2018-08-31 - Manet-Guggenheim-conservation

The Words of Conservation: Manet, Pastiche, and Authenticity at the Guggenheim

By Ruth Osborne

Typically, when high-dollar conservation efforts are promoted in the news, it is said that they have effectively enhanced the clarity of the work to the artist’s most authentic original intention. In fact, most of the language promoting months- and years-long treatments of major works in the art historical canon aims to convince the public that the motivation behind these treatments will bring today’s museum-goers a truer vision of an age gone by. This is often coupled with offering the public a truer understanding of the artist’s genius; the artist as “genius” is itself another interesting matter. Nonetheless, the same motivation that brings modern period dramas awards for authentic costume and set design, despite the flimsy acting and plotlines, is the motivation towards authenticity that is recognized and honored by media coverage of conservation projects. But is such treatment on a work of art really bringing to us a truer, more rich understanding of the artist or his/her age past? Or are we searching around a canvas without knowing something more dramatically “authentic” is beneath the surface in the first place? Is this too close to our larger cultural yearning to present the reality of (often unscrupulous or unjust) things as they are which have previously been kept hidden from public knowledge?

2018-08-31 - Manet-Guggenheim-conservation-before-after

Édouard Manet, Woman in Striped Dress (before and after treatment), 1877–80. Oil on canvas, 174.3 x 83.5 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser, 1978. Photo: Allison Chipak. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018.

Éduoard Manet’s 1877-80 painting Woman in Evening Dress – now, thanks to this treatment, re-titled Woman in Striped Dress – will be exhibited for the first time outside its home at the Guggenheim collection in New York since 1965. This the reason the Guggenheim ever proposed the painting for treatment to the Bank of America Art Conservation in the first place – so that it could go on a world tour with the rest of the Thannhauser Collection of other Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early modern works.

From first glance, the painting looks much blander in tone and contrast. Funny that color is typically the opposite of what conservation treatments proclaim to “reveal” about a painting. Indeed, press surrounding this Manet treatment promotes the new tones of grey and violet that appear as fresher and help support the first scholarly description of the painting by Théodore Duret in his 1902 monograph. Duret describes the stripes on the dress as “grises-violettes” (gray and blue-violet). The Guggenheim insists that the cleaning has now permitted a re-naming of the painting from Woman in Evening Dress to Woman in Striped Dress. (For a refresher on color, contrast, and troublesome conservation efforts, see the ArtWatch UK posts on the much-celebrated but also greatly damaging conservation of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling here and here.)

But when you watch the video on the Guggenheim website, it seems that the treatment has actually significantly lessened the contrast in the background, as well as the texture in the dress, from the before-conservation photo: 


Yet another fast-moving video clip that shows a THREE YEAR treatment to convey to viewers that art conservation is as simple and satisfying as Windex for dirty windows.

One wonders about the “several layers of thick, discolored varnish and retouching that had been applied after the artist’s death and before the painting entered the Guggenheim collection”, and what exactly these were made of that enabled them to be safely removed from the work by “a careful cleaning”. One press report describes one the layers as having created “a greenish-brown resinous coating” over the work. After additional inquiry to the Guggenheim as to the application of these excess layers applied after Manet completed the original work, they share their guess that the first was applied between 1883 and 1902, and the second “probably after it passed into Thannhauser’s hands in 1928.” As to the makeup of the reportedly surprisingly “syrupy” varnish:

Scientific analysis determined that the varnish was of a type not commonly used on paintings, but rather one frequently employed for wood furniture or musical instruments, which has a deep, rich tone that discolors as it ages. Such a dark, syrupy, glossy varnish, while appropriate for a wooden substrate, is not suitable for a painting, particularly a modern one.


Py-GC-MS analysis was performed by Federica Pozzi, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The varnish was composed of a mixture of oil and a diterpenoid natural resin belonging to the Pinaceae family.

Conservators on this project also shared that this large-scale three-year project spanning admit that they were unable to remove “some, but not all, of the posthumous retouching”, even though they also insist these later additions have “a deadening, flat effect”, “transmogrified” the model’s appearance, and represent “an egregious departure from Manet’s design” of the setting. 

The consensus was to judiciously remove the deeply discolored varnish and select areas of retouching that covered important details of Manet’s original composition or his exceptional and delicate brushwork. This treatment approach reflects a philosophy that privileges the artist’s hand while keeping in mind the overall aesthetic of the painting.

But they ultimately conclude that the painting as it is post-treatment in 2018 “now better captures the spirit of modernity perhaps not fully appreciated at the time of its painting.” Does this not make the painting still a pastiche? Especially when the praised return to a more “authentic” violet-hued striped dress is dependent on the earliest documented photographs that rely on the alteration of hues by one of two 1880s photographic processes? According to the Guggenheim, these processes

did not precisely reproduce all the colors in the tones of the black-and-white photograph with relative accuracy […] warm colors such as yellow, orange,and red appear very dark, almost black […] while cool colors, including blues and some greens, appear light […]

Not to mention that this first photograph documentation was taken posthumously, during the time of the supposed first over-painting and varnishing.

The promises of modern conservation treatments is that, according to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, “Yet more discoveries possibly await” (for reference: see our recent post on the lasers used on a Fragonard at the Gallery not for cleaning, but to promote discovery through conservation). This has been the case in the past few decades of conservation promoted as a tool for “discovering” the artist’s previously unknown secret intentions, rather than treating fragile paintings simply to promote physical stability of the canvas for future generations (see our post on Picasso’s The Blue Room at the Philips Collection in D.C.). Sometimes these treatments completely alter the work in question, and yet still vow to adhere to what ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley has dubbed the modern “cult of simulated historical authenticity” in art (see the article “The New Relativisms and the Death of “Authenticity”):

picture restorers thrive precisely by undoing and redoing each other’s work. Because painting is not an interpretive art form but a concrete one, the artistic consequences of such interventions can be deadly. Painters bequeath not scores to be realised through performances but fixed, artistically-live objects. Such unique creative works can be rendered artistic corpses through a single bungled restoration or be progressively falsified through the “Chinese Whispers” of successive restorers’ interpretations

[…] Unlike genuinely creative people, restorers can never concede technical errors or aesthetic misjudgements for fear of implicating the curators, trustees and sponsors who authorize and fund their actions. Museum politics demand that whatever is done last must be proclaimed right and better than before.

