Here’s an idea for our local Medici’s: Give a large grant to your favorite museum so it can distribute some of its mostly unseen treasures to institutions in smaller communities; to schools, to libraries and to local government offices. “Share the art.” Otherwise most of it goes unseen for long periods and some may never be shown in public.
Meanwhile, individuals and families might take care before consigning their heirlooms to a museum. The Tacoma Art Museum recently sold a fine collection of Chinese court robes and jade items that were donated by the family of Col. John C. and Mary Lee Young three decades ago. Selling it probably seemed like a sensible move for the Tacoma Art Museum, whose “mission” doesn’t include Chinese works of art.
The Young family was not so pleased, however. The gifts were intended as a symbol of reconciliation between the Chinese Youngs and the city of Tacoma, which was a particularly harsh actor in the implementation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. (On November 3rd, 1885, the city marched 600 Chinese residents onto outbound trains at gunpoint in the middle of the night.) A lawsuit resulted and a story about the matter appeared in the Seattle Times. Subsequent to the publicity, a mutually agreeable settlement was reached that allowed the museum to complete its sale, holding back some items for another museum and using some of the auction proceeds for art by Chinese Americans in the Northwest.
The truth is that museums often receive many times more treasures than they can possibly display. Even storage becomes a problem. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art gained unwanted attention 40 years ago for selling off certain donated items to help finance the purchase of Velázquez’s “Juan de Pareja,” according to a New York Times article. In 2011, the Art Institute in Chicago sold two Picassos and a Matisse and the Cleveland Museum of Art off-loaded 32 old masters. Museums often sell historic artifacts to gain money, whether for operations or to finance new acquisitions. The New Jersey Historical Society sold President Martin Van Buren¹s 120-piece dinner set for $17,000 in 2011. Like the Young family, some donors understandably take it amiss.
Rather than selling off so many objets d’art, a fund might be established to get at least a few museum possessions into more appreciative hands. Back in the 1970s, as a young City Councilmember in Seattle, I premiered this idea when I decided to use the Council offices and chamber as a showcase for local art. The Seattle Art Museum kindly loaned me paintings for my office by “Northwest School” artists Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and Richard Gillkey. These works always elicited interest from the varied people who visited.
The old Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), meanwhile, loaned me a ship’s wheel. During a personal tour of the vaults, where a museum officer showed me a whole room of ship’s wheels, I selected one from the S.S. Portland, the “Ton of Gold ship” that incited the Klondike Gold Rush.
The rest of the ships’ wheels in the room obviously were not on display. Nor was a room full of spinning wheels, a room of baby cradles, or a huge collection of fine pioneer desks, chairs and tables. Many had come over the Rockies in Conestoga wagons or around the Horn. Only a tiny representative sample of them could ever be displayed to the public.
Today, the rest presumably permanently entertain the silence at MOHAI’s new warehouse in Georgetown.
In olden days the fashion was to hang as many paintings on a museum gallery wall as space could be found. Today the best practice is to reduce that number by about four-fifths. Where do you think the other paintings go? Where do you think the paintings go that are accepted as donations, but don¹t quite match the “mission” or the prevalent taste, or just aren’t museum quality?
In virtually all cases, families with such heirlooms would be better off passing them on to family heirs or selling them. (Donate the cash to the museum and save a lot of trouble for everyone!) Many buyers would be thrilled to have the not-quite-museum-quality art on their living room walls. At least it would be seen.
As for the art that is museum-quality and yet languishes in cavernous storerooms, we need a generous patron who regards the improvement of public taste as something to be advanced broadly and not only in museums: Share the Art.
MOHAI did this at City Hall in the 70s, putting up a glass case where, every couple of months, a new historic display would interest and inform visitors. Can we not foresee generations of children in our schools given a close look every day at various artifacts and art from this area? These are students, by the way, required by law to study local history. Do the same at public libraries and local government offices.
If private donors cannot be found for such a project, how about accessing some of the “One Percent for Art” money the city collects to create a master fund for such a project? As a onetime Council art sponsor, a “Share the Art” program would definitely have fit within my mission.
Meanwhile, for the reader possessing a charming painting by an accomplished, but not-so-well-known Biedermeier painter of the 1870s, or a French campaign table of the Napoleonic era, think how much nicer it will look in your grandchild’s house than in a storeroom of similar items doomed to Stygian darkness forever.
If they aren’t sold first.
Bruce Chapman, Founding Fellow and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute, was U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Organizations in Vienna during the Reagan Administration.