Seeking donor to democratize Seattle's forgotten art

Guest Opinion: A wealth of works owned by local museums like SAM and MOHAI never see the light of day. Let's try lending them to schools, libraries and other community centers so they can be appreciated.
The Seattle Naval Reserve Armory, under renovation to become MOHAI's new home.

The Seattle Naval Reserve Armory, under renovation to become MOHAI's new home. Oran Viriyinci


Here’s an idea for our local Medici’s: Give a large grant to your favorite museum so it can distribute some of its mostly unseen treasures to institutions in smaller communities; to schools, to libraries and to local government offices. “Share the art.” Otherwise most of it goes unseen for long periods and some may never be shown in public.

Meanwhile, individuals and families might take care before consigning their heirlooms to a museum. The Tacoma Art Museum recently sold a fine collection of Chinese court robes and jade items that were donated by the family of Col. John C. and Mary Lee Young three decades ago. Selling it probably seemed like a sensible move for the Tacoma Art Museum, whose “mission” doesn’t include Chinese works of art.

The Young family was not so pleased, however. The gifts were intended as a symbol of reconciliation between the Chinese Youngs and the city of Tacoma, which was a particularly harsh actor in the implementation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. (On November 3rd, 1885, the city marched 600 Chinese residents onto outbound trains at gunpoint in the middle of the night.) A lawsuit resulted and a story about the matter appeared in the Seattle Times. Subsequent to the publicity, a mutually agreeable settlement was reached that allowed the museum to complete its sale, holding back some items for another museum and using some of the auction proceeds for art by Chinese Americans in the Northwest.

The truth is that museums often receive many times more treasures than they can possibly display. Even storage becomes a problem. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art gained unwanted attention 40 years ago for selling off certain donated items to help finance the purchase of Velázquez’s “Juan de Pareja,” according to a New York Times article.  In 2011, the Art Institute in Chicago sold two Picassos and a Matisse and the Cleveland Museum of Art off-loaded 32 old masters. Museums often sell historic artifacts to gain money, whether for operations or to finance new acquisitions. The New Jersey Historical Society sold President Martin Van Buren¹s 120-piece dinner set for $17,000 in 2011. Like the Young family, some donors understandably take it amiss.

Rather than selling off so many objets d'art, a fund might be established to get at least a few museum possessions into more appreciative hands. Back in the 1970s, as a young City Councilmember in Seattle, I premiered this idea when I decided to use the Council offices and chamber as a showcase for local art. The Seattle Art Museum kindly loaned me paintings for my office by “Northwest School” artists Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and Richard Gillkey. These works always elicited interest from the varied people who visited.

The old Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), meanwhile, loaned me a ship’s wheel. During a personal tour of the vaults, where a museum officer showed me a whole room of ship’s wheels, I selected one from the S.S. Portland, the “Ton of Gold ship” that incited the Klondike Gold Rush.

The rest of the ships’ wheels in the room obviously were not on display. Nor was a room full of spinning wheels, a room of baby cradles, or a huge collection of fine pioneer desks, chairs and tables. Many had come over the Rockies in Conestoga wagons or around the Horn. Only a tiny representative sample of them could ever be displayed to the public.

Today, the rest presumably permanently entertain the silence at MOHAI’s new warehouse in Georgetown.

In olden days the fashion was to hang as many paintings on a museum gallery wall as space could be found. Today the best practice is to reduce that number by about four-fifths. Where do you think the other paintings go? Where do you think the paintings go that are accepted as donations, but don¹t quite match the “mission” or the prevalent taste, or just aren’t museum quality?


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 18, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent concept. Include artists who want to donate to schools and the like. there is a wealth of artwork available only needing a program to make it happen.

chapala21

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 4:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Long-term loans of collection items to offsite locations require that the sites meet security and environmental control standards on par with those of the lending institution. Most schools, libraries, and hospitals do not meet these criterea. There are insurance regulations to consider, paperwork to put in place, and there must be regular follow-up by museum staff to monitor the objects. Objects need to be properly packed for transport. All of this involves precious staff time and expense.

Although it seems like a worthy cause, lending collection items to non-collecting institutions is a logistical nightmare and is often not in the best interest of the objects' long-term preservation.

Rather than calling for museums to lend out actual artifacts, why not call for greater funding for more curatorial positions that will lead to increased formal exhibition planning within proper institutional settings, and/or bring greater public awareness of collection items through more online publication of collection items?

Increasing public awareness of what is in storage is a great idea,but putting one-of-a-kind artifacts into uncontrolled public spaces isn't the answer. Curatorial work is.

ET

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 4:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Museums very often regret their decision to sell objects. This proposal will help to prevent this. Does ET think that works sold to the public are being care for according to museum standards? If not what is the difference between privately owned work on display and museum work on display? It sounds like ET is a curator looking for work.

jsbach

Posted Sun, Mar 24, 9:37 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that huge sections of public collections never see the light of day and that it is good to get them out in the community. However, like ET said, if a work is owned by a museum/gallery there are security measures that need to be followed and this can often limit the extent to which objects can be exhibited.

There should also, however, be STRICK guidelines about deaccessioning works. This process is rightly MUCH harder than acquiring works. Many galleries have rules that gifts can't be sole and must in turn be donated. The idea being that you can't make a profit on person/families generosity. I personally would be very annoyed if a gift my family had made was sold. If the museums/galleries don't want the item in the first place (as it doesn't fit into their collecting parameters) then it should be politely declined in the first place.

SM

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