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Lately, and increasingly, museums across the country and around the world have begun "deaccessioning"--selling off parts of their existing collections as a ready source of "free money" to pay for new acquisitions. It's money, more than art, that's hard for many of these institutions to come by, especially in recent...
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Lately, and increasingly, museums across the country and around the world have begun "deaccessioning"--selling off parts of their existing collections as a ready source of "free money" to pay for new acquisitions. It's money, more than art, that's hard for many of these institutions to come by, especially in recent years, as private and public funding sources have dried up right and left. So it's easy to understand the temptation for museum directors to clean out their storerooms and cash in.

Not to be left out, the Denver Art Museum is currently in the midst of an unprecedented deaccession campaign, which reached a kind of crescendo with the September 16 on-premises auction conducted by the prominent New York-based Christie's auction house. At the all-day event, DAM divested itself of some 1,500 articles sold in more than 600 lots.

Even under ideal circumstances--which this was--the process of getting rid of once-treasured works of art is filled with pitfalls. It does break a faith with donors. And it comes with a checkered history: Scandal, or at least controversy, has accompanied deaccessioning efforts more often than not in the museum world.

Last year's hasty and clandestine disposal of northwest-coast American Indian material from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is a good local case in point. The collection, including many renowned masterpieces, was sold to a private party at a fire-sale price by the CSFAC. The questionable action became doubly outrageous when critics suggested, convincingly, that the sale had been rushed through in order to avoid the provisions of then-soon-to-be-in-force federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which has widespread implications for museums and other institutions that hold American Indian artifacts.

The Denver Art Museum, noting the bad example of the CSFAC, did everything possible to avoid making the same mistakes with its own sale. First of all, the auction was subjected to the light of public scrutiny. And just to be doubly safe vis-a-vis NAGPRA--and with an eye toward public relations--artifacts for the auction were culled from every specialty department at DAM except Native Arts.

But this auction was only the latest chapter--and far from the last--in the campaign to pare down DAM's collections. Artworks more important than those included in the auction are to be sold in the near future at Christie's salesrooms in both London and New York, including a Willem de Kooning oil on paper and a couple of Lucas Cranach portraits.

And then there's the least best-kept secret at the museum: that this month's auction was not exactly Round One. For several years now, the museum has been quietly disposing of significant parts of its immense collection. With the auction, DAM brought to an end--temporarily, at least--years of secret deals surrounding the selling off of its property. The museum wasn't legally compelled to make deaccessioning a public event. But it's clear why DAM executives decided to do so.

The mess in Colorado Springs last year came hard on the heels of an earlier deaccession at DAM--a brokered deal the museum announced only after it was a fait accompli. The museum had swapped one of the ugliest $1 million Picasso paintings imaginable in order to acquire three minor paintings by two major artists, Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove. (One can only imagine how much Christie's would have made for the museum in a public sale.) And the scandal in southern Colorado must have sent a shiver through the museum's upper ranks, since both the covert sale in Colorado Springs and the secret swap here in Denver were facilitated by the same private New Mexico dealer, the famous Gerald Peters. In both cases, there was the lingering hint of potential private gain for a dealer at the expense of public institutions.

Less a source of potential worry for the public-relations department at DAM is yet another deaccession project that few people know about. For the last few years, the museum has been dumping in a wholesale manner works by historic, mostly deceased Colorado artists that have wound up in the museum's collections in spite of the best efforts of generations of curators to keep them out. To the museum's credit--or, more particularly, to the credit of the department of Modern and Contemporary art, headed by curator Dianne Vanderlip--few still-active local artists were subjected to this ego body blow. It may be impossible to overstate the negative effect that eliminating the work of active artists would have had on the contemporary scene here had Vanderlip not been so circumspect in this regard.

DAM also should be lauded for the fact that none of these Colorado works were sold; instead they were donated to other public institutions with art collections, including the Colorado Historical Society and the CSFAC. However, the fact that these works remained in public hands is a somewhat cold comfort; one can't help feeling that moving further away from an appreciation of the art of our region is a misstep.

Unfortunately, the many pictures, sculptures, prints and decorative items that were liquidated at the recent auction had a much less dignified fate--although to be frank, viewing them firsthand would have convinced even the most skeptical observer that the bulk of the material was being appropriately dispensed with.

The assembled items told many tales about the DAM of yesteryear--an institution that for most of its 100-year-plus history has obviously been the exclusive province of enthusiastic amateurs. It appears, in fact, that director Lewis Sharp, in charge since 1989, inaugurated the first professional administrative regime ever at DAM. In years past, the social connections of donors were sometimes more important than the quality of their donations. And somebody at the museum was doing a fair amount of wishful thinking: Among the assembled pictures in the auction were a fake Rembrandt Peale and a fake Albert Pinkham Ryder. (DAM's famous fake by the real Rembrandt wasn't included, having long since been deep-sixed.)

