The Biggest Art Stories of the Year

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I started this blog on Jan. 5 of this year, so I’m closing in on the first anniversary. I won’t bore you with a rundown of the various Lessons I’ve Learned. (For instance, did you know there’s just one “l” in pavilion? I finally mastered that one at the Venice Biennale.) But in the end-of-the-year spirit, here’s one last list. I’ve already put out there my favorite exhibitions and buildings of the past year. Here’s a list from the newsier side of the blog. The ten most important stories — or so it appeared to me — that the artworld produced over the past twelve months.

1. The Endless Tug of War Over Antiquities. Museums and private collectors have them. “Source” nations want them back. And this year they got quite a few, or at least Italy did, thanks largely to its tireless minister of culture, Francesco Rutelli, who romped through the collections of some of the biggest American museums. This, of course, was already a story last year. And it’s sure to be one next year, especially as the official opening approaches for the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, which would just love to retrieve the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum.

2. The Impermanent Collection. Tempted by the exploding art market (see below), museums started to see their own collections as so much movable merchandise. The Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo and the St. Louis Art Museum embarked on major deaccessions. After Jefferson University in Philadelphia put its big Eakins, The Gross Clinic, up for sale last year, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts stepped in to co-purchase it. To finance the co-purchase, this year PAFA had to sell…an Eakins. Meanwhile, Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. and Fisk University in Nashville, two schools with sketchy balance sheets but some nice art in their campus museums, decided to liquidate some of their holdings. The good news is that by the end of the year neither had been able to conclude a sale. And the difficulties they’ve encountered on the way to market — lawsuits, bad publicity, objections from the state attorney general in Tennessee — should give pause to other schools thinking of treating their art collections as piggy banks.

3. The Continuing Saga of the Barnes Foundation. The Foundation picked architects — Tod Williams + Billie Tsien — to design a new home when (and if) the Barnes collection moves from Merion, Pa., where it belongs, to Philadelphia, where it doesn’t. Meanwhile, opponents of the move, the Friends of the Barnes, petitioned Judge Stanley Ott to reconsider his earlier decision to permit the Barnes to relocate. Which he should. Earlier this month, however, the Friends also fired their lawyer.

4. Christoph Buchel and MASS MoCA. Buchel, a hyper-demanding Swiss artist, made one demand too many of MASS MoCA, which was trying to mount his first, massive American installation at their space in western Massachusetts. Then MASS MoCA unwisely attempted to show his unfinished work. An artist and an institution in a mutual meltdown. Nobody came out the winner.

5. Museum World Musical Chairs. Lots of major changes at the top. William Griswold, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, decided to head for New York to become chief of the Morgan Library and Museum. Kaywin Feldman of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee was picked to replace him. Across town, Kathy Halbreich stepped down at the Walker Art Center, eventually to take the newly created position of associate director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She in turn was replaced by Olga Viso, director of the Hirschhorn in Washington, a city that had already lost National Gallery of Art curator Jeffrey Weiss, who’s now director of the Dia Foundation, and would lose National Gallery curator Nicholas Penny, who is headed back to London to run the National Gallery there. Lisa Dennison abruptly jumped from director of the Guggenheim to a top job at Sotheby’s. Timothy Potts left the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth for the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge University in England. San Francisco MoMA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn headed back to Chicago — she used to work at the Art Institute — to run the Museum of Contemporary Art. And at the end of the year MoMA in New York announced that next year, when John Elderfield reaches their mandatory retirement age of 65, he’ll be stepping down as chief curator of painting and sculpture, one of the most important jobs in the American museum world.

I forget anybody?

6. The Matter “Pollocks”. A few years ago Alex Matter, whose father Herbert was a friend of Jackson Pollock, found a number of small paintings in a locker once rented by his late father. On the brown paper they were wrapped in they were labelled as “experimental works” by Pollock. But by this year it was looking ever less likely that they could possibly be the real thing. In January the Harvard University Art Museums announced that tests on three of the paintings showed that they contained pigments that weren’t available commercially until the 1960s and ’70s, years after Pollock’s death. Then last month, James Martin, a forensic scientist who had studied a different and larger sampling of the paintings, told a forum in New York sponsored by the International Foundation for Art Research that some of the pigments were not available until even later — the 1980s. Could Pollock have obtained the paints many years before they were available on the market? Sounds like a very long shot to me.

7. Alice Walton. I have this picture in my mind of the Wal-Mart heiress in one of those starkly lit war rooms like the one in Dr. Strangelove, with a big map on one wall that shows every institution in the U.S. that might be in any way interested in selling off some of its art. This year Walton quietly offered Fisk University (see above) $30 million for a sharing arrangement for all 101 works in their Alfred Steiglitz Collection. (That deal is presently tied up in legal challenges.) She flew out to Randolph College to take a look at the art in its Maier Museum. (Backed away from that one.) Though she failed to get The Gross Clinic from Jefferson University, she picked up a lesser but still estimable Eakins from them, Portrait of Professor Banjamin H. Rand. Her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is scheduled to open in Bentonville, Ark. in 2009. I will not be surprised if by that time she’s bought the Statue of Liberty.

8. The Art Market. It’s up. It’s down, It’s sideways. A correction is coming. No, no, more Russians are coming. Wake me up when it’s over.

9. Gone But Not Forgotten. Sol LeWitt, John Szarkowski, Elizabeth Murray, Alexandra Boulat, R.B. Kitaj, Ileana Sonnabend

10. Damien Hirst’s Diamond Encrusted Skull. Enough said. And I mean that.