You may be surprised to know that museums do their own versions of spring cleaning. Not every year, and not necessarily during the gentle months of April and May but, nevertheless, museum curators, from time to time, roll up their sleeves and go through museum collections pruning away the prints and drawings, paintings and sculptures that seem redundant or just no longer hold their interest. When collectors bequeath their collections to museums, curators have to deal tactfully with the fact that, along with good or even great works of art, the gift might also contain some minor or even inferior artworks. All museums have plenty of such minor artworks cluttering their storage facilities---artworks that haven't been shown for years and just sit there simply collecting dust.
On Saturday, the L.A. Times broke the news that 42 artworks from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be sold in November at Sotheby's auction in New York. Most of the works, according to museum officials, haven't been displayed for years and none of them are ready for "prime time." So, why not sell them and use the money to buy better quality artworks to fill in the gaps in the museum's collection? And though LACMA routinely sells about 200 works a year, what's newsworthy about this sale is the stellar roster of artists. The list includes paintings by such heavyweights as Modigliani, Pissarro, and Max Beckmann, sculptures by Giacometti and Henry Moore, drawings and prints by Picasso, Matisse and Degas. The museum has only three paintings by Modigliani, all portraits, and one of them, considered to be of lesser quality, is designated for sale. It's difficult to say how wise the decision to sell this and the rest of the artworks is, when the only way to judge is, by the few photos in the newspaper. In my conversations with museum officials, I was assured that the process of selection of artwork for sale was thorough, methodical and if, during the process any of the museum curators would object, the artworks would be immediately taken off the list. What surprised me was that the final decision was made as early as in June, but reported only now, so it could be slipped into the Times' Saturday issue, which brings to mind the old political trick of releasing potentially controversial information just before the weekend, when no one's really paying attention.
Being a great fan of German expressionist artist Max Beckmann, I feel rather sad knowing that two of his works have left Los Angeles. I don't remember seeing any of them and feel slightly cheated that no one told me about their imminent departure. While I do trust the museum curators' decisions, I feel that the museum missed a good opportunity to inform its audience about the inner workings of the museum. Just imagine a lecture or seminar with slides and other visuals where curators would present their thoughts and considerations regarding the works designated for sale. For an institution as dedicated to public education as LACMA, it would be a welcome step to bring more transparency into museum work. I cannot afford, and probably neither can you, to fly to New York to see these 42 artworks at Sotheby's pre-sale exhibition. But why didn't LACMA, our public museum, organize an informal exhibition of these works here in L.A. prior to their departure, or at least negotiate with Sotheby's to show these works in their local branch in Beverly Hills? Hopefully with the proceeds from this sale, better works will be acquired for the museum collection, but I still cannot help but feel shortchanged in not being able to see these artworks, learn from the curators their reasons for selling, and forming my own opinion. In the past, unfortunately, many museums, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan and the Hermitage, have made decisions to sell artworks that they very much regretted later. I hope that's not going to be the case with this upcoming sale of the artworks from LACMA.