Senior Curator Vivien Greene says of the conservation department’s work on this Manet that “We try to get to the truth of things, literally and conceptually.” But is it possible that major museums and the mainstream media are promoting invasive conservation operations that damage works with the sometimes heroic guise of revisionist history?

2018-08-31 - Manet-Guggenheim-conservation

Gillian McMillan, Associate Chief Conservator for the Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, at work on the painting. Photo: Kris McKay. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018

For more information from the Guggenheim on where you can see this restored Manet in person:

“Van Gogh to Picasso: The Thannhauser Legacy”, including nearly fifty objects from the collection, will be on view from September 21, 2018 through March 24, 2019 at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. A second presentation will follow at the Hôtel de Caumont, Aix-en-Provence, France, from May 1 through September 22, 2019.

2018-07-13 - deacession Berkshire Museum

Deaccession Misperceptions: Check the Facts before Critiquing the Professionals

Ruth Osborne

2018-07-13 - empty gallery deaccession misperceptions

It seems there needs to be a re-education on the dangers of rush and/or mass deaccessions at museums and the ways they strongly point to collection mismanagement. A recent article on artsy.net, a site established not 10 years ago mainly for private art galleries, fairs, and sales, and with an emphasis on contemporary art, has seen fit to criticize museum professionals’ concern over the current deaccession and collection stewardship crisis.

Former college art gallery director Michael DeMarsche and retired economist Bob Ekelund insist that institutional guidelines governing the ethics of deaccession procedures are the “outdated rules [that] are killing museums.”


Among the many inaccuracies this article contains are that museums are running into financial issues due to factors that are “out of museum management’s control”: “declining donations…adverse local situations…and increasing storage costs for housing ever-increasing acquisitions.” But if a museum is in dire financial straits for object care due to acquisitions and storage space needed for those new items in the collection, wouldn’t that be truly due to misguided purchasing when there is not the budget for it? If a museum’s budget is in danger because it’s dependent on expected donations, is there not any board responsibility for setting such budgetary expectations and not understanding the donor climate?


The authors of this article propose deaccessions and sales as a way to save money in order that they might “mount more shows, and reduce admission costs”. But admissions don’t actually pay for a substantial portion of any museum’s budget. And yet, they insist that the raised admissions at the Met for out-of-towners has made “one of the greatest art collections less accessible than ever.” Granted, this is only for those outside the tri-state area. And those visitors coming from further away do happily pay more than the now-required $25 Met admission fee in order to see a Broadway show, to dine out, and experience other cultural diversions. Not to mention that the full-price admission ticket also enables them to return for visits for a 2nd and 3rd consecutive day.


The above statement implies that spending more on “shows” (why not “exhibitions”?) is the main way museums are being impeded in their growth. If spending more on “shows” is behind a museum’s tearing apart its collection, should not that institution question whether these initiatives  are at the core of its own mission? Why is maintaining care of its collection hampering its ability to display works? What about the costs of lending exhibitions – loan fees, transportation costs that inevitably pose great risk to works, etc. – that might be hampering a museum’s ability to care properly for works in the permanent collection? Or are the authors saying that the ultimate purpose a museum should serve is as blank walls for a rotation of outside works instead of develop its own collection identity and serve as a dependable resource for the surrounding community that makes repeated visits?

In response to the article, Cristin Waterbury, Director of Curatorial Services at the National Mississippi River Museum in Iowa, conveyed that she was:

[…] disturbed by the incredible number of inaccuracies [this article] contains. We all know what a hot button topic deaccessioning has become even among the general public recently, particularly following the Berkshire situation, but I for one am concerned about this portrayal of the field.

Meanwhile, Janice Klein, Executive Director of the Museum Association of Arizona and Board Member of the Small Museum Administrators Committee of AAM, says “the article is full of inaccuracies” and “there are many misunderstandings (even within the museum community) about deaccessioning”.


Their next area of complaint is the storage of art collections that are not on display or traveling on loan. It should be pointed out that one of the authors, Mr. DeMarsche, prides himself on having overseen the construction of several new award-winning museum buildings and raising the tens of millions of dollars required. Why bother complaining about storage costs when one has been so extensively involved in prioritizing and promoting construction of them? They use for reference a study of the cost of storing America’s art being over $300 million annually. Well, the study actually comes from the graduate program at RAND (which stands for Research And Development) – a nonprofit corporation founded in 1948 as a think tank for the U.S. Armed Forces. Its mission is stated as “a nonpartisan research organization that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis”. You can find the study by Ann Stone, titled “Treasures in the Basement? An Analysis of Collection Utilization in Art Museums” published online here. An interesting choice of supportive research to use for such a harsh argument against the cost of caring for works of art.

We recommend, for your consideration, the proceedings and breakout session findings from a conference held by the American Alliance of Museums last December called “Don’t Raid the Cookie Jar: Creating Early Interventions to Prevent Deaccessioning Crises.” Better to understand the factors of mismanagement that actually lead to a board proposing deaccessions, from the point of view of collections professionals who’ve worked in the nitty gritty, in order to really know the factors posing threats to museums today.

2018-05-23 - Berkshire-Museum-Sothebys-Frederick-Edwin-Church

Berkshire Museum Art Goes to Auction

Ruth Osborne

After we’d covered in detail the case of the Berkshire Museum deaccession crisis and court case, it only seemed fitting that we saw their 40 works of art off yesterday and today at auction at Sotheby’s in New York. According to reports over the past year, the Museum needs about $2 mil for its debt, about $6 mil to improve its building facilities, and an additional $23 mil in permanent endowments.

