The Continuing Saga of the Thomas Eakins Gross Clinic Art-as-Commodity Scandal


For background on this post, please see my previous post: Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – Held for Ransom?.

It looked as if the potentially tragic loss to Philadelphia of the Thomas Eakins materspiece by clandestine sale to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, for her artificial island of culture in Arkansas, The Crystal Bridges Museum, was going to be avoided. Prompted by outrage among the local art community, city leaders and the ranks of their own students, teachers and alumni, Thomas Jefferson University’s board of directors agreed to delay their “get-capital-quick” scheme for long enough for other city institutions to cough up their ransom demands and raise $68 million to purchase the painting and keep it here in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and my old alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins studied and taught (see my post on Thomas Eakins), sponsored a joint fund-raising campaign to allow The Gross Clinic to stay in the city and be jointly owned by the PMA and the Academy’s Museum of American Art.

Unfortunately, there is further fallout and the attempt to keep one great painting in the city has resulted the loss of another.

In order to meet the Jefferson board’s deadline, the museums arranged a loan through Wachovia bank to secure the painting. The fundraising campaign has fallen short, however, and has lost its momentum. The Academy may have stepped in a little over its head on this one, and has just announced the hasty and unfortunate sale of another great Eakins work, The Cello Player, to an unnamed private individual to help cover their share of the debt.

The Cello Player can be considered a “lesser work” than The Gross Clinic, which is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American art, but it is a beautiful painting and is certainly the finest of the Academy’s three finished Eakins paintings. The purchaser has apparently promised to loan the painting back to the Academy for display to some degree, but there is no disclosure of who has bought the painting or where it will eventually go.

Herbert Riband, the vice chair of the board of the Academy has promised that the buyer is not Alice “I wanna buy me sum Kulture” Walton [my words, not his], but he also states the the Academy doesn’t know the identity of the purchaser and is making that statement on the word of an intermediary who is evidently brokering the sale.

For more interesting detail on the matter, see Lee Rosenbaum’s post on on the subject on her CultureGrrl blog (part of the Arts Journal site). Rosenbaum was on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane this morning on WHYY, the Public Radio affiliate here in Philadelphia (when you follow the link, filter for February 5, 2007, it’s in Hour 2). If you’re at all interested in the issue of the “de-acquisition” of works by museums and other public institutions, or this instance specifically, this program makes a fascinating listen. There are three guests, but Rosenbaum in particular is articulate and fascinating (makes me kind of wish she had her own radio show or podcast).

As Rosenbaum points out, this incident raises all kind of disturbing questions about who has the right to make these decisions about important works that are part of the cultural heritage of institutions and cities. Yes, museums “own” their works, except those on loan, and, barring stipulations made on gifts and bequests, can legally sell them; but these institutions exist partially on the basis of tax breaks and operating subsidies paid for with our tax dollars, (as well as our contributions) so in a real, as well as cultural sense, the public also “owns” these works.

To my mind, that’s one of the reasons we support our museums; so great paintings like The Gross Clinic and The Cello Player can be displayed in the cities where they have been a part of the cultural legacy for hundreds of years, and their fate is not left to the egotistical whims of priveledged megalomaniacs who need to make themselves feel cultured by robbing the treasures of other cities, or self-serving members of institutional boards (I’m talking about Jefferson’s board here, not the Academy’s) who treat those treasures like grist for expedient garage sales, simply because they’re too lazy to do actual work of fund raising.

 
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10 Replies to “The Continuing Saga of the Thomas Eakins Gross Clinic Art-as-Commodity Scandal”

  1. I’m from “buy me sum culture northwest arkansas” and I resent the attitude. Maybe Alice Walton has helped the Philadelphia public realize what they value? If they let treasures slip away to us, we will have a beautiful museum they can visit.

  2. Karen,

    I’m sorry you interpreted my comments that way. My vitriol is aimed directly at Walton, not at Arkansas. I’m not one of those East coast snobs who feels that culture can’t exist in the central states.

    Though I’ve never been to Arkansas, I lived in Texas for a while, (and liked it very much) and I know that the museums in Houston and Dallas house some great works. Nor am I a snob regarding large museums; I am, in fact a great fan of small museums, and constantly extol the virtues of the one I grew up visiting in Delaware.

    My comment about “…her artificial island of culture in Arkansas…”, refers to the fact that Walton is attempting to build a cultural edifice out of thin air, rather than allowing one to grow naturally out of years of careful collecting in the more traditional manner. The reference to Arkansas was just incidental information about where her little artifice is located.

    Even the intention to build a museum out of nothing is not what I object to so much, because it is theoretically possible to do that without engaging in the kind of practices that Walton is using.

    What I do object to, passionately, is the attitude of Walton, and other spoiled, privileged scions of wealthy families, who think they can “get me sum Kulture” (with a capital “K”) by using corporate raider tactics to strip other institutions of their works instead of devoting the time, energy and cultured study necessary to become a true collector. It’s the brute force application of her wealth (which I consider ill-earned because of Wal-mart’s reprehensible business practices) that I object to; not the location of her museum. So please don’t think I’m denigrating Arkansas or the midwest.

    On the other hand, if you in any way, shape or form admire Alice Walton or other corporate raider style art vultures, or the predatory anti-small business practices of Wal-Mart, you can feel entirely justified in being as pissed off at me as you like.

