For an extremely rare and famous classical statue, "Artemis and the Stag" has seen its share of warehouses.
It sat in storage for more than 30 years after its discovery, and then was shown only sporadically after the Albright-Knox Art Gallery acquired it in 1953. The classical bronze statue -- by far the most well-known piece in a group of more than 200 antiquities that will be auctioned over the next few months -- has become a symbol of the gallery's deaccession plans.
The term "deaccession" doesn't roll off the tongue easily. It describes a museum's sale of art to raise funds for the purchase of new work, but it means very little to those uninvolved in studying or collecting art.
Since "deaccession" was uttered publicly in November by Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos, however, it has been a point of contention, not to mention confusion, for many Western New Yorkers.
With all the fury and accusations flying back and forth in the media between supporters of the selloff and its opponents, an important question remains: How will this sale of works, most of which have been kept in storage for at least the last decade, affect the world-class gallery on Elmwood Avenue and the community it serves?
The gallery's board and director back deaccessioning in order to increase the museum's endowment and therefore focus its mission on more modern and contemporary art.
Experts say that in the context of modern museum deaccessions, this one is relatively high-profile.
"There's buzz on two fronts," said Carol White, acting curator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest collections of antiquities in the United States. The sale is noteworthy because of the range of historical periods and cultures represented and the unparalleled quality of the objects themselves.
"For people who are interested in incredibly rare works of art like the Artemis, this is an incredible opportunity," White said.
And there will be plenty of interest. According to White, Sotheby's sent packets on the Albright-Knox offerings early this year to major museums. Bidders are expected from the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, representing the three largest collections of antiquities in the United States.
Many objects are just as likely, however, to end up in the homes of wealthy private collectors, a prospect that has added fury to the sale's mounting opposition.
> Quelling concerns
Deaccessioning has been standard practice in American institutions for decades. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for instance, deaccessions hundreds of pieces of art annually to little fanfare.
But some deaccession practices are less standard than others. Museums have come under fire for selling artworks to rescue themselves from debt, to upgrade their facilities, or for selling works of art deeply cherished by the community.
In 1988, the New York State Historical Society attempted to avoid bankruptcy by selling dozens of old master paintings and other objects. A huge public outcry resulted in a pared-down sale that was mediated by the state attorney general.
In Philadelphia last year, the community revolted when Thomas Jefferson University attempted to sell its Thomas Eakins masterpiece "The Gross Clinic" for $68 million. A major fundraising campaign has so far raised $37 million, allowing the painting to remain in Philadelphia thanks to a loan from a concerned bank.
In the eyes of Sandra Olsen, the University at Buffalo Art Galleries director, the Albright-Knox sale is not nearly so ethically questionable, nor so worthy of controversy.
"This isn't one of those things where the entire collection is being lost," Olsen said.
One item up for auction, Olsen said, is a Navajo blanket that the museum does not have the expertise to exhibit, much less properly handle. "There's no one on their staff who would know how it should be stored or displayed. That's a good reason they shouldn't really be holding these things, and my question is, 'Who accepted them and why?' "
The gallery has tried to quell concerns about the sale by noting that most of the objects on the auction block were gifts. In fact, only about a third of the 33 items listed in a highlights catalog published by Sotheby's were gifts. The rest entered the gallery as purchases initiated by various directors and curators, according to the catalog.
Still, after the 207 items are sold, the museum won't look much different than it has since 2003, when Grachos was hired to reinvigorate the museum's exhibitions. The gallery has not exhibited most of the works for many years.
> A broken link
The sale is a tough tradeoff for art lovers of different stripes. As many opposed to the sale have pointed out, the historical context provided by many of the works up for sale will be lost as a local educational resource, while the gallery's international reputation as a great collector of modern art stands to benefit.
The opposition counts among itsembers several faculty members at the University at Buffalo and elsewhere, including UB art history professor Livingston Watrous.
For Watrous, the problem lies not in the sale of these specific items, but what he sees as a gradual abandonment of the museum's educational responsibility to the community.