As it turns out, several major works at the first two sales dipped just below the hoped-for price:

Alexander Calder’s Double Arc and Sphere kinetic sculpture, estimated at $2-3 mil, went for $1.215 mil

William Bouguereau’s L’agneau nouveau-né (The Newborn Lamb), estimated at $1.5-2 mil, went for $975,000
Bougnereau’s La Bourrique(The Pony-Back Ride), estimated at $2-3 mil, went for $1.755 mil
Charles-François Daubigny’s Paysans Allant Aux Champs (Le Matin), estimated at $70-100,000, went for $68,750.000
Rockwell’s Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop went for $8.13 mil despite aiming for up to $10 mil in the pre-sale estimate and the sale being highly anticipated.

And the auctioneer was really pushing for Valley of Santa Isabel by luminist painter Frederick Edwin Church to at least reach the bottom of its estimated $5-7 mil. But it ended up going for only $4.25 mil.

2018-05-23 - Berkshire-Museum-Sothebys-Frederick-Edwin-Church

Frederic Edwin Church, Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada, 1875. Courtesy: Sotheby’s New York.


We’ll see what this ends up meaning for the Berkshire’s refilling of their coffers as the rest of the pieces sell. Perhaps this and recent underwhelming deaccession sales will remove a bit of the shiny promise of this approach en masse for other collections in trouble?


What is a Library without its Books? The Battle to Save the UT Austin Fine Arts Library.

By Ruth Osborne

Courtesy: Abigail Sharp.

What happens when a university dean’s initiatives are not in line with those of the faculty and students who actually make up his college? What happens when three departments are pitted against a new one for vital space and resources? What recourse might students and staff have when their educational necessities are devoured mid-course in the interests of a speculative rival program?

At the University of Texas at Austin, a classified Research 1 institution, there recently unfolded a battle between the College of Fine Arts’ three main departments – music, theatre and dance, and art and art history – and the new, untested, and unproven, School of Creative Technologies (just launched this past September).

The College was undergoing increased pressure from its Dean, Douglas Dempster, to further reduce its Fine Arts Library holdings, after having already suffered an drastic reduction since 2016. As related by the “Save UT Libraries” site, the Dean took over two of the five floors of the Library in order to make space for his new vision. The FAL:

suffered the needless removal of 75,000 volumes and the decommissioning of two of its three floors to accommodate a new maker space, The Foundry, an initiative of the School of Design and Creative Technologies” – and to create office and classroom spaces to support the school…because The College of Fine Arts had been unable to raise sufficient funds to finance a new building…The consequent removal of the books and the repurposing of the space was pursued with no consultation of the faculty and students in the College of Fine Arts. Instead, it was presented to them as a fait accompli.

“The Foundry”, now on the 3rd floor of the FAL, offers creative devices like sewing machines, cameras, 3d printers, a recording studio, and video game creation software to students for use on projects.  Between 2016 and 2017, over half of the items in the library’s collection – nearly all its journals and a portion of its books – were moved more than 100 miles away from campus to the library facility UT Austin shares with Texas A&M. From the Save UT Libraries’ petition, it is made clear that “books and journals sent to the facility are no longer solely owned by UT Austin and cannot be physically recovered”. We have it from UT Austin sophomore Abigail P. Sharp, whose coursework involves research in art history and museum studies, that these developments have had a rather depressive impact on the building that should be the lifeblood of the College’s campus.

She states that “The Foundry” is “not as often utilized as I would’ve hoped for such an expensive and controversial updating project.” Meanwhile, the new offices and classrooms on the 4th floor are:

very “tech” driven to accommodate space for the growth of the AET major and other Design and Technology related courses and programs. In my experience having one class there, most rooms are often empty. I hope that the re-evaluation of this space leads to some sort of re-implementation of stacks, which would be of more use and value in the DFA Building. 

And now, the Dean wants to further expand the new school into what’s remaining of the Fine Arts Library’s main stacks on the fifth floor. Mind you, only 40% of the Library’s collection still remains. Less than half. And it still faces destruction!


While it was announced Friday that the University Provost, Vice Provost, Dean Dempster, and the appointed Fine Arts Library Task Force will now listen to the recommendations of the faculty and students opposed to further erosion of the Library, one cannot be too sure of just what the next steps will be. The Dean admitted, finally, “the centrality of the having these scholarly resources close at hand for teaching and research” as well as “the importance of those resources being available in the heart of COFA [the College of Fine Arts]. Clearly, the current location of the FAL continues to contribute significantly to the sense of community in COFA.” However, there will continue to be a fight over space and resources as the College responds to the Dean’s new School. If the College desires to grow, the students and faculty who have fought against the destruction of their Library and research spaces have demonstrated that they will not let this happen thoughtlessly.


Why should one school in a college overtake the space of another because the college was unable to properly finance a new space for its new initiatives? As it turns out, the College of Fine Arts has historically lacked support from the University since its founding in 1881. According to its website:

The College of Fine Arts was founded in 1937 when an act of the Texas Legislature restored Fine Arts education to the university curriculum 12 years after Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson deleted these programs from the university budget.

The definition of UT Austin under the Carnegie Classifications of Higher Education as a scholarly doctorate-granting university with the “Highest Research Activity (Research 1)” institution is based upon the fact that the University gives the highest priority to research. How can it maintain this exclusive qualification if it cedes thousands of research volumes used by multiple departments to off-site storage?

According to the Dean’s recent statement to the University’s Provost and Executive VP, the intention behind the removal of volumes from the library is to take what is seen as underutilized space and turn it into a new “modern learning and research commons” for use by the larger College of Fine Arts. A Ph.D. candidate at the College of Fine Arts reports to ArtWatch that Dean Dempster “has been met with little resistance outside of the Classics, Art History, and History departments (coincidentally, the people who rely on the library the most).”