  3. I’ve been to Arkansas a number of times, lived for 20 years in Oklahoma and am a native Texan. I took no offense in your comments because I understood exactly your objection to Alice Walton and her “corporate raider” style of Kulture gettin’.
    I would simply add that this is another example of the “Wal-mart-ification” of the world: Make boatloads of money by exploiting the poor, use that money as leverage to arrange the world into your own personal idea of nirvana and take no thought as to how your actions further deprive others of their freedoms, blessings and opportunities.
    The people of Philidelphia –nay– the public at large have every right to be incensed at the actions of this individual.

  4. It might be useful to remember that long before Alice Walton there were collectors like Henry Clay Frick who brought over entire rooms full of murals by European artists to fill up his Manhattan mansion. And centuries before Frick, the Archduke Leopold brought cartloads of Italian paintings to Antwerp in the early 1600s. Every generation has its super-rich who import what cultural masterpieces they can to wherever they like. Centuries later the Greeks want the Elgin marbles back and the Italians are banging at the door of the Getty. This has always gone on, Alice Walton is not some villainess born of this century and neither is she a hero preserving cultural masterpieces that would otherwise disappear. I do think that the art and museum world is in danger of succumbing to a kind of political correctness that is unwarranted. At the risk of being shouted off the web I’ll offer the opinion that even if BOTH the Cello Player and the Gross clinic left Philadelphia, the city would remain the one pilgrimage of choice for any Eakins fan, with far more masterpieces by him than anywhere else. And let’s not confuse Jefferson College with a museum. Their mission is not the same and even our greatest museums “deaccession” great works all the time just to keep going.

  5. It is a interesting stuff. I like it very much. Museums are for ancient and popular things. The philadelphia museum of art is very famous.There was eakin studies and tought. sponsored a joint fund allow to the Gross Clinic be jointly owned by the PMA and the Academy’s Museum of Art. I have also a debates on these problems. I want more data related to these problems.

  6. I’m slowly reading through all your wonderful archived material; this is such a superb site.

    I note elsewhere: “In 1878, three years after Eakins made the painting, some of Gross’ former students bought it for Jefferson Medical College. They paid $200. Soon it will be sold — for $68 million.”

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6622315

    I can’t tell if Eakins got the $200 or a dealer/middleman.

    It turns out a $200 investment 131 years ago at a mere 10.2 percent compounded annual interest gives you $68 million now. Astonishing isn’t it. In real dollars with inflation, the rate is much lower.

    The painting looks to be mostly umbers, white and black. It would be interesting to know the 1875 price of Eakins’ materials (wood, nails, fabric, glue, pigment, oil, and so forth) for this 52 square foot painting. Could it be that Eakin himself took a loss on the painting? If someone whispered “$68 million for your Gross Clinic painting” over Eakins’ grave, I wonder if he might not come back to life.

    As for those managing the inheritance of the unctuously wealthy, I suspect creating a non-profit “foundation” holding company for investment grade art objects, which also permit one to escape capital gains liabilities, is reason to expect new museum building in the hinterland to become a growth industry, as well as brokering the looting of the public treasuries of “growth” objects rather than growth stocks. I hope it’s less destructive for the US than Europe’s experience in the early 1940s.

  7. Thanks, Bob.

    Thanks for the nice comments about the site.

    Interesting idea to compare Eakin’s original cost for materials. I’m sure Eakins would be spinning in his grave like a dynamo if he could see some modern developments regarding his work and other issues (like the way art is taught today).

    Art as a commodity is just an unfortunate fact of life, I agree that we can only hope its destructive tendencies are not too dominant.

  8. Dear Charley Parker,

    I recently returned from Phildelphia to the Boston area. Philadelphia is a city that I have loved since my parents took me there at Eastertime to view the Mukascy paintings in the Wanamaker Department store. Do you have any idea where those paintings are today?

    Only on this last visit did I discover the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts and Thomas Eakins’ missing Cello Player! This museum seems to be hidden treasure and no wonder they could not raise enough money to keep both Eakins paintings. If the MFA and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museums could fundraise enough money to build huge additions (during these most dire economic times) then I do not understand why this museum could not when things were better back in 2007. The museum directors need to speak with Anne Hawley and Malcolm Rogers for advice on marketing and fundraising! Two years later, do you have any idea where the lovely Cello Player is? From the general public’s point of view, isn’t the Cello Player a “more lovely” painting AND threatened with being sold, more people would have donated? If only they and I would have known….

    Another sad topic I would like to ask if you have any more information on is the sale of the four Gustav Klimt paintings in November 2006 by Maria Altman? More amazingly beautiful artwork that has disappeared from public museums to private individuals.

    Thank you for your time.

  9. The trio of large scale Munkácsy paintings formerly owned by John Wamamaker are in the Deri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary.

    Eakins’ “The Cello Player”, formerly in the collection of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was “deaccessioned” (a stupid and cowardly euphemism for “sold”) to an unnamed buyer. I was assuming this might be Alice Walton, who had been trying to raid the Gross Clinic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, so I don’t know.

    Of the Klimt paintings recovered by Maria Altmann, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (see my post here) is in the Neue Galerie in New York; the other four were sold to undisclosed private buyers.

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