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Editors’ Picks: 10 Events for Your Art Calendar This Week, From a Panel on Michelle Obama’s Style to a Show of Frog-Themed Art

Each week, we search for the most exciting and thought-provoking shows, screenings, and events, both digitally and in-person in the New York area. See our picks from around the world below. (Times are all ET unless otherwise noted.)


Monday, August 30–Saturday, September 25

Daniel Arsham, <I>Bamm-Bamm Bench</i> , (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Friedman Benda.

Daniel Arsham, Bamm-Bamm Bench , (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Friedman Benda.

1. “Daniel Arsham: Objects for Living: Collection II” at Friedman Benda, New York

Multi-hyphenate artist Daniel Arsham is presenting his first solo exhibition of design objects at Friedman Benda’s Chelsea gallery. The collection, dubbed “Objects for Living,” comes on the heels of Arsham’s first foray into “Objects for Living” that debuted as part of Design Miami in 2019. The suite of furniture objects was a fictional version of the Long Island home he grew up in, built by architect Norman Jaffee in 1971; the second collection was inspired by Arsham’s time at home during the pandemic.

Location: Friedman Benda, 515 West 26th Street
Time: Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.

—Caroline Goldstein


Monday, August 30, 2021–Sunday, January 30, 2022

Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion. Constantinople ivory dates to 1000, late 11th century Spanish setting of silver-gilt with pseudo-filigree, glass, crystal, and sapphire cabochons. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion. Constantinople ivory dates to 1000, late 11th century Spanish setting of silver-gilt with pseudo-filigree, glass, crystal, and sapphire cabochons. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

2. “Spain, 1000–1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Met Cloisters, New York

Artifacts from outside the Christian faith are going on display in the Met Cloister’s Fuentidueña Chapel gallery for the first time in this exhibition on the overlapping artistic traditions of the rival Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities in Medieval Spain. The works on view date from 1000 to 1200, and illustrate shifting power balances between the three faiths over the centuries.

Location: The Met Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, New York
 $25 general admission
Time: Thursday–Monday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; from September 7, Sunday–Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.

—Sarah Cascone


Tuesday, August 31

Nati Linares and Caroline Woolard. Photo courtesy of the Art Students League.

Nati Linares and Caroline Woolard. Photo courtesy of the Art Students League.

3. “Artists and The Solidarity Economy: Nati Linares and Caroline Woolard of in Conversation” at the Art Students League, New York

The Art Students League hosts a virtual conversation with Nati Linares and Caroline Woolard, founders of, about how art schools can help build a more equitable art world by embracing BIPOC artists and cultural workers.

Price: Free with registration
Time: 1 p.m.–2 p.m.

—Sarah Cascone


Wednesday, September 1–Saturday, October 23

A still from Sara Cwynar's <i>Glass Life</i> (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production.

A still from Sara Cwynar’s Glass Life (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production.

4. “Sara Cwynar: Glass Life” at Foxy Production, New York

The title of Sara Cwynar’s new exhibition (as well as her recently-published monograph) comes from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff’s 2018 book that—among other things—details the ways in which corporations have exploited advanced imagining techniques to gather unprecedented amounts of behavioral data about all of us. We’re stuck living a “glass life,” Zuboff says, on display and yet tricked into thinking we’re free; our only recourse is to seek out “increasingly complex ways to hide.”

But in the six-channel film at the center of Cwynar’s show, the artist isn’t hiding. Instead, she’s contending with Zuboff’s idea in real time, musing on figures like Euripides, Shakespeare, and John Maynard Keynes while the screen fills with images she’s amassed on hard drives over recent years: of cartoons and artworks, of food and found photographs. The whole thing feels like a fever dream experienced in a Google wormhole.

Location: Foxy Production at 2 East Broadway, 200
Time: Tuesday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

—Taylor Dafoe


Wednesday, September 1Saturday, October 9

Alina Perez, <em>Keep Still (cropped view)</em> (2021). Courtesy Deli Gallery.

Alina Perez, Keep Still (cropped view) (2021). Courtesy Deli Gallery.

