Friday, May 31, 2013

Further thoughts on Deaccessioning Bernard Smol

One of the reasons I was interested in organizing this exhibition was the complexity of the issues involved. Deaccessioning is becoming an ugly word and not without cause. When it comes up in the news, it is almost always in the context of works being "monetized," sold to cover operating expenses or to support a parent institution. We have addressed this topic before in this blog, often while covering our director, who is active in his opposition to such monetizing approaches through his role in the Association of Art Museum Directors. This topic is fascinating and critically important, but it is not what I am addressing here. While certainly relevant in a general sense, the monetization of our collection isn't in any way at issue here. I am confident in saying that any money realized from the sale of these paintings is a minute part of our considerations and will, in any case, be used only for (or toward) another purchase of art.

My point today is this: the Smol show isn't about deaccessioning alone, it's about collection management in general. It's not just about what we get rid of and why, but also what we accept or buy and why. Different museums have different collecting strategies at different times, even when decided by committee and when following best practices. Put briefly and generally, my predecessors and I have been trying to build an encyclopedic collection that supports instruction at the University of Georgia and learning in general while at the same time building upon certain areas of strength in our collection and in our scholarship (Smol does none of this). When adding to the collection, we are most often called upon to evaluate proposed donations of works of art to the museum, deciding whether to accept them or not. When funds are available, curators propose purchases to the museum's collection committee. Most often, we use the opportunity to acquire work by an artist that fills a "gap," say a key figure in an important artistic movement where we have works by others but not her, or, as is sometimes the case, where we have no representative whatsoever of an important artistic movement. Other times, we have an opportunity to purchase work by a less-established artist (at a low price; we're talking hundreds of dollars, not thousands) who seems to have potential for art historical significance. 

This collecting philosophy for contemporary art means taking risks on unestablished or emerging artists if the cost is nominal. It is important then to cull at a later point. Who ended up mattering to other artists, critics, the public? Who fell off the map or quickly fell out of favor never to return? Who quickly became and remains unappealing to most viewers? Even if you've got a great eye, you are going to make at least a few mistakes if you buy as much art as Alfred Holbrook did. We've got catalogues full of the wonderful paintings he bought for this collection, but you won't find Smol in any of them. You most often find work by artists Holbrook purchased after they were well established, having demonstrated a strong resonance with the public, with critics, with other artists, thinkers and creators. You also find a few works purchased before their creators came to their full stature, before their page in the history books was written. I think of our Jacob Lawrence, which Holbrook purchased in the 1940s, or our suite of Warhol soup cans, an acquisition initiated by his predecessor, William Paul in the 1970s. Neither artist was unknown, of course, but each was still something of a risk at the time. We rely upon each and every one of those soup cans today, the Lawrence painting too, and have many times in the past, but we would be hard pressed to afford even one of the Warhol prints today, at more than 20 times the price. Even an occasionally correct decision works out in the collection's favor with this strategy, and we've had far more "wins" than "losses." I believe in this approach on a limited basis for the acquisition of contemporary art, and I believe our founder did as well, so I think it would be irresponsible of me not to cull from his riskier choices with the hindsight of history. I hope a future GMOA curator will reevaluate my choices, and I believe it is time to fulfill the other side of the strategy put into place by our founder and deaccession from the collection where the artist just didn't cut it. Or at least, as in this case, deaccession the majority of works by the artist. In a collection of more than 10,000 objects, you can be certain that at least 100 don't belong. Here, at least three or four of them are by Bernard Smol.

On another note, I've been following with frequent delight and only occasional horror the coverage this exhibition has garnered on other blogs (for instance, Jillian Steinhauer on Hyperallergic or Judith Dobrzynski’s Real Clear Arts). The main point of the exhibition is to stimulate dialogue about collections management, accessioning and deaccessioning, as well as issues surrounding lesser-known artists, issues of what constitutes artistic merit and historical significance, issues like novelty and innovation and to what extent that matters or not and why, so anybody talking about the show, good or bad, is fulfilling its mission to some extent. The exhibition hopes also to show that, while taste is subjective, quality does vary. I have to say that I am baffled by the seemingly paradoxical comments opining that I should not take into any consideration whatsoever the comments and opinions of others. Why bother commenting if that's true? I think we've been clear about that fact that viewers aren't making the final decision here, but why on earth wouldn't the museum's committee want to hear what people think and take that into consideration? While I think it's irresponsible not to deaccession a small number of objects after careful consideration (and after more than 50 years), I think a conservative approach is always best. If there is an outpouring of love and appreciation for a second painting of the five, I would gladly support keeping it. These paintings are otherwise going. It seems some criticism is being leveled simply because we are being utterly transparent, in fact vocal, where the majority of institutions deaccession as quietly as possible. I'd ask certain naysayers to please keep in mind that I am not inviting people to vote on proposed acquisitions, or to sticker any of the labels of other works in our collection, just the Smols. Nobody is getting voted *off* the island here. At most, one more of these turkeys will get pardoned, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors. And, if you'll excuse a final one in response to a phrase that seems to be gaining popularity, calling this “crowdsourcing a collection” is fine if it helps attract attention to these issues, but I hope in the end readers understand that such a statement is sort of like calling a blog a wiki because it has a comments section.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Further, Alfred Holbrook gave his collection to the people of the State of Georgia, and the curators at the museum are simply professional stewards of the people's collection within the mission of the museum and the university as a whole.

Providing a transparent and, in this very first case of deaccessioning, public process for the museum's patrons reflects Holbrook's own philosophy about the meaning of the official state art museum's collection, and reflects the university's mission of teaching, research and service.