The faculty at the College were apparently informed that decisions were moving forward, but in no way were consulted on how to move forward, even though they are the ones who use these resources and depend upon them. First they began relocating series of books, dvds, cds, and music scores from a 4th floor of the library. The 2nd floor currently houses the Dean’s office, faculty offices, sand advising offices. The 3rd floor is now the aforementioned “Foundry”. Finally, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, the very person put in place to protect these resources and promote them for his college, created two task forces last December to “assess alternative uses for the space on the fifth floor, which currently houses books”. This task force included select faculty, students, and librarians. The results of their findings were reported in a statement this week from the Dean to the University’s Provost and Executive VP. It claims, quite ironically, that though “circulation from the Fine Arts Library collection is steadily declining”, yet  “a significant amount of circulation activity continues” and access is “a high priority” for the faculty and students. Who would have guessed.


Courtesy: Abigail Sharp.

Last month, the University faculty finally came together to protest the decisions by the Dean. On March 19th, the UT Faculty Council adopted a resolution which protests the removal of materials from the Fine Arts Library. You can find a copy of it here on the Save the UT Libraries site. It states:

The Faculty and Student believe this action will compromise their research abilities and overall education; … being a tier-one research university, the University of Texas will suffer by this action; … Student Government demands more transparency from Dean Dempster and the College of Fine Arts in its proceedings.

What good is a University research library without the very materials for conducting research? How do you boast about having “a community dedicated to the study and advancement of creative disciplines” that is dependent at its very core on engaging with the physical, material world, but also insist that innovation is the removal of the materials of research? It has been pointed out by faculty at UT that this is part of a larger national trend insisting libraries eliminate the space taken up by old stacks and replace it with digitized files. How is this the same? A recent Hyperallergic article by Sarah E. Bond outlines how other public universities across the country making the same snap decisions to drastically reduce or eliminate altogether their library holdings (particularly those relating to the study of history and art).

When it comes to the impact this will have on the research process, as UT Austin student Abigail Sharp relates to ArtWatch:

…the numerous irrelevant, algorithmically selected results from an online database do not compare to the titles found so close to one another when wandering the stacks of the library. Some of the best materials I’ve come across have been analog, and physically holding and flipping through print makes all the difference in learning and retention.

And things like “The Foundry” which replace old stacks in libraries, and which are marketed as innovative “makerspaces”, do not turn out in practice to be the culture changers their promoters hope for them to be.


As for the future of research at the College, Ms. Sharp, Ph.D. candidate in the Dept of Art & Art History Francesca Balboni, and Prof. Rabun Taylor of the College of Liberal Arts provided us with some insights:

What does it now entail to pull a book or journal for research, with several thousands of the volumes off site? 

AS: In my recent experience, the library catalog tells you online whether it is in storage or not, and you have to request to have it retrieved, then pick it up at the library. From what I’ve heard from faculty, some take one day, as some have taken up to 18 days. Needless to say, having thousands of materials off-site makes timely and thorough research difficult. It’s one thing to have a source retrieved and end up not needing it when it’s too late to find another, whereas browsing the stacks openly and serendipitously coming across sources and having the ability to determine its value on-site strengthens the research process.

What knowledge is there of the actual digitization process proposed for the volumes removed from the library’s collection?

AS: There seems to be very little knowledge of digitization. Many art history books, music scores, etc. either cannot be digitized or could take a long time. In my opinion, might as well pay to make space for these resources on-site rather than the digitization process. Studies show that knowledge acquisition and retention comes better from analog (which is evidence we have gathered on our website saveutlibraries.com).

If some materials that cannot be digitized, do you know if this is because of their fragility, and they can only be handled by trained special collections librarians?

AS: That would be my guess. I asked some faculty, and what I understand from what was said, reproduction rights are a huge issue – whether from an artist, historian, museum or collector. Therefore, if digitization were to be considered, the cost of purchasing the rights for each material could ultimately add up.

RT: My experience with American and European rights-holding entities (museums, archives, libraries, etc.) is that they often charge more for the rights to publish an image electronically because they presume (rightly or wrongly) that it will get wider coverage in that format.  For my last book, I had to ensure that every image I published was cleared for worldwide electronic rights.  In many cases, this cost me extra $$$ over and above the fee for print rights.  Every entity has a different policy, but many have dual fee schedules for print and electronic rights, tacking on an additional fee for the latter.  Now imagine doing that for every image in thousands of print volumes,many of which can’t even be easily identified with a contemporary publisher (because so many publishing houses have changed hands or gone out of business).  Current copyright law doesn’t allow a published book into the public domain until 75 years after the death of the author, or (for older books), 95 years after the publication date.  In brief, legal mass digitization of a modern print library is completely impossible.

FB: Exhibition catalogues will never become ebooks because it would cost a fortune, especially if we are talking about a living artist with work on the market. But it is another issue entirely if UT begins digitizing books its stored books. I think this “educational fair-use” would require a closed system–only people with University credentials/log-ins could access the material. This is a huge problem for me, given we are talking about a public university… limiting stacks = limiting access. As of now, the UT Libraries have not announced what their plans are for digitizing volumes moved off campus; their focus has been trying to reduce current retrieval-times (from up to a couple weeks down to 1-3 days).

2018-04 UT Austin Fine Arts Library

Photo/Courtesy: Abigail Sharp, UT Austin.

According to a page on the UT Austin site devoted to defending the decisions to eliminate stacks and reorient the research process:

Some of the collection could be relocated to other main campus libraries, for example PCL or the Main Building. These facilities are closer to many students’ residences and have more extended hours than the FAL, so relocating the collection could improve access for many.

Are they not here creating the problem they say they’re improving upon? Aren’t they in charge of moving to extend hours at the FAL, as they say they have at these other libraries on campus, and therein eliminate one of the reasons they use to defend their decisions? Another rather manipulative FAQ on this page says:

If I check out more books than I need or drop off books at the reshelving locations, can I influence the circulation count and prevent moving books to other locations?

This is a myth. The strategic needs of the college and the university will drive the future use of library space, including how many print items are stored on the main campus. 

But isn’t the real question here “who should decide what the strategic needs of the college and the university are”?

This is a question that will need to be answered as the University and its administration move forward with their promises to listen to the student and faculty recommendations. Take a minute to sign the Change.org petition to help support the continued preservation of the College’s Fine Arts Library:



Courtesy: Abigail Sharp.