5. “Alina Perez: No One Recognizes You as a Puddle” at Deli Gallery, New York

Yale MFA grad Alina Perez’s debut solo show opens at Deli Gallery this Wednesday. Large-scale works in charcoal and pastel emit a striking luminescence, as seen in Keep Still (above), with the light adding to the moodiness of the depicted figures. The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by late Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, which contemplates the losses one may experience when on the journey to self-awareness.

Location: Deli Gallery, 36 Water Street, New York
Time: Tuesday–Saturday: 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

Cristina Cruz

Thursday, September 2

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

6. “Brooklyn Talks: The Sartorial Vision of Michelle Obama” at the Brooklyn Museum

We all know Michelle Obama is the GOAT—the first Black woman to be First Lady of the United States, she helmed significant initiatives including Let’s Move, Let Girls Learn, and Joining Forces, went on to write a best-selling memoir and launch a Netflix production company with Barack… and she always looks amazing. Enter Meredith Koop, Obama’s longtime stylist and image strategist who helped refine Obama’s personal style and usher in a new kind of First Lady—one who’s clothes people actually want to wear. Koop will join fashion historian Kimberly M. Jenkins to discuss honing Michelle’s signature look, and the intersection of fashion and politics in general.

Location: Brooklyn Museum, 200 Easter Parkway
Time: 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m.

—Caroline Goldstein

Thursday, September 2

Statuette of a Seated Black African Boy, 450-425 BC, Etruscan. Bronze. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Image: Bruce White Photography

Statuette of a Seated Black African Boy, 450-425 BC, Etruscan. Bronze. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Image: Bruce White Photography

7. “Art Break: Seeing Blackness in Greek and Etruscan Art” a virtual talk hosted by The Getty

This is the latest of a series of Getty virtual events which focus on Black representation in the arts. Experts will focus on a 2,500-year old Etruscan bronze statuette to confront simplistic modern assumptions about race and servitude. They will explore how meanings change when images of Blackness move between cultures and over the course of time. The talk features antiquities curator Claire Lyons and Sarah Derbew, assistant professor of classics at Stanford University.

Derbew’s research focuses on literary and artistic representations of Black people in ancient Greece. She is currently finishing her book, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (to be published in 2022). Since joining the Getty in 2008, Lyons has curated exhibitions including “The Aztec Pantheon and Art of Empire” (2010) and “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” (2013).

Price: Free with registration
Time: 3 p.m. ET (12 p.m. PT)

—Eileen Kinsella


Thursday, September 2–Saturday, October 2

Sarah Slappey, <i>Girl Talk</i> (2021) Image courtesy the artist and Sargent's Daughters.

Sarah Slappey, Girl Talk (2021) Image courtesy the artist and Sargent’s Daughters.

8. “Sarah Slappey: Self Care” at Sargent’s Daughters

In “Self Care,” the Brooklyn-based painter shows off a new body of works, including paintings on canvas and paper, and a series of drawings, that explore the darker and more extreme aspects of idealized femininity. The imagery in her paintings reflect a South Carolina upbringing that was overflowing with exaggerated versions of how girls should look and dress. Slappey herself said: “All of the paintings have a kind of quiet violence.” For the artist, the ideas and imagery of femininity can be a double-edged sword.

Location: Sargent’s Daughters at 179 East Broadway
Time: Tuesday–Saturday, 12 p.m.–6 p.m.

—Eileen Kinsella


Saturday, September 4

Installation view, "Wu Tsang: Anthem" at the Guggenheim Museum. Courtesy of the Guggenheim.

Installation view, “Wu Tsang: Anthem” at the Guggenheim Museum. Courtesy of the Guggenheim.

9. “Saturday on the House” at the Guggenheim, New York

On one Saturday at the Guggenheim Museum per month, you can enjoy a full day free of charge. If you choose this day, the first weekend in September, catch the final days of “Wu Tsang: Anthem” a site-specific installation created in collaboration with singer, composer, and activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, featuring what the artist calls a “sonic sculptural space” resonating through the museum’s iconic spiral architecture.

Location: Solomon Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave at 89th Street

Price: Free! *Capacity is limited, timed tickets may be reserved 48 hours in advance.
Time: 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

—Caroline Goldstein


Through Saturday, September 4

Mike Linskie, Noise Above the Storm, 2021. Courtesy of Real Pain.

