot in the Brooklyn Museum which was produced in the 1990’s for Target stores. Based on my observation, today major traditional American institutions mostly concentrate the contemporary arts. Such practice is NOT because they have changed their directions; on the contrary it is the direction that they have always been following: collecting contemporary art. By committing collecting arts through the times, they’ve shaped the aesthetic tastes of the public and quietly assembled works when they were still affordable.

That is not the case for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Alice Walton. No major American art museums will feel its 19th century collection complete without paintings by Hudson River school artits, early portrait painters like Copley, Stuart or Peale. The same can be said for works by Andy Warhol or Edward Hopper to lead the 20th century collection. But without years of primary collecting, Crystal Bridges has to start from scratch for everything.

Last Friday’s press release showed that Francis Guy’s “A Winter Scene in Brooklyn” was the museum’s latest acquisition. The painting was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum in 2006 along with their own version. Possibly painted by Francis Guy’s last year, the two were almost identical except the one in Brooklyn Museum lost about 2 feet on the left side due to a fire. It was said that the one bought by Alice Walton once had a painted balustrade along its lower edge but was trimmed for unknown reasons. If so, the feature that evoked the artist’s window ledge would surprise all those 20th century artists who claimed inventing more naturalistic or accidental cropping compositions. At a time when there is no nationally recognized style or high demand for landscape paintings, Guy, trained as a tailor and silk dyer, painted his window scenes no less than five times.

I am personally not a fan of Francis Guy. His paintings have tremendous historical value for sure. “Tontine Coffee House” in New York Historical Society, painted in 1797 tells a vivid story how Wall Street came into being. The village scenery of Front Street and Fulton Street, long disappeared after the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, provided scholars of the architectural, economic, social and ethnic views of Brooklyn in 1820. Guy, like other early landscape painters, has a peculiar detail-oriented tendency. The dramas, anecdotes, and humors were found here and there in carefully arranged objects and humans to provide a narrative sub context. If Hudson River School is going to be blamed for their tedious copy of nature, Guy, their predecessor, showed an amateurish understanding of naturalism by giving everything sharp edges.

But the painting does have its charm. Instead of looking from the far back to grasp the magic light in Durand’s landscape, one is enticed to get as close as possible to examine the daily life of the people in Guy’s “A Winter Scene in Brooklyn”. (About 40 names of the houses, stores, shops or people are identified in Guy’s painting! Don’t forget to look at the person on the chimney!)

But I would doubt such findings as the black person’s name is Samuel Foster would have the same “wow” effect in Bentonville, AR. A Winter Scene in Brooklyn is essentially Brooklynite. For those people who jog on the promenade and wonder why there are so many Asian wedding photo sessions under the Brooklyn Bridge, the painting reminds them of Brooklyn, although it has become much bigger and more diverse, it still holds a home feeling. The visitors to Crystal Bridges may successfully identify the painting as a primitive landscape, yet they would not have the chance to hop on the subway from the museum and get off at Clark Street and overcome all the obstacles now blocking the ferry to see what it’s like now and thus deeply appreciate the genius of Francis Guy.

The deaccession at the National Academy (NA)seems to be related to Crystal Bridges too. News broke out that Nation Academy sold two important paintings (one by Church, one by Gifford) from their permanent collection to pay their bills. Where the two paintings went has yet to be revealed, but the disclosure of selling works reminds New Yorkers of the outcry of the public when New York Public Library sold Kindred Spirits by Durand to Crystal Bridges Museum.

I have been to National Academy for both visiting exhibition and doing research. They do have an extensive permanent collection since every new academician is supposed to submit a diploma painting. But they don’t have a permanent place to exhibit them. Their permanent collection thus is most likely to be in the storage. This coming February, NA will have an exhibition to highlight some of their permanent collection. I agree with Eric that it is better to show artworks in public regardless of the location than store them in the dark room.

National Academy also mentioned that these two paintings were not diploma works but were donated by another member. This statement, in my mind, neither legitimizes nor invalidates their deaccession activity. Just because it is donated does not make a painting less important or less valuable. Ethnically, selling donated objects (more common in Natural History Museums nowadays because some donors insisted to donate their whole collection in the past) is in general against the donor’s intention. The donor of the two paintings must have regarded NA the most proper organization to place the asset. On the other hand, legally it is up to the museum who determines how to dispose the artworks when they do not want to show them permanently. I hope that the original donor would be happy to know that sometime soon the two paintings would be hung publicly.

My two cents: Don’t blanketly donate artwork to museums, at least not in unrestricted terms. They have thousands of objects collecting dust in the darkness for years. Why bother another one?

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Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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