2018-02-22 - MOCA LA

Holding the Public’s Interest: The Show of Art Conservation

Ruth Osborne
2018-02-22 - Jackson Pollock Number 1, 1949 MOCA LA

Jackson Pollock Number 1, 1949 (1949). Enamel and metallic paint on canvas. Courtesy: MOCA LA

We reported a few years ago on the well-publicized (and well-sponsored) treatment of large canvases by Jackson Pollock from the MoMA (NYC) and Seattle Art Museum collections.  These were Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, and his Sea Change (1947), respectively.

In the case of the SAM restoration, it was asserted this work was in “danger of degeneration” – though no detailed evidence of this was made known to the public nor to reporters. However, keep in mind that when treatment of major works of art for large sums of money are publicly announced or publicly performed, this encourages the science of art conservation to be turned into a sort of strange fishbowl curiosity show. The conservator must work to produce dramatic, noticeably different results on the canvas so as to prove to passersby that their months of work and the funding behind these long-term treatments, is worth it. Sometimes, such treatment is not even considered necessary enough for a collection – yes, even one as large as MoMA – if a corporate sponsor does not step in.

This month, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles is to begin a six-month long cleaning treatment of Pollock’s Number 1, 1949 in an open gallery space at their downtown location on Grand Avenue. As per the above expectations of a the now-popular public conservation spectacle, the conservator for this project, imported from the Getty Conservation nstitute, is planned to be on hand during set times to answer questions from public at specific time slots. According to the GCI’s head of science, Tom Learner, the public needs to be shown through this process that art conservation science is fascinating and exciting, producing tangible results and making an impactful discovery:

Conservation is not always the most dramatic thing to watch – we have to figure out how to make it as fascinating as possible.

However, Learner has also said that the condition of this Pollock painting is “good for its size” and is simply being conserved because “it looks a little dull.” Then is an investigative six-month treatment going to truly help the painting itself? Or is it being undertaken half to brighten up a work that’s “a little dull”, and half to make an appeal to the public that the institution has some new entertainment for them?



Abbie Vandivere, Girl with a Pearl Earring‘s conservator at the Mauritshuis. Image: Ivo Hoekstra, courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

The recently-announced Mauritshuis exhibition of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is completely conservation-focused and reliant on the work of the conservator as a type of discovery T.V. series called “Girl in the Spotlight”. Daily updates with the conservator leading the team’s testing of each layer of the work are being broadcast as daily “episodes”.


Bank of America doesn’t publicly list amounts given for individual project grants. So we reached out to them for approximate amounts granted each year in total for projects, just to see how these might figure into a museum like the MoMA’s typical budget for conservation. We were told they do not disclose these amounts. Nor do the recipients of the grant monies. But just to give you a sense of how costly major conservation treatments can be, the Getty Conservation Institute’s FY2016 public budget report shows that $1,011,000+ was given to other institutions across just 8 grants. That’s an average of about $126,000 per conservation treatment.


As journalist Tyler Green of “Modern Art Notes” wrote in 2011, art conservation labs on view in museums have turned this work into a spectator sport. Is it to make a greater effort to convince the public of the value of this costly work? Costly, mind you, for both the museum’s budget (or for its corporate or private sponsor), as well as for the surface of the work being poked, daubed, and overpainted. How does this display force the work of art conservation into the face of the museum or gallery visitor in a way that conflates the difference between caring for art and using it to convince ticket-buyers of an art museum’s appeal? Consider this the next time you see announcement of a conservation treatment on display.


Who Gets the Conservation Dollars??

Ruth Osborne
2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Bank of America: The Art Conservation Project.

The Bank of America Conservation funding program has been lauded for providing large numbers of museums around the world with grant money to restore works in their collections. This program has been going on since 2010 (see here for our earlier background article). While no numbers or even estimates of these funds is given in public documents, nor of the approximate costs of works’ restoration in previous years, it can be assumed that these amounts are staggeringly high.

Take, for instance, some of the masterworks awarded conservation grants in 2013:

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948 (1948)

Alfred Bierstadt, Sunset Light (1861)

Daniel Maclise, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854)

Pheonix and Armada portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1575 and c. 1588)

Rembrandt van Rijn, Scholar in His Study (1635)

Titian, Ecce Homo (1543)

Gustave Courbet, L’Atelier du peintre (1854-55)


2018-02 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project 2017 Delaware Art Museum Edward Loper

Edward Loper Sr., Elfreth’s Alley, 1948. Courtesy: Estate of Edward Loper Sr.

Considering the auction prices for works by these artists range somewhere in the realm of $1 mil+, the conservation price tag for the above pieces are likely tens of thousands of dollars. One would therefore hope that the institutions receiving such large grants, in whom much trust is being placed by Bank of America’s Conservation program, would be ones who’ve proven their trustworthiness to the public that is ostensibly the noble reason behind a conservation project.  Then why is the Delaware Art Museum – yes, that museum whose Board slapped the faces of several authorities in arts stewardship just a few years back with its deaccession and sale of important works – receiving money to conserve not one, not two, but thirteen of their paintings?


In case you need a refresher, here’s our 2014 post on the DAM’s decision to auction off works by those same artists upon which its reputation has been built over the past 100 years. These included the auctioning of paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt. The latter brought in some underwhelming profits, which made the public fear the desperate Museum go even further with more deaccession sales. The DAM blacklisted by the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and various other highly-regarded arts professionals.