10. “The Frog Show” at Real Pain, New York

Who doesn’t love frogs? As organizer Reilly Davidson states in the press release, “A frog is a feeling.” This group show at Real Pain includes works by Kenny Schachter, Jan Gatewood, Daniel Boccato, Justine Neuberger, and many more. Go see it before it closes this Saturday.

Location: Real Pain, 30 Orchard Street, New  York
Time: Wednesday–Sunday: 12 p.m.–6 p.m.

—Cristina Cruz

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Kehinde Wiley’s Presidential Portrait of Barack Obama Is Arriving in New York. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About It

In recent history, few artworks have captured the public imagination quite like the Obama Portraits—the official portraits of 44th U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, which set off a media firestorm when they were unveiled in 2018. 

The president’s portrait, painted by Kehinde Wiley, and the first lady’s, painted by Ashley Sherald, marked a sharp—and refreshing—departure from the staid, traditional styles with which these official portraits had become synonymous. 

And it wasn’t just the art world that was enthralled. When the portraits went on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., attendance skyrocketed 300 percent. Visitors not infrequently broke down in tears before the paintings. 

Since then, the public’s enthusiasm has not waned. Now, in an attempt to bring the images to a wider audience, both portraits have been sent on a cross-country museum tour that will last into spring 2022. With the first leg at the Art Institute of Chicago having just ended, the portraits will go on view at the Brooklyn Museum next week, from August 27–October 24. They will then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the MFA Houston.  

To mark the tour, as well as President Obama’s recent 60th birthday, we decided to take a closer look at Kehinde Wiley’s foliage-filled portrait. Here are three details that just might change the way you see it.

1) Wiley Does Away With (Most) Of His Famed Historical Motifs 

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

One of the most celebrated artists of our generation, Kehinde Wiley has defined his career with monumental oil paintings that often place Black men and women into traditional Western art-historical iconography and against lushly colorful, patterned backgrounds.

Arguably his most famous painting, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), which is in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, reinterprets Jacques Louis David’s Neoclassical masterpiece Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass (1801–5). Given Wiley’s dexterity with these political and art-historical references, one might have expected his take on the U.S. presidency—an office with no shortage of historical imagery associated with it—to be filled with eager eggs. 

Instead, Wiley set Obama, the first African American president, in an environment free of overt references, though he retains the imposing physical scale of the history paintings he often echoes. (This one measures over seven feet tall.) Other points of inspiration are even subtler. Obama’s left foot, as New Yorker writer Vinson Cunningham aptly pointed out, doesn’t press into the earth as one might imagine, but floats in an almost otherworldly way, like a Byzantine saint in a golden eternal realm.

Here, Obama the person, rather than the office, is the focus. He is dressed in a nondescript black suit and white shirt, open at the collar, leaning forward toward the viewer with his arms crossed, as though he were listening or just about to speak. His expression could be seen as stern or reassuring. By eliminating any easily decoded symbols, Wiley offers a portrait that revels in its own ambiguity.


2) Those Flowers Are More Than a Pretty Backdrop 

Detail of Kehinde Wiley's Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Detail of Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Where, we might ask ourselves, is the president meant to be, exactly? Seated in a varnished antique chair, he hovers against a lush green backdrop of leaves and flowers. (The enveloping background inspired some Internet jokesters to compare the image to the famous meme of Homer Simpson getting swallowed up by a green hedge.) 

Wiley painted this portrait working from a series of photographs he made of the president and the image has been celebrated (rightly) for its verisimilitude. But the artist paid almost equal attention to the decorative elements of the picture. The highly varnished rosewood of mahogany chair rosewood of mahogany is a highly specific and yet unreal conglomeration of 18th and 19th styles with curved arms, inlaid patterns, and an oval back that combine aspects of English regency and American styles. (It’s worth noting that the decorative arts have, perhaps more than any other art form, quietly been shaped by the histories of trade, colonization, and warfare, from Chinoiserie to the Egyptian influence on Art Deco. Wiley’s blending of styles seems to purposely confound this connoisseurship).

