Alert the Media! Critic Says: “I’m Not Sure”

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Let’s see, lots of museum news this week. Bad day for the Smithsonian, check. The Albright-Knox counting the new millions from its de-accessioning binge, check. But what’s up with me? I just can’t seem to get into spanking big institutions today. Am I just counting on Charles Grassley — ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and flaming-sword-bearing scourge of the non-profit world – to do it for me?

Well, at least in the case of the Albright-Knox fight — about whether the museum was right to sell off 207 objects from its collection at Sotheby’s to increase its acquisition funds for contemporary art — it’s more complicated. I’ve also been standing back because — is it ok to say this in the blog world? — I haven’t formed a solid opinion.

For the record, I’m not someone who thinks de-accessioning is always a bad thing. For instance, my own preferred solution for the predicament of the Barnes Foundation — a problem for which there may be no good solution other than some notional white knight who has not turned up so far — would have been for the court to permit a one time sale of one or more of its works. Put that Rose period Picasso on the block and right there you have a new endowment of over $100 million. Granted, chances are good the Picasso would end up over the commode of some Russian kleptocrat, but the Barnes would be on a solid footing.

So what about those sales by the Albright-Knox? It all depends on how true it is that the museum can’t raise sizeable funds any other way, the position that the museum’s director Louis Grachos has taken in the press and in a conversation a few weeks ago with art blogger Tyler Green. I know something about cities in upstate New York whose glory days are behind them and I can believe that the Albright-Knox, which is located in Buffalo, might have a declining donor base.

But then along comes former museum administrator and Buffalo native Tom Freudenheim in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pieces and conversations with blogger Lee Rosenbaum. Freudenheim claims there’s plenty of big money sloshing around in the Buffalo area, some of it in the hands of Albright-Knox trustees, but that the museum has failed in its fundraising mission, so it’s fallen back on the stratagem of selling off the family jewels. (This is one of those controversies, by the way, in which the bloggers have been more informative than the mainstream media.) Okay, somebody call him on it. His insistence that there are untapped millions around Buffalo, or that the museum has been laggard about fund raising or its trustees have failed in their role as donors, is the kind of story The Buffalo News could help to sort out.

Meanwhile, having no easy way to confirm Freudenheim’s claims, I’m inclined to stay on the sidelines on this one, at least for now. Sometimes a critic’s opinion is a public service. Sometimes it’s anything but.

(This is, by the way, no more than a momentary lapse of journalistic egomania. Tune in tomorrow. I still have plenty of opinions on just about everything else.)