But let’s take a look at how these 13 paintings factor into the overall 2017 list of BoA award recipients:

(1) Art Institute of Chicago  – El Greco

(2-4) Saatliche Museen zu Berlin – 3 Renaissance sculptures

(5-10) Brooklyn Museum – 6 Assyrian palace reliefs

(11) Cleveland Museum of Art – Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan

(12) Courtauld Gallery – Botticelli’s Holy Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist

(13) Des Moines Art Center – Heith Haring Dancing Figures

(14-18) Crocker Art Museum – 5 paintings by Wayne Thiebaud

(19-31) Delaware Art Museum – 13 regional paintings

(32) Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – Morris Louis painting

(33) Isabella Steward Gardner Museum – Farnese Sarcophagus

(34) Hirshorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – 2 works by R Rauschenberg

(35) James A. Michener Art Museum – Henriette Wyeth

(36) Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C. – 3 fl mural panel

(37) Minneapolis Institute of Art – Frank Stella painting

(38) Musée national Picasso-Paris – Picasso mixed media work

(39) Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid – Joan Miró

(40) North Carolina Museum of Art – Statue of Bacchus

(41) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painting

(42-62) The Studio Museum in Harlem – 21 works by Romare Bearden, et. al.

(63-65) Tate Modern – 3 Modigliani paintings

(66) San Diego Museum of Art – Noguchi sculpture


Not only does the DAM make the list with many world-renowned collections of art, but their award makes up nearly 20% of the works to be conserved with this year’s conservation grant! On top of that, the award will go towards at least one work by Andrew Wyeth, whose name was on one of those the Museum sold in lieu of endowment funds a few years ago.


Andrew Wyeth, Pennsylvania Winter, 1947. Courtesy: Andrew Wyeth.

2018-01-12 - La Salle University Art Museum

Another Loss for Arts Stewardship: La Salle’s Sale

Ruth Osborne
2018-01-12 - La Salle University Philadelphia College Hall

College Hall at La Salle University (Philadelphia, PA). Courtesy: La Salle University.

The art world seems to be laughing (or crying?) at yet another museum’s plan to sell a large chunk of important masterworks from its collection in order to add to their endowment to benefit something other than its art. La Salle University, founded 1863 in Philadelphia, has had a museum on its campus since 1976, founded on the collection of Brother Daniel Burke.

Brother Burke also has an endowment in his name used for “the Art Museum’s education community outreach initiative” for K-senior visitors. Since then, the Museum has added works by Thomas Eakins, Henri Matisse, Dorothea Tanning, Dominque Ingres, Georges Rouault, etc..The 4,000+ collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and decorative arts is housed in a series of period rooms in the lower level of Olney Hall on the University’s main campus. But it is these aforementioned artists who are to be the ones tossed out the door in favor of some $2.3 million in order to – reportedly – help fund teaching and learning initiatives at the University.


The alarming nature of this news comes from the fact that this museum has only been in existence for 42 years. It only took 42 years for the University to decide it was worth selling off a major portion of the collection at its “a one-of-a-kind art museum” in order to float the money to other areas of the institution. Furthermore, who are the people behind this decision?


2018-01-12 - La Salle University Art MuseumCertainly the University President as been at the focus of attacks on this plan to sell forty-six works from the Museum’s collection through Christie’s this spring. But take a look at the University Museum’s staff directory. It includes only a Director/Chhief Curator, a Curator of Education and Public Programs, and a Collections Manager/Registrar ; no mention of any advisory board or board of trustees. This for a collection of over 4,000 objects whose staff is surely also responsible for strong education initiatives for its college-level audience as well as the local public. Now, take a look at La Salle’s Board of Trustees. We see here the President & CEO Stephen Zarrilli, the University President, Dr. Colleen Hancyz, and then a long list of trustees from education, religious ministry, pharmaceutical, medical, consulting, accounting, investment, technology, and various other business backgrounds. Who’s there to protect the art collection?


2018-01-12 - La Salle University Art Museum gallery

Gallery at La Salle University’s Art Museum. Courtesy: Historic Germantown.

The University has repeatedly declined to comment on the deaccessions and sale. President Hancyz has simply defended the decision by insisting upon its ” significant impact on advancing the student learning experience”. But how does the Musuem’s director feel? “Shocked” is all she’s been able to admit.

How precisely will the learning experience students in the School of Arts & Sciences be impacted by this sale? Is it not they who will most directly utilize the Museum’s collection for the furthering of their own education? La Salle’s Art History Department boasts that it is the only university in the Philadelphia area to have its own permanent display of international paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Renaissance through today. And for prospective students:

2018-01-12 - La Salle University Museum Ingres Virgil Reading the Aeneid Before Augustus

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Virgil Reading the Aeneid Before Augustus (1865). Oil over print, engraving by Charles-Simon Pradier. Courtesy: Collection of La Salle University Art Museum.

The mission of the Art History program is to:

• promote visual literacy, which is the ability to interpret and find meaning in objects, artifacts and images;

• foster empathy for others, past and present, through the study of their visual art and culture;

• provide students the critical thinking and writing skills to excel in careers in art history or in other disciplines, and to become life-long learners.

• hire and retain collegial faculty and staff dedicated to the mission of the program and of the university



Department Chair Susan Dixon has signed a letter stating:

“This sale breaks faith with […] Burke’s legacy, as well [as] the integrity of a critical component of our mission – to deepen students’ ethical sensibilities.”

Another department chair has called for a forum on campus to discuss the issue, with the hopes that the proceeds will end up actually being reinvested into the art museum. He has further suggested that the sale is part of the “difficult decisions” being made “to help the university recover from a small freshman class a couple years ago.” The school had a budget deficit of about $12 mil when the current president stepped in three years ago. That is NOT the responsibility of the artworks gifted to students currently studying there.

We’ve requested more information on La Salle’s Board of Trustees and the decision-makers behind the Museum. There does not appear to be a separate Museum Board, nor even an advisory council or a clear representative of the Museum’s interests and initiatives on the Board.


If you are curious about the list of items set to be sold, they reportedly include:

Dame Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Walking Madonna

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Virgil Reading the Aeneid Before Augustus (1865)

Dorothea Tanning’s Temptation of St. Anthony

Georges Rouault’s Le Dernier Romantique

Albert Gleizes’ Man in the City (L’Homme Dans la Ville)


UPDATE (Feb 6, 2018):

Brian Allen, art historian and former director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Philips Academy in Andover, MA, writes also on the responsibility of the auction houses involved in sales of art from lesser-known small university museums, a disastrous reality he calls “art-world ambulance chasing”:

I am convinced that Christie’s and Sotheby’s have taken this profile and gone from museum to museum, college to college, looking for weak points. This does not require too much espionage. Based on my own, hardly proprietary, knowledge, I could tell them which collections to target.