As with many of his paintings, Wiley does not keep the flora neatly in the background but allows it to curl and twist with its own agency. Upon closer examination, the greenery is laden with symbolism: jasmine references Hawaii, where Obama was born; the African blue lilies represent Kenya, Obama’s father’s birthplace (Wiley’s father is Nigerian); and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, the city where his political career began and where, of course, he met Michelle Obama. 


3) The Portrait Harkens Back to the Very First of the Presidential Portraits   

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington known at the "Lansdowne" portrait (1796). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

While Wiley has done away with his boldest art-historical references, that antique-looking chair Obama is sitting in has conjured up some critical interpretations. Art critic Holland Cotter noted in his New York Times review that Wiley’s portrait bears some resemblance to ​​Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, a version of which has hung in the East Room of the White House since 1800.

As Cotter notes, “the clothes are an 18th-century version of current POTUS style: basic black suit and fat tie.” Plus, the “vaguely throne-like chair [is] not so different from the one seen in Stuart’s Washington portrait.”

While in another context, this might seem an interpretive stretch, here it feels intentional: in the first presidential portrait, Washington stands beside an empty chair. Two hundred and twenty years later, Obama, the first African American president to occupy the White House (a house built by slaves), has taken a seat at the proverbial table.

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More Museums Are Taking Advantage of Pandemic-Era Rule Changes to Sell Art at Auction, Including a $12 Million Childe Hassam

New York’s oldest museum had a tough pandemic year. The New-York Historical Society, founded in 1804, was shuttered for months and has been operating at 25 percent capacity since September. As revenue fell 30 percent, it laid off 15 percent of its staff and furloughed 11 percent more. 

With financial pressures showing no sign of letting up, the institution decided to take a drastic step: sell an iconic Childe Hassam painting from its collection. 

Estimated at $12 million to $18 million, Hassam’s Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918 (1918) will be offered at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art evening sale on May 12 alongside gems by Monet and Cézanne. The work is poised to set a new high for the American Impressionist, whose record hasn’t been challenged in more than two decades.  

The New-York Historical Society is the latest institution to sell art amid snowballing fallout from the pandemic. This season, it’s joining six other museums—the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Newark Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum—taking advantage of temporarily loosened deaccessioning regulations. Notably, the majority of the works on offer are in the American art category, a sector that has seen mostly lackluster sales since the financial crisis. 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Green Oak Leaves (ca. 1923). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Green Oak Leaves (ca. 1923), from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The works arrive on the auction block halfway into a two-year window during which museums have been granted leeway to use the proceeds from art sales for “direct collection care,” an umbrella term that covers everything from curators’ salaries to HVAC systems. (Traditionally, funds from art sales can only be used to acquire more art.) Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of art have already been sold under these relaxed rules, which are set to expire on April 10, 2022.  

Nina Del Rio, head of advisory and museum services at Sotheby’s (which is offering the entire slate of museum works this season), is seeing “a steady flow” of museum consignments in the pipeline. “Some conversations are happening and others haven’t started yet,” she told Midnight Publishing Group News.


More Museums Mulling Art Sales

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had a $150 million revenue shortfall last year, recently floated the idea of selling art, the blowback was swift and fierce. The institution is still considering whether to apply sale proceeds to collection care, but hasn’t determined what will be sold and how, according to a spokesman.   

The Whitney Museum of American Art, which rarely sells works from its 25,000-piece collection, may also join the fray after completing a three-year strategic review of its holdings, according to director Adam Weinberg. 

“I am open to the idea,” Weinberg said in a recent interview with art-industry insider Josh Baer of using funds from art sales for collection care. Of the 3,000 artists in the Whitney’s permanent collection, two-thirds are living, and their works are off-limits for deaccessioning, Weinberg said. A Whitney spokeswoman declined to comment further.

While deaccessioning is usually a standard part of collection management for museums, the temporary policies have ignited fiery debate. 

Marsden Hartley, <i>Shell</i>, from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Marsden Hartley, Shell, from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Last fall, the Baltimore Museum of Art withdrew multimillion-dollar works from Sotheby’s after an outcry by its trustees and other museum professionals. The Everson Museum of Art was also criticized for selling its only Jackson Pollock painting and eyebrows were raised when the Brooklyn Museum sold its sole Cranach.

