Everson Museum of Art, designed by I.M. Pei in 1968
In April of 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed their guidelines for a two year period that will allow museums to deaccession works of art in their collections as long as the proceeds directly support the care of their collections. The Everson Museum of Art relies on funds from its general operating budget to pay for acquisitions, collection care, and rent for two off-site storage facilities. Faced with an estimated 30% decrease in its general operating budget in 2020 due to cuts in funding, lost revenue, and deferred membership renewals, the Everson announced on September 3 that it would put up for auction Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946, oil on Masonite). Funds from the auction of Pollock’s painting (which is estimated to generate between $12M and $18M) will support conservation and restoration of objects in the museum’s current collection and allow the museum to acquire works created by artists of color, women artists, and other underrepresented creators. Elizabeth Dunbar, Executive Director of the Everson Museum of Art stated that “by deaccessioning a single artwork, we can make enormous strides in building a collection that reflects the amazing diversity of our community and ensure that it remains accessible to all for generations to come.”
Permanent collection exhibition
The most valuable and most visited piece of art is the museum building itself, I.M. Pei’s first museum design. Inside, the Everson has roughly 10,000 items in its collection including paintings, video, sculptures, and ceramics. The museum has one of the largest holdings of international ceramics in the nation. About half of the collection is dedicated to ceramics including Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s Scarab Vase, a visitor favorite and widely known as the “Mona Lisa” of ceramics. “In the history of ceramics...she [Robineau] was a pioneering figure and is in every textbook and looms large in the ceramic world,” said Dunbar.
Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s Scarab Vase
The Everson also has nearly 700 American paintings that span two centuries in its collection. Barbara Kruger’s “Who Speaks? Who is Silent” is a monumental work in the Everson's collection that addresses the implication of silence and representation for women. It is highly requested for loans and recently traveled to the LA County Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Tate in London. The sculpture collection is comprised of over 200 works, primarily from the 20th century including Harmony Hammond’s Kong. “It has been in onsite storage and not shown for decades and was in very poor condition because it is so large, has a unique shape, and it hangs on the wall,” said Dunbar. The sculpture is made from cloth, wood, foam rubber, acrylic, gesso, glitter, wax, and charcoal powder. Hammond was a leading figure in the development of the feminist art movement in the early 1970s.
“We had to send it off for conservation, it needed special mounting, a special crate, and climate control.” In total, the sculpture needed $10,000 of conservation work. The sculpture was recently included in a traveling exhibition organized by the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. “Had we not invested in bringing this piece back to life, it would have never been included in this major traveling exhibition.”
Harmony Hammond’s Kong
Historically, the Everson has had a very small endowment devoted to the conservation of its collection. “It takes years and years for us to save enough funds in order to do substantial work,” said Dunbar. Grants from Greater Hudson Heritage Network help cover some of the costs, like the conservation for Harmony Hammond’s sculpture, but a majority of the funds come out of the museum’s general operating budget. “We’ve paid for all the conservation, collections care materials, our off site storage...it all comes out of our general operating budget...and when general operating budgets are under pressure, especially now during COVID, being able to alleviate some of that pressure and have some funds available for direct care of the collection is huge.”
Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition
Jackson Pollock's Red Composition (1946, oil on Masonite) is offered for sale for between $12 million and $18 million. Photo Courtesy of Christie's
The decision to deaccession Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition was the result of a much longer process. In 2017, the museum began selecting items from the collection that do not fit the mission and are clearly outside the scope of the museum. “We’ve been looking at the collection holistically and we established our collections priorities plan,” said Dunbar. “Since then we have hired curators who are looking at our collection as a whole and are helping to identify strengths and weaknesses...areas that the museum can strengthen and areas that we are never going to have the capacity to fill or strengthen.”
While the museum has been developing this collection priorities plan and working on their exhibition plan, Elizabeth Dunbar had a conversation with Robert Falter, one of the trustees of the Reisman Foundation, a local Syracuse foundation (the Reismans donated the two Pollock’s to the Everson collection). “Bob [Robert] was doing some work on the Pollock paintings that are still in the Reisman Foundation and it got me thinking about doing a new appraisal on our pieces. I started thinking about the Pollock that we barely show because it is a bit of an outlier in terms of the art historical continuum that we have in our collection. We looked at the painting, had it appraised and it turned out to be much more valuable that we initially realized.” Dunbar and Falter began talking about what the Everson could do by deaccessioning this piece. Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition was last loaned for the “Pollock Matters” exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College and at the Everson in the mid-2000’s. Prior to that, the painting was at the Nassau County Museum of Art as part of a group show in 2000 and was also at the Pollock-Krasner House on Long Island. “We have so little funds for acquisitions and building a collection for our future,” said Dunbar. “This [the sale] would enable us to put some real momentum into collecting and establishing a legacy for the future. It would enable us to offset some of the costs that we were spending on caring for the collection. There have been years and years of delayed maintenance on certain objects in the collection just because the funds have not been available.”