Not too long ago, auction specialists saw themselves as connoisseurs and as stewards of their clients, with whom they often built long-term, trusting relationships. It was business, but auction house owners, directors and senior management knew when to put on the brakes. For the sake of their own image, they understood that raiding museum collections is a lowdown business practice. It is sad to see this side of the art market disappear.

The American arts community is vast, principled and noisy. I hope it gathers its might to hold the auction houses to account.

Brian Allen, The Art Newspaper, 5 February 2018

For more: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/auction-houses-must-share-the-blame-for-university-sell-offs

2017-12-29 - Berkshire Museum exterior

Museums & the Public Interest: More Questions for the Berkshire Museum

Ruth Osborne
2017-12-29 - Berkshire Museum exterior

Courtesy: Ben Garver — The Berkshire Eagle


An opinion piece appeared earlier this month by an economist at George Mason University (D.C.) that emphasized the right of the Berkshire Museum Board to make the decision to sell art and shift its focus to “new areas where they can be strong and discard some older activities”. He compares the Museum Board in question with the actions of other museums to add to their displays either more recent artworks or those by minorities in order to expand their offerings and diversify their audience. But to empty out ones galleries of prized works as a way to keep the Museum itself afloat is an entirely different scenario. The Berkshire is not simply changing with the times and becoming more “high-tech”, nor is it shifting focus because art isn’t as captivating as science and technology are to contemporary audiences. The latter alone has been proven by the hoards of Museum members and locals advocating legal action against the deaccession sales.

The author does ultimately admit that the Museum Board’s decision “isn’t exactly the original intent of the museum”, and that the rather careless attitude towards the American art in their collection is a “sad truth”. The dismissiveness of the Berkshire Museum Board towards its own collection and founding 1903 mission of connecting art and natural history for the public is alarming. Why choose one over the other? Was it because the sale of works of art instead of natural history specimens promised more financial uplift to their endowment?

Just two weeks ago, previously detained documents were released that reveal some less-than-savory details about the Board’s process in making their final decision to sell of collection masterpieces (read: money-makers).

The documents contained reports to the Museum Board from TDC, a Boston-based museum consultant group. Under TDC’s  “summary of capitalization needs”, the Berkshire Museum needs around $2 mil would be required to pay down debt and upwards of $6 mil on top of that to improve the site’s facilities. In addition, TDC advised that $23 million in permanent endowments (the Museum’s current is just over $7 mil), would round out their ability to “stabilize [their] operations on multiple dimensions.” The report insisted that a scenario involving no deaccessions, and therefore no sales, would be absolutely “unsustainable”. From looking at this report, without  deaccessions, the museum would seemingly have no other choice but to close. Anyone see any issue here with how the Museum’s mission is being perceived?

2017-12-29 - Berkshire Museum Board Meeting report

Courtesy: artnet

These scenarios place the institution itself over the importance of the works for which the institution was founded. Between April and October of 2016, around the same time that TDC’s “Scenario summaries” were issued to the Board, they also welcomed both Sotheby’s and Christie’s to take valuation of its collection and see what could fit the bill to make a little cash. Turns out that the artworks they put on the chopping block – 40 out of tens of thousands in the collection – accounted for about 90% of its total value. How are the works that only make up 10% of the collection’s value to support such a sharp shift in mission? Will new audiences actually turn out in the numbers needed to justify this campaign?

Besides being scolded by the many community members it is supposed to serve, and directors at the renowned Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA), the Berkshire’s flinging off of AAM regulations has resulted in the loss of its Smithsonian partnership. The AAM, along with the Association of Art Museum Directors also issued a statement on the Berkshire’s decision that read:

Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

2017-10 Fragonard Young Girl Reading National Gallery of Art

Fragonard’s Layers & the Promotion of Conservation Treatments

Ruth Osborne

2017-10 Fragonard Young Girl Reading underdrawing

X-Rays. Lasers. Multi-Spectral Imaging. We’ve posted on these before: how newly developed technologies like the Er:YAG laser are promoted with such “promising” results, despite persisting doubts from other conservation professionals as well as publications on the risks of its application.

At ArtWatch UK, past coverage has highlighted the business interests involved in conservation technologies as the field finds new ways of convincing the public of the importance of new treatments.

The latest work of art to be put through the ringer – or, rather, a “custom-built…high sensitivity near infrared hyper spectral imaging camera and an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging sensor” is Young Girl Reading by Jean Honoré Fragonard. On this painting, a team of three at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. also used high-res color photography, reflectance imaging spectroscopy (or IRS), reflectance transformation imaging (or RTI), and mercury analysis alongside the previously-mentioned XRF imaging.

2017-10 - Fragonard Fantasy Figures sketch

Jean Honoré Fragonard, “Sketches of Portraits” c. 1769. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art / Wall Street Journal.

The team of a senior conservator, imaging specialist, and paintings expert at the NGA insist that this recent treatment was to discover more about Fragonard’s intriguing “fantasy figures” (portraits of his opulent social circle in masquerade style) and their connection with this finished work of a girl reading. A recently identified page of preparatory sketches by the artist discovered at a 2012 Paris auction. And that these sketches included one for Young Girl Reading in its originally intentioned form. That’s all very interesting. But beyond setting the newly-discovered preparatory sketch side-by-side with the painting in question, what more is actually being uncovered about Fragonard’s fantasy figures, especially if the artist himself decided not to paint her in the first place? And if the sketch does not feature a name underneath, pointing to the potential original sitter or patron?

2017-10 Fragonard Sketch Young Girl ReadingWhat is the investment value of examining the work with these custom-built tools? If the conservators today acknowledge the previously incorrect 1985 conclusion from conservators that a man’s portrait lay beneath the surface, how accurate will this new muddled image of a woman with a headdress askew be in concluding who from his circle Fragonard had originally intended to depict?

