Friday, May 31, 2013

Exhibition: Fashion Independent: The Original Style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor

From June 1st through Sept. 15th, the Georgia Museum of Art will showcase the personal wardrobe of sportswoman, socialite and fashion icon Ann Bonfoey Taylor.  The nearly complete collection comprises custom-made day and evening wear from renowned couturiers such as Charles James, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy and James Galanos.  Myriad pieces literally tailored to fit the life of this 20th-century Renaissance woman are juxtaposed with large-scale photographs by Toni Frissell. 

The museum’s director, William Underwood Eiland, initially saw the exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM), and was captured not only by the impressive display of textiles and design, but also by the clearly educational focus of the show.  Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at PAM, organized the exhibition. 

“I think what really drew Bill and the museum to this show in particular was its educational quality.  It is really a comprehensive survey of 20th-century design.  While the general public will be enthusiastic, true scholars of fashion history will be incredibly excited to see these designs; it is so much more than just a fashion show,” says the in-house curator, Mary Koon. 

Textiles dating from the mid-1940s to the 1970s required special hands for transport and display. Four couriers, trained for the special handling necessary, helped install the exhibition.  Italian mannequins appear in everything from cocktail dresses to riding boots—each piece custom made. Aside from the close to 200 items of clothing and accessories included in the exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to study Taylor’s sketches of her own skiwear designs, a display of erudition and natural talent.  The integrity of the collection lies in its multifaceted testament to the quality of design in 20th-century art and fashion.

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.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Deaccessioning Bernard Smol

La Forêt Enchantée (The Enchanted Forest)
The Georgia Museum of Art currently owns the five paintings by Bernard Smol (French, 1897–1969), all currently on display in museum’s Martha Thompson Dinos Gallery. As the museum’s curator of European art, I have proposed removing four of them from our collection. The paintings do not align with the collection goals as defined in the museum’s mission statement and acquisition policy, the paintings have not generated any scholarly interest or interest from the public in more than 50 years, and they have not been exhibited during this time.

Les Pleureuses (The Mourners)

About the artist

“His is a world of color and dreams, of design and poetry, of music and the daily round of the circus and magic, of dance and religion.” George Huisman, Directeur Général Honoraire des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1958

Smol worked in a late post-impressionistic idiom, creating encaustic paintings with vibrant colors. Encaustic is a technique of painting with hot beeswax mixed with pigments that creates a translucent but textured surface. The jewel-like quality of Smol’s paintings often drew comparisons to stained-glass windows by critics of his day. His typical subject matter included romantic landscapes and interiors populated with harlequins, dancers, bohemian poets and mystical figures that give the viewer a sense of experiencing a dream. Still relatively unknown in the United States, Smol exhibited widely in Europe in the mid-20th century. The artist came to the attention of the Georgia Museum of Art's founding director, Alfred H. Holbrook, during a 1958 exhibition at Chase Gallery in New York, after which Holbrook visited Smol’s studio in Paris.

Le Prophète Job (The Prophet Job)


Deaccessioning is the legal and permanent removal of an object from the museum's collection in accordance with policies and procedures defined by the Board of Regents, the University of Georgia, the laws of the State of Georgia and the United States and the standards of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. The museum received authorization from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents to deaccession objects starting in 2011, after a process involving formal vote and input from staff members, outside experts, the Board of Advisors, and the university’s provost. Whenever possible, works chosen for deaccessioning are sold at public auction. Proceeds are reserved in a designated account to be used only for the acquisition of new objects into the collection and never for operations or other expenditures. If the work to be deaccessioned was a donation to the museum, the donor or donor’s heirs are informed, whenever possible, and the credit for the gift is applied to any new acquisition made with funds from the donated work’s sale.

Deaccessioning is a carefully and necessarily lengthy process. At this point, the Georgia Museum of Art has yet to deaccession a single object from its collection of more than 10,000 objects in the museum’s 55-year history, although other objects are currently under consideration. I am recommending the deaccessioning of all but one of the paintings by Smol in our collection, all on display in this exhibition. During the course of the exhibition, other members of the museum’s collections committee and I will pursue subsequent steps in the deaccessioning process, making all documents and information available as part of the exhibition.

Le Village Inondé (The Inundated Village)

What do you think?

We would also like your input going forward. Which paintings or paintings would you keep? Which would you deaccession? Come visit in person to vote or tell us what you think in the comment section here.

–Lynn Boland, Pierre Daura Curator of European Art

La Robe de la Mariée (The Wedding Dress)

Excerpt from May 20, 2013, memorandum from Lynn Boland to GMOA Collections Committee:

Bernard Smol (French, 1897–1969) was an accomplished artist and should remain represented in the museum’s collection; however, the evolution of our collection and collection plan for European art over the last 50 years makes it unnecessary to have five large paintings by Smol from the same period and in the same style. These paintings are highly unlikely to be requested for loan or for inclusion in any of the museum's exhibitions or other programming in the foreseeable future, with the exception of the upcoming exhibition “Deaccessioning Bernard Smol,” May 25 to July 7, 2013. These paintings have not been exhibited at the museum since 1959, they have not been on view elsewhere since two traveled to Middle Georgia College shortly thereafter, and there is no indication that information about them has been requested at any time since or that they have been viewed by anyone other than museum staff during this time. There is no indication that Smol has been included in any publication since 1959, further demonstrating a universal lack of scholarly interest in the artist and his works. They were considered for inclusion in the 2011 permanent collection reinstallation as part of the European display in the H. Randolph Holder Gallery but deemed of insufficient quality or art historical significance to merit indefinite display, especially given their large size compared to other paintings in the museum’s collection. Their size also makes them a burden on the museum’s already taxed storage facilities. I recommend that the following paintings, all museum purchases rather than gifts, be deaccessioned and, through public auction, made available to other institutions or individuals better able to display and appreciate them:

La Forêt Enchantée (The Enchanted Forest), n.d.
Encaustic on canvas
34 1/2 x 50 3/4 inches
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Museum Patrons Fund purchase, 1959
GMOA 1959.683

Les Pleureuses (The Mourners), n.d.
Encaustic on canvas
31 1/2 x 39 inches
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Museum Patrons Fund purchase, 1959
GMOA 1959.684

Le Prophète Job (The Prophet Job), n.d.
Encaustic on canvas
31 1/2 x 39 inches
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Museum Patrons Fund purchase, 1959
GMOA 1959.685

Le Village Inondé (The Inundated Village), n.d.
Encaustic on canvas
34 1/2 x 50 1/2 inches
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Museum Patrons Fund purchase, 1959
GMOA 1959.686

I propose keeping one painting to represent Smol in the GMOA collection:

La Robe de la Mariée (The Wedding Dress), n.d.
Encaustic on canvas
31 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Gift of the artist and Chase Gallery, New York
GMOA 1959.651

La Robe de la Mariée was a gift of the artist and the Chase Gallery as well the personal favorite of the museum’s founder, Alfred H. Holbrook, according to a March 25, 1959, letter from Holbrook to Smol. La Robe de la Mariée is also the only painting of the five exhibited in Chase Gallery’s 1958 exhibition featuring Smol, which Holbrook visited. Three of the four paintings proposed for deaccession have no exhibition history other than the 1959 exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, and Les Pleureuses (The Mourners) appeared only in the exhibition organized by the museum that traveled to Middle Georgia College.