“It’s going to be complicated for a long time,” said art lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell, who argued against the Berkshire Museum’s plan to deaccession in 2017. (The legal battle went all the way up to the Massachusetts supreme court; ultimately, the museum was allowed to sell art to close a financial gap, netting $53 million.)  

“The opposition is not as monolithic and singular as it used to be,” O’Donnell said. “There are people who would say it’s OK to sell art to emphasize some part of the programming. And there are people who would say it’s OK to sell art for whatever reason they want.”


Looking for Duplicates

Museums, perhaps having internalized some of the blowback, are opting this season to sell works that they say replicate others in their collection. 

The New-York Historical Society owns two flag paintings by Hassam. The one it is selling, Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918, was a bequest from collector Julia Engle in 1984. It is keeping The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May), gifted by the late financier Richard Gilder in 2016

The Brooklyn Museum is parting with Mary Cassatt’s Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder (ca. 1901), one of 17 pieces by the artist in its collection. Estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million, it will be offered in Sotheby’s American art sales.

Mary Cassatt, Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder No. 3 (ca. 1901). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mary Cassatt, Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder No. 3 (ca. 1901), from the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The work has been rarely shown and was considered for deaccession “for some time,” according to a spokeswoman. Its “departure would in no way undermine the strength of our collection or our ability to continue to tell the story of Cassatt and women’s transformative role in the 19th century avant-garde,” she said.

The Newark Museum of Art is selling off 20 objects from its 130,000-piece collection following a strategic review. It plans to use the proceeds for collection care. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Green Oak Leaves, slated for sale, is one of its four paintings by the American modernist. The museum is also selling two of its seven Hassam works, including Woman Cutting Roses in a Garden (1889), estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.


A Moment for Hassam

Museums typically hold onto the best examples by an artist, but buyers are still attracted to the institutional provenance, prestige, and freshness of deaccessioned works. Experts say the museum trove at Sotheby’s could reenergize the American art market. 

The sector, which covers a roughly two-century period from colonial-era portraits by Gilbert Stuart through American modernism, “changed in 2008 and it never really recovered,” said Elizabeth von Habsburg, managing director of Winston Art Group. Hassam and Cassatt have been “volatile” at auction while O’Keeffe’s market is strong in Asia, she added.

Hassam’s flag paintings are in a category all their own. Most works in the series of 30—considered his most famous (and expensive)—are owned by museums. One hangs next to President Joe Biden’s desk in the Oval Office. 

Hassam’s auction record was set in 1998 for Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue (1917), which fetched $7.9 million. 

The series was inspired by a “Preparedness Parade” on Fifth Avenue in 1916, which celebrated the end of America’s isolationist policies as it prepared to enter World War I.  

Childe Hassam, Piazza di Spagna (1857). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Childe Hassam, Piazza di Spagna (1857), from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Like most works in the series, Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918 depicts a busy urban landscape from above. Three flags wave in the wind; snow covers the ground.   

The New-York Historical Society declined to comment on the value of the painting or discuss its valuation process. It hasn’t deaccessioned art in 20 years, a spokesperson said.

If sold within the estimated range—$12 million to $18 million—the proceeds would amount to a windfall. To put things in perspective, the museum’s total revenue was $42.7 million during the 2018–19 fiscal year, according to its last available tax return. 

And herein lies the danger for museums, O’Donnell said.

“If you view the collection as a revenue source, will you keep managing a nonprofit institution as carefully as you should?” he said. “If, in the back of your mind, you know that if things don’t work out, you can make up the difference here and there by selling a painting?”

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The Art Angle Podcast: KAWS Is the World’s Most Popular Artist. Why?

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Midnight Publishing Group News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join host Andrew Goldstein every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more with input from our own writers and editors as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

Art shows are a thing again! At least in New York, at least for now, and at least in the socially distanced way that we’ve come to see as normal. But it’s really great news for the art museum-going crowd. And it’s even better news that some of the shows on view are really, really good.

Without question, one of the buzziest shows of the season is the Brooklyn Museum’s sweeping survey of the street artist and late capitalism prodigy known as KAWS, one of the most popular artists in the world.