2017-10 Fragonard Young Girl Reading layers

Courtesy: Mandel Ngan / AFP.

We’ve reached out to the National Gallery of Art conservation studio on the motivations behind, and future intentions of, the treatment of the art. They have not yet responded, despite multiple attempts. We’ve also asked for more detailed information on how the new custom built machinery was used to achieve the views of the woman facing forward beneath Young Girl Reading. How helpful were previous studies in revealing the, now reportedly truer, underlayer? It was reported that the NGA team used a tiny cross-section taken from the painting from around the time of the 1985 restoration on the work. But just how did all the new the x-ray fluorescence and spectroscopy imaging tools enable them to see the final underlying image? What was the hope behind investing significant funding into these new conservation tools? After all, members of the NGA team are quoted as saying “It was not a painting about which we imagined making further discoveries” and “You start off this research not knowing what you’re looking for”.

2017-11 - Fragonard Young Girl Reading copy Braun et Cie

Editions Braun & Cie. (French, 19th/20th Century), After Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732-1806) Stamped “…Editions Braun et Cie” on the reverse, inscribed “Braun…” in ink on the stretcher. Photo-mechanical reproduction on paper laid on canvas, 22 1/4 x 16 in. Courtesy: Skinner Inc. Auctions, July 2011.

As for known extant copies of the work, there are several, but all from after the late nineteenth century, so far as we have found. And all which celebrate the finished image of the unidentified girl reading, none that hint at any layers beneath.

Just to give a further sense of how greatly media outlets work to increase  public intrigue in conservation science…

Reports also make mention of the inscriptions beneath the sketches identifying either a sitter or patron of the fantasy figure portraits, though the sketch made for what turned out as Young Girl features none. So, in fact, they have failed to point out just how these new “findings” identifying sitters are at all related to Young Girl Reading.

According to the reporter for AFP, “NGA experts used techniques akin to those NASA deployed on its Mars rovers to dispel any doubt the work belonged to a boldly experimental series by a young Fragonard.”

…and the new claim:

“Yet more discoveries possibly await”.

This is how the article ends.

A recent review through Forbes even likened the use of laser examination of this piece to the work of encouraging connoisseurship in today’s art world:

In the age of social media, connoisseurship has often been reduced to “likes.” Fad and fashion permeate the 21st century art market, where there is rare justification for greatness. Exhibitions like FRAGONARD: The Fantasy Figures require the museum-goer to reconsider the history and context of art making. New technologies unmask details, propel connoisseurship…

Exactly how do they propel connoisseurship? Isn’t it the desire for new “discoveries” – and more museum visitors and funding – the reason these new technologies are so prominently highlighted in exhibitions? There is a whole history to this work to be considered and learned from – things like Fragonard’s studio sketches and the painting’s ownership history – but is this highlighted by the press? Clearly there is some confusion as to what “connoisseurship” entails.

The exhibit at the National Gallery of Art runs through Dec 3rd, 2017: https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2017/fragonard-the-fantasy-figures.html 

Museum Mismanagement On Trial: The Berkshire Museum Taken to Court.

Ruth Osborne

2017-11-13 - Thomas Wilmer Dewing The White Dress

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, The White Dress, 1901. Courtesy: Berkshire Fine Arts.

The story of the Berkshire Museum’s massive deaccession sale and change of mission over the past 5 months has been one that mirrors a rapidly tottering see-saw.


We reported a few months back on the Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of 40 masterworks in its collection due to failed finances and a decision to “rebrand” their institution. First, the Board of the Museum had decided to sell the works with Sotheby’s before it actually cast votes in June and the public became aware. According to Keating, attorney for the sons of Norman Rockwell (two of whose works were deaccessioned and slated for auction), the Museum “could have avoided [the sale] if they perhaps…had been willing to discuss this two and a half years ago when they decided to sell the art”. Keating has also told reporters that the Museum in fact engaged in talks with auction houses as early as 2015 in light of a failed capital campaign.

Then, two lawsuits were brought by several important members of the national arts community as well as the Museum’s local community have taken a stand against the sale. These included the Massachusets State Attorney General, the family of Norman Rockwell, and current and former Museum members. On Wednesday, Nov. 1st, the Superior Court began hearing arguments.

Just 7 days later, on Nov. 8th, the AG’s office submitted an emergency motion late in the day in order to try and halt the sale, which had been announced for November 13th. However, despite these measures, the judge proceeded to the decision that the Museum was acting within its rights.

AND THEN, after the AG launched yet another motion in an attempt to halt the sale on Friday morning Nov. 10th, Friday evening the judge agreed that the AG should in fact receive more time to complete the investigation into the sale. Due to this decision, works slated for auction this week have been removed from their sales at Sotheby’s. The AG has reportedly been granted until December 11th to consider the legality of the sales.


2017-11-13 - Normal Rockwell Shuffleton's Barbershop

Normal Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1959. Courtesy: Berkshire Fine Arts.

As of this moment, the American Art sale at Sotheby’s New York is ongoing, BUT there are several lots missing. Those being nos. 10-16:

10. Normal Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, est. $20,000,000-30,000,000

11. George Henry Durrie, Hunter in Winter Wood, est. $400,000-600,000

12. John La Farge, Magnolia, est. $200,000-300,000

13. Thomas Wilmer Dewing, The White Dress, est. $600,000-800,000

14. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Diana of the Tower, est. $250,000-300,000

15. Albert Bierstadt, Connecticut River Valley Claremont, New Hampshire, est. $600,000-800,000

16. Normal Rockwell, Blacksmith’s Boy – Hell and Toe, est. $7,000,000-10,000,000

Click here for more lots listed as “upcoming” in other sales at Sotheby’s, particularly for this week’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (tomorrow @7pm) and Day Sale (Wednesday @10am). All these works are still to remain at Sotheby’s until future decisions from the court.

2017-11-13 - Sotheby's auction site

The Museum has also been issued a “Modern Concern Advisory” from Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates non-profits based on financial documents and, in particular to the Berkshire case,  any “allegations of illegal activity, improper conduct, or organizational mismanagement”.