Delaware Museum to Sell Art and Pay Down Debt

The Delaware ARt Museum is considering selling up to four pieces of art, one of which is by Winslow Homer in order to pay off nearly $20 million in debt and fund or replenish the endowment.  The museum claims by not doing so the 12,500 object museum will have to close.

The policy of many museum groups is not to sell art to pay debt or underwrite operating expenses and overhead, but only to buy more are. These groups also claim museums hold art for the public and any selling other than to buy more art is unethical.  The museum sees it as a bigger dilemma in hurting the community and public trust in the loss of several paintings, as opposed to the enormous damage to the community should the museum close and not be available in the future.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the situations
For a small institution, the Delaware Art Museum is wrestling with a big conundrum.

The museum is moving ahead with plans to sell at least two paintings to pay off a debt, including a popular piece by American master Winslow Homer. The rare move has roiled the art world, where a collection is considered a public trust.

The museum says selling as many as four works is the only way it can retire a $19.8 million debt and replenish its endowment. It says the alternative would be closing the century-old Wilmington institution and its 12,500-object collection.

Disposing of art for a reason except to buy more art violates the ethics policy of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The group warns it may sanction the museum, which could block it from sharing works with most other U.S. museums.

"It's a tragedy when works that belong to the community get sold," said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, which also decried the planned sale.

Delaware museum officials say their decision was made with the community in mind. "I am sad about this, but as a trustee of the museum—not any one piece of art the museum holds—I am in support of doing what is necessary to keep the museum open," said Paula Malone, one of 19 trustees.

Other institutions have faced similar struggles. In March, the museum directors association, which represents 240 directors in North America, sanctioned Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., and its Maier Museum of Art after the school sold the George Bellows painting "Men of the Docks" to the National Gallery in London for $25.5 million. In Detroit, some creditors are pushing to sell off at least some city-owned works at the Detroit Institute of Arts to restructure roughly $18 billion in long-term obligations as part of the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy case.

The college's president, Brad Bateman, said the museum was being unfairly punished for the college's decision. Such decisions don't necessarily mean art will vanish from public view: The Maier gets about 7,000 visitors a year, a fraction of the foot traffic at the London museum.

Michael Miller, chief executive of the Delaware Art Museum, declined to comment on specifics except to confirm the museum's previously announced intention to shed "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" by William Holman Hunt. The piece is scheduled to be auctioned this month in London, where Christie's expects the 1867 pre-Raphaelite work to fetch as much as to $13.4 million.

Homer's "Milking Time" could be next. The 1875 painting depicts a pastoral scene, with a woman standing beside a boy who gazes at cows while perched on a wood fence. It is undergoing conservation at Sotheby's ahead of being shopped on the private market, a person familiar with the matter said. Only eight Homer paintings have gone to auction in the past five years.

Sotheby's declined to comment on the Homer painting.

The Delaware museum's former executive director, Danielle Rice, called the two pieces among her favorites in the galleries. A poster of "Milking Time" goes for $15 in the gift shop, and it was used in a 2012 advertising campaign for the museum.

"I'm actually aching inside at the thought of losing those objects for the public," she said.

Ms. Rice said that when the American Folk Art Museum in New York faced financial woes in 2011, it sold its midtown Manhattan site instead of dipping into its collection.

Mr. Miller said selling the Delaware museum's building wouldn't raise nearly enough. The museum says it has cut staff and exhibition funding and tried to refinance the debt. The goal is to raise $30 million, mostly to pay off debt from a 2005 expansion and renovation.
Source: The Wall Street Journal

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