The vast majority of the auction lots were authentic, of course--and made up of the kind of middling material that is easily found not only in galleries but in the better antique and decorator shops around town. But that wasn't the case with everything. Selections in two categories in particular, modern prints and (that old bugaboo) Colorado art, seemed to raise many eyebrows. In the same way that questionable choices in the past illustrated problems from the museum's history, these choices highlighted some present-day curatorial weaknesses.

The Modern and Contemporary department, for example, decided to dispose of prints by well-known artists such as Fernand Leger, Josef Albers, Bernard Buffet, Alexander Calder and Robert Rauschenberg. And its reasons are readily apparent. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a print department at DAM. The museum has never actively collected prints, and there is no print expert there. But wouldn't prints be the ideal solution to the many gaps in the DAM collection, especially in the expensive world of European and American modernism? After all, it's unrealistic to think that DAM could fill every vacant slot with paintings, which are just too expensive. It would hardly be shocking to find DAM acquiring prints in the future--and at that time, curators might regret having gotten rid of some of these.

Clearly more troublesome was the disposal of a good deal of what was left of the museum's Colorado material. And the pre-auction estimates calculated by Christie's with the advice of the two relevant departments-- Painting and Sculpture and, to a lesser extent, Modern and Contemporary--pointed out the low regard DAM has for art made in its own backyard. The typical Colorado lot went for twice the posted estimates. Some, like the 1956 Mary Chenoweth block print that came out of Vanderlip's department, sold in heavy bidding for approximately eight times the low end of the insulting pre-auction estimate. Rather than deaccessioning the work of this important and influential modernist, Vanderlip might have chosen Chenoweth for a show in the Close Range Gallery. Apparently not.

These same kinds of concerns surround choices made by the Painting and Sculpture department. Curator Lauretta Dimmick could well occupy her time organizing a scholarly show of the work of Denver impressionist Charles Partridge Adams the way the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts has with the contemporaneous work of Dennis Miller Bunker (a show that travels to DAM next month). Instead, a wonderful circa 1887 painting by Adams, "Mount Sopris Near Carbondale--Summer Light," was subject not only to the insult of deaccessioning but, like the Chenoweth piece, to the injury of a laughable pre-auction estimate of $1,000 to $1,500. Surely there were people at the auction who would have bought a dozen at that price. The actual selling price of the painting, $10,925, was ten times the low end of the estimate.

The fact that the pre-auction estimates were so boldly exceeded makes several points. First and most obvious is the fact that those at the museum who made these decisions are completely oblivious to the biggest trend in the local art market of the last decade--the rediscovery of the historic art of our region. Not only are there galleries that focus exclusively on this kind of thing, but many contemporary galleries have also entered the market. And if DAM lacked regard for Colorado art, the city's collectors, dealers, speculators and scholars responded with a similar vote of no-confidence in the museum's appraisals.

One deaccession decision made by the museum inadvertently puts the institution square in the middle of another debate--this one over the place of public art in our city. Almost from the 1971 opening of DAM's current home--the distinctive building designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler--the corner in front of the museum was marked by a large minimalist sculpture, "Untitled (Environmental Fan Sculpture)," by Robert Behrens, an artist who worked briefly in Denver. The sculpture was commissioned by the museum for the site, but because Behrens donated his time, DAM only sprang for the cost of materials. It's understandable why this piece sold to a prominent local collector for just $1,380--few people would have the space to display the piece, which is the size of a small house. Today, in place of the fan sculpture, is a garden installation by Meg Webster. This is progress?

One thing the DAM presumably wouldn't get rid of, if it had the choice, is the 1981 "Solar Fountain," by internationally known artists Larry Bell and Eric Orr, which sits on the barren lawn of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. But the DCPA, unlike the museum, hasn't yet reached the point of being professionally organized, and there the director calls all the shots. That enthusiastic (and autocratic) amateur, Donald Seawell, is not so careful about such things, and he's decided the fountain must go.

As a result, the fountain, which has already been sold down the river by the kangaroo Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film will surely soon be gone, to be replaced by a park. The only person with the power to grant it a reprieve is Mayor Wellington Webb. It is to laugh.

The passing of the fountain may not be mourned by more than a few, but it's hardly an artistic embarrassment. Its style is completely compatible with the DCPA buildings. And if this example of solar art never quite worked as it was supposed to, neither did solar energy.

The disappearance of both the fan sculpture and the fountain makes one wonder if any public art in Denver from the 1970s or 1980s will manage to survive into the next century. Most likely not--though much of the city's more recent public art, with more questionable credentials than the older stuff, probably will. It's doubly sad that the official disregard for Colorado art exemplified by the DAM auction extends even to works by out-of-towners that had the bad fortune to wind up here. The best example of that comes not from the world of art but from architecture: the pending destruction of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza.

Oh, well. Denver has never been known for its important public art or architecture. Given current events, it never will be.

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