"My major problem is that the Albright-Knox now has ceased to be for me a teaching tool," said Watrous, who teaches the entry-level art history course at UB to 800 students per year.
He used to send his students to see the Artemis sculpture and the famous and much-cited mummy portrait of a young man from the reign of Marcus Aurelius -- both of which the gallery is selling. But because of the new mission and likely future deaccessions of premodern artworks, Watrous added, the link between old and new has been severed.
"Essentially, the educational link between the Albright and UB has been broken," Watrous said.
Olsen, also of UB, disagrees. "It's an extremely important educational resource," she said, citing the widely acclaimed 2005 UB/Albright-Knox collaboration "The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art."
Regardless of the gallery's repeated assertions that it is playing by the rules, public outcry over the issue continues to intensify.
A group, dubbed "Buffalo Art Keepers" and led by Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Dennis, formed last month to oppose the sale. In the past two weeks, hearings were held on the issue with the Erie County Legislature and the Buffalo Common Council, which issued a unanimous resolution opposing the sale. Letters and calls to media organizations from those opposed to the deaccession have not relented since the gallery's Nov. 10 announcement. A court challenge from the Art Keepers group is under way.
> A necessary evil
Meanwhile, gallery officials contend that this is all a necessary evil. "The deaccessioning project will mean . . . we'll still be in the position in the future to move quickly and acquire important work by artists that we feel are really key to the collection," Grachos said recently.
The increased endowment, he said, will mean more trips to artists' studios by the gallery's curatorial staff, more money to spend on the work of midcareer artists, and an ability to make those purchases and decisions quickly in an art market that is anything but kind to small-time buyers.
"Interesting contemporary art has become very aggressive," said Grachos. "Even midcareer artists are now commanding substantial prices. One work could be mid-six figures and high-six figures for artists that have received international acclaim but are relatively young. It's our job to make sure that we bring what we feel are the strongest artists into the collection."
The gallery's walls will likely contain a much more rapidly rotating collection of work by of-the-moment artists. Immediately, we are likely to see a continuation of Grachos' ambitious contemporary art exhibitions. Grachos has also expressed a desire to fill certain gaps in the early 20th century collection, but that art market can be even more competitive than that of living artists. An Edward Hopper painting -- which the collection could use -- can cost tens of millions.
Right now, the 207 items on the block (the previous count of 196 grouped some items of Chinese porcelain together) represents about 3 percent of the gallery's collection of more than 6,500 works. The sale is expected to bring a minimum of $15 million, which will be added to the museum's current endowment of about $59 million. Board president Charles Banta said in a recent interview that the $15 million figure is a low estimate and that actual revenues from the sale could reach three times that number.
The endowment, which is expected to grow each year as it earns investment returns, is drawn on by the gallery at a rate of 5 percent per year to purchase new art. The endowment currently makes available $22 million exclusively for the purchase of new artworks, and the money from the auction would go directly into the fund for restricted art. For example, if this sale yields the high estimate of $45 million, the gallery's budget for acquiring new art would immediately triple to $67 million, or about $3.3 million per year from its current $1.1 million.
With the exception of fiscal years 2001-2004, the endowment has grown every year since 1983, and Banta stressed that he expects that trend to continue for generations to come.
As the gallery tries to compete with institutions in wealthier communities like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (with a $650 million endowment), the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (which draws from a $5.8 billion endowment) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ($111 million), it's clear that money will not be the lone factor in maintaining and improving its reputation.
"I would say we have extremely good risk management," said Banta. Selecting art for the permanent collection "is not like throwing darts," as some critics have suggested, he said.
But that's not to say there isn't a certain amount of luck involved.
In the end, the conflict boils down to two groups making the same argument. Each side believes that Buffalo's future and reputation is at stake, that either the sale or the lack of it will land yet another blow on a city that has suffered too many already.
"It scares me that certain things have been done without our involvement," said Albright-Knox member and Buffalo resident XXXX XXXXXXXX at a recent Buffalo Common Council hearing. "Our artistic life is as important as the Bills, the Sabres or chicken wings or anything else, even more than a bridge that never got built. Art is central to what we are."e-mail: email@example.com