One of the objects in need of attention is the Henry Moore sculpture that is outside the Everson Museum and was part of I.M. Pei’s original design of the building. “It hasn’t been really cared for in 52 years and it will cost between $25,000 and $30,000 to conserve….if you don’t have deaccession funds available you either use general operating funds or do you want to keep someone employed?” said Dunbar.
Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3 by Henry Moore, outside the Everson Museum of Art
Red Composition is an important painting, but the museum recognized the other factors that led to their decision to deaccession it. “One of which was the financial component to help keep the museum sustainable for the future, but also recognizing our value to the community in terms of equity, diversity, inclusivity, and access,” said Dunbar. “We have been thinking about how these funds could be used to diversify our collection.”
Building a More Diverse Collection
In addition to using the funds from the selling of Pollock’s painting, the proceeds will be used to establish a fund for acquiring works created by artists of color, women artists, and other under-represented contemporary and mid-career artists. In the press release to the public on September 3, the Everson stated that the sale of the Pollock will enable the museum to significantly intensify these efforts at a critical time in the nation’s history and when the museum is actively working to address inequality within the institution itself and the community it serves.
“When George Floyd was killed, there was outrage in our community. Marches were going by the museum. We’re located in the 15th Ward which is the historically Black neighborhood of Syrcause and over half of our city is non-white and for us not to take a stand seemed unconscionable,” said Dunbar. In June the museum created an Equity Task Force and developed an action statement with a list of goals and shared them publicly with the community to be held accountable. “It was a public way to show our commitment to making change.” Since 2014, the Everson has presented solo exhibitions that feature artists that are 60% white, 26% Black, and 14% people of color and has made acquisitions from 64% white artists, 28% people of color, and 9% Black. The museum curators are already making plans specific to their particular disciplines on works they plan to acquire with the proceeds from the sale.
“There has been criticism in our own community but largely it’s come from a couple of critics on either coast who are not terribly familiar with Syracuse, our community, our museum or our collection and the kinds of programs and activities that we engage in,” said Dunbar reflecting on the national response to the selling of the Pollock painting. Some of the biggest pushback from outside critics is that the community should be funding and supporting diversity initiatives rather than deaccessioning and auctioning off collection items. “First and foremost it’s our community that comes to our museum,” said Dunbar. “They make up 80 to 90% of our audience and when you live in a community that is one of the poorest in New York State and is still recovering from an economic downturn, that’s really hard. That said, 35% of gifts made to the museum in 2019 came from our board of trustees. Our community is supporting the museum and they are stretching to support the museum.”
Elizabeth Dunbar’s “Ask Elizabeth” email to members answers questions about the deaccessioning process
Investing in the Future
None of the funds generated from the sale will support general operations including salary, exhibitions, programming. The goal is to create two endowments for future preservation and for future sustainability of the museum. “To other museums that are contemplating these kinds of difficult decisions, it’s important to look at what is in the best interest in the people that you serve, the best interest of the collection that you maintain, and what’s the best for your staff...and if deaccessioning this painting can be used for the betterment of the museum and ensure that the museum collections were cared for into the future and allow us to continue to evolve and become more reflective of the community, then yes,” said Dunbar.
To illustrate the importance of having funds designated for new acquisitions, Dunbar went back to the early 1970s to read board minutes following American painter Joan Mitchell’s first solo exhibition at the Everson. “She [Mitchell] offered the museum her painting at a very steep discount to the museum from that show, but the museum did not have the acquisition funds to acquire the piece. So we have no Joan Mitchell in our collection even though we organized her first solo show and we will never be able to buy one of her paintings because now they’re millions of dollars. We want to be able to buy the next Joan Mitchell when we host that exhibition and build our collection for the future. I think that is a testament to where we are today and if we have a little money in our pocket back then, what kind of collection would we have? We are looking forward.”