So, is his show really, really good? What’s the deal with KAWS anyway? We decided to ask Midnight Publishing Group News chief art critic Ben Davis, who saw the show and wrote a review of it with the arresting title “Why KAWS’s Global Success May Well Be a Symptom of a Depressed Culture, Adrift in Nostalgia and Retail Therapy.”

On this week’s episode we dive into the social-media, fast-fashion, luxury-object, street-artist fever dream that helped propel Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS, to superstardom.

Listen to Other Episodes:

The Art Angle Podcast: How the Pandemic Totally Changed the Art Market

The Art Angle Podcast: How NFTs Are Changing the Art Market as We Know It

The Art Angle Podcast: Lorraine O’Grady on the Social Castes of the Art World

The Art Angle Podcast (Re-Air): Why Artist Trevor Paglen Is Doing Everything He Can to Warn Humanity About Artificial Intelligence

The Art Angle Podcast: What Will Be the Fate of the Benin Bronzes?

The Art Angle Podcast: The Haunting History of the Benin Bronzes

The Art Angle Podcast: The Surprising Lessons of FDR’s New Deal Art Programs

The Art Angle Podcast: 5 Steamy, Whirlwind Romances That Changed Art History

The Art Angle Podcast: MoMA Curator Paola Antonelli on Design for the Post-Pandemic World

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The Market Is Coming for Museums’ Art, and 7 Other Takeaways From a Hot-Button Conference on Deaccessioning

American museums are in a bind. Budget shortfalls during the pandemic have led to existential threats, while at the same time activists have ramped up calls for museums to correct long-standing racial inequities, which necessitates more funding—all of which has led to a heated debate among professionals about how institutions should manage their finances.

As museums struggle to find new ways to raise money amid plummeting revenue streams, deaccessioning has come the the fore as a controversial solution. At a conference organized last week by Syracuse University, “Deaccessioning After 2020,” brought together directors, curators, scholars, and other experts to discuss policies surrounding the way museums sell objects from their collections.

While museums routinely sell works, how they can use the resulting funds are determined by two leading industry organizations, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). (“Deaccessioning” includes sales along with giving items away and repatriating them to their countries of origin or other rightful owners.)

While the AAMD’s guidelines have restricted museums’ use of proceeds from sales to purchasing other objects, AAM’s policies have long allowed institutions to use those funds for “direct care” of their collections. But to help museums face the financial crises caused by the pandemic, AAMD has opened a two-year window during which its members may use such funds for direct care.

Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum quickly moved to take advantage of the exception. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sits on an endowment of some $3.3 billion, revealed that it, too, would take advantage of the loosening regulations, causing considerable blowback. Thousands signed a petition calling on board members to write checks to meet the museum’s $150 million budget shortfall. Some professionals warned of a slippery slope that might result in boards being less willing to fund institutions that could simply sell objects, and of a threat to museums’ tax-exempt status. 

Furthermore, “direct care” has never been strictly defined. When the Baltimore Museum of Art recently penned an expansive definition of the term as it planned to sell several masterworks to raise $65 million to meet ambitious diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion goals, the AAMD balked. The museum withdrew the works from auction at the last moment. 

Speakers at the conference, which was held on Zoom, included the Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, the Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford, scholar Glenn Adamson, lawyers for the Berkshire Museum, as well as government officials. 

Here are eight key insights on the future of museums put forth by the participants.

Protesters outside Sotheby's ahead of this morning's American Art sale, which included works being deaccessioned from the Berkshire Museum. Image courtesy of Save the Art—Save the Museum

Protesters outside Sotheby’s ahead of an American art sale that included works being deaccessioned from the Berkshire Museum. Image courtesy of Save the Art—Save the Museum

1. Museums are not going to “sell” their way out of their financial problems. Not during the pandemic—and not after. 

During a panel on legal issues and the role of the courts, Nicholas O’Donnell, partner at Sullivan and Worcester’s art and museum law practice group, sounded a warning bell. (O’Donnell was one of the lawyers arguing against the sale of works from the holdings of the Berkshire Museum in 2017.) If a meaningful percentage of museums face the inability to continue, he said, selling art isn’t going to help them stay open. (A survey by AAM conducted at the beginning of the pandemic found that a third of museums faced the real possibility of closure.)

