Philadelphia, like many great cities, is intimately associated particular artists. Perhaps foremost among them is Thomas Eakins, undisputedly one of America’s greatest painters. (See my previous post on Eakins.)
Eakin’s acknowledged masterpiece is a painting titled The Gross Clinic (Wikipedia article and image), it depicts one of the pioneering surgeons at the city’s venerable medical school, Thomas Jefferson University, directing and performing an advanced operation in a teaching amphitheater full of medical students at the university’s associated hospital, at the time and to this day one of the nation’s great teaching hospitals.
The painting exemplifies in many ways the fundamental dual roles of Jefferson as a university/hospital and Eakins’ own fascination with human anatomy, the practice of of surgery, which he saw in some ways as an analog of painting, and the triumph of rationality in the advancement of medicine and science.
Sadly, rationality does not always have staying power, and even the finest institutions can find themselves at the mercy of an incomprehensibly short-sighted and insufferably arrogant band of fools who happen to sit on the board of directors at a particular point in time.
This seems to be the fate of Jefferson, whose board recently surprised the city with the announcement of a clandestine agreement to sell The Gross Clinic, a significant part of the heritage of both the school and the city, to Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton for her Crystal Bridges Museum Of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas for $68 million, aided and abetted, in a shameful exercise in mis-judgement, by The National Gallery.
The painting was originally not actually purchased by Jefferson, but by Jefferson alumni. They bought the work (which was not well-received at the time, largely because of its strikingly graphic depiction of the surgery) for $200, and donated the dramatic image of one of their great professors to the university. The painting was hung in the College Building, where it stayed until the 1980’s, when it was moved to a gallery in Jefferson Alumni Hall (image at left bottom).
Perhaps because art at the time was viewed more as art and less as a commodity, and probably because they didn’t dream the need would arise, the alumni did not legally bind the university to keep their gift in place, either within the university’s campus or within the city of Philadelphia. Yes the university, like many, is financially pressed, but other options were not discussed and the whole deal was kept secret until done. The current alumni are not pleased. Neither are many others in Philadelphia, including your writer, who have some sense of the value of art other than dollar value.
In a creepy parallel to the way that Wal-Mart “creates jobs” by undercutting and destroying the long-standing local businesses in a community and hiring their former employes back at sub-standard wages and benefits, Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton is attempting to “create culture” in building her new museum in Arkansas; not through years of careful collecting (which requires skill, knowledge and patience), but by raiding the treasures of other cities, finding financial weaknesses in institutions that can be exploited to separate communities from their treasured works with the brute force application of the billions her daddy left her to play with.
Jefferson’s board, perhaps daunted by the public outcry, the questionable legality of the transaction and attempts to invoke the city’s laws about “treasured objects”, has agreed to hold the transaction for 45 days, leaving the city and its cultural institutions to come up with an offer to match Walton’s $68 million, effectively holding the painting for ransom.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, (which sits, incidentally, on the Eakins Oval at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway), and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, itself home to a great Museum of American Art, have created a fund to attempt to keep Eakins’ great work here in Philadelphia. (Eakins studied and later taught at the Academy and took classes in anatomy at Jefferson.) The fund in itself won’t create the necessary $68 million, but it may attract the notice of donors who will.
While I object to this in a way, because it legitimizes the Jefferson board’s draconian ransom scheme, I have to reluctantly support it; if only because I can’t bear the thought of the painting winding up in the hands of a spoiled and privileged heiress who thinks that she can buy culture like jewelry, and whose money is stained with the sweat of underpaid workers and chalked with the dust of community businesses that have been crushed under the Wal-Mart steam roller.
Why must art always be subjugated to the whims of the artless?
You’re getting to see my snarky side here, because I’m already pissed off about the way art is treated as a commodity, and this deal just seems particularly onerous and close to home.
I should mention in the context of my ranting that I have a great deal of respect and a certain emotional attachment for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. I consider it one of the finest in the country and I was always glad that my kidney transplant (14 years!) was performed there. I am also an alumni of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the institutions sponsoring the fund to keep the painting in the city.