|Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867) William Holman Hunt|
The sale was announced last year, or rather Delaware Art Museum announced that in order to raise $30 million it would have to sell up to 4 works of art. The situation that led to this quiet announcement had happened over the preceding years when the museum decided to have building works done in 2005. The deadline to pay for the expansion works has come and the fund-raising has failed. In order to pay the $20 million in building works and increase their reserve to $37 million, the works are being sold. The Artistic Director at the time of the decision to sell was Danielle Rice, who has spoken of the struggle not to sell paintings in order to pay for things: 'Every...museum board always thinks 'we can always sell art'.' She threatened to leave if they took that option and has since found a position elsewhere.
|Milking Time Winslow Homer|
|Mrs Walker considers how many kidneys she'd have to sell to afford any of it...|
|Triumph of Love (1871) Edward Burne-Jones|
|Jasmine (1880) Albert Moore|
|A Riverbank (1947) L S Lowry|
The problem with any gallery selling a painting is that it tells the world that the pictures in an art gallery are assets, like land, computers, buildings, and in one way, of course they are right. As the Watts Gallery proved, many collections of any age have picked up pieces along the way that make no sense in that gallery and the money they could raise could give all the other pieces a new lease of life. The work done at the Watts is an astonishing transformation and the Moore and the Burne-Jones are not missed in the story the gallery tells us. However, the other end of the line is Bury's Council taking a picture from the walls to sell for bin collections to go ahead for another year or for old people to have meals delivered. No-one wants to be in the council meeting where you have to argue that a painting is more important than providing free school meals to under-privileged kids but you can only sell a painting once. As Mr Walker tells me, you could sell every single painting in the country and it would support our social security budget for about half an hour. Then what will you do?
|Men of the Docks (1912) George Bellows|
Recently the De Morgan collection has found itself without a home again but they have not sold any of the collection in order to ensure a permanence residence. However, at present, you cannot visit the collection. When a similar situation occurred with the lovely Folk Art Museum in New York who could no longer afford to stay in their building, they moved somewhere smaller and more affordable, not selling anything to do so.
So, what is the worse case scenario for the sale of the Holman Hunt on Tuesday? If it does end up in private hands, which seems to be the case most likely and most feared, it might disappear into someone's house and never be seen in public again. That would be terrible, but that's not the worst thing that would happen. If the work entered the collection of someone like Lord Lloyd Webber, then you could ask to borrow it for exhibitions, you could ask to be allowed to see it privately. There is no guarantee that either of these requests would be successful but the work would be cared for, would still exist and the sale would benefit Delaware and their expansion.
Far worse would be that the picture doesn't sell. This is known in the auction trade as a 'bought in' and ironically happened to this painting in 1871. Then what? It would be better that the picture sold for $30 million to a private collection than everything from Delaware be sold, which is a possibility if they can't repay the loan.
Better that they sell the picture and learn a lesson, but I think that might be a bit of a stretch. As it is, I think the smell of this sale (and any subsequent) will follow the museum around for quite a while.