2. That’s because museums have grown way too large without regard to future costs. 

In the opening keynote, National Gallery of Art director Kaywin Feldman sounded warning bells of her own. Museums’ governing philosophy in the 20th century, she said, was growth. Collections grew and grew such that today, lack of storage space is a crisis. Buildings grew to fill museums’ properties without regard to future costs to maintain the physical plant. Galleries and storage spaces are overflowing, she said, and yet the industry keeps talking about growth. 

3. Don’t expect clarity from governing organizations on what “direct care” actually means.

The AAM added direct care to its code of ethics in 1994, but left it to museums and their boards to define the term. And yet, in the years since, the industry hasn’t outlined it with much clarity.

In a recent vote among AAMD membership, museum directors opted not to even have any further discussion on the subject. Museum directors were too afraid to even talk about this hot-button issue, the Brooklyn Museum’s Anne Pasternak said. But they need greater guidance from the AAMD. Museums are too diverse for a one-size-fits-all solution, and yet the current situation, in which boards just make their own decisions, isn’t ideal.

Pasternak added that museums need the AAMD to develop clear guidelines because direct care could be a very real part of how museums get through the current crisis.

Jackson Pollock, Red Composition (1946). Image courtesy Christie's.

The Everson Museum sold Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946). Image courtesy Christie’s.

4. Boards aren’t going to save museums in every emergency. They can’t, and maybe it shouldn’t be their job. 

If those who oppose deaccessioning expect super-wealthy boards to come to the rescue, they could be waiting a long time, said the directors and board chairs on a panel about regional museums tasked with “making difficult decisions,” including the Berkshire Museum and the Everson Museum of Art, in Syracuse, which recently sold a Jackson Pollock work to fund future acquisitions.

“Boards are not banks,” Everson board chair Jessica Arb Danial said. “They are fiduciaries.” What’s more, the Everson doesn’t have a single billionaire on its board, she said. (Though if you are a billionaire in Syracuse, she added, “I will find you.”)

On her panel, too, Pasternak called the assumption that her board could simply write checks to cover pandemic shortfalls “perplexing.”

Likewise, Mark Gold, a partner at Smith Green and Gold, in Massachusetts, who was counsel to the Berkshire Museum, called it “offensive” to assume that boards are stocked with super-wealthy members, saying that he works with institutions whose boards include local business owners and school teachers.

5. Museums must get creative about cutting costs.

The Dallas Museum of Art recently mounted a Juan Gris exhibition using many loans, director Agustín Arteaga said. Whereas big-ticket items on loan are usually lovingly cared for every step of the way by couriers, the museum managed this time to cut costs without using a single one. (As Kate Brown recently wrote, the organizers of a Rembrandt show in Germany pulled off the same feat.)

Joe Thompson, former director of Mass MoCA, piped in, saying that those loans are typically triple insured, at “absurd” rates, “with no balancing of actual risks.”

6. Some museums will go out of business, and that’s just the way it goes.

On a panel devoted to “the impermanence of museums,” Brown University professor Steven Lubar pointed out that his institution once had a museum, the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, that simply went the way of the dodo when the school’s priorities changed. Many museums have closed, said Lubar; we just don’t remember them. 

7. The market is coming for museums’ art.

Lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell’s phone started ringing as soon as the AAMD’s policy change was announced, he said. The market will find efficient ways to source art to sell, he posited, saying that “collectors are coming full force” for museums’ collections. 

8. And when it does, expect more crises, and more online rage.

While museums may collect with relative freedom, independent curator and writer Glenn Adamson pointed out that they are subjected to intense scrutiny when selling they sell, and the headlines bear that out.

When the market comes for their art, can their boards be trusted to do due diligence and defend every sale? That’s going to be “the gorilla in the room,” said O’Donnell.

When they opt to sell, expect “scorched earth criticism by bloggers,” added lawyer Mark Gold.

Velásquez, on her panel, appealed for more propositions for solutions than just criticism. The current crisis, she said, showcases museums’ most pressing needs. Those in the hot seat need great ideas and empathy. 

But Pasternak was defiant. Let bloggers criticize, she said.

“Haters gonna hate.”

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