Showing at MICA: the art of a sale

Selling works to raise funds a trend among institutions

November 04, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Everyone has to occasionally clear out the attic. But not many people cleaning house have to worry about getting rid of a rare surrealistic relief by Salvador Dali that's been gathering dust under the beams, or other original artworks by such contemporary masters as Peter Milton, Red Grooms and Reuben Kramer.

To unload its excess, though, the Maryland Institute College of Art is doing exactly what homeowners routinely do with their extraneous odds and ends:

YARD SALE!

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Treasures from MICA's Attic, a fundraising exhibition that will offer more than 800 artworks for sale from the school's storage vaults to benefit its scholarship fund.

MICA's decision to sell off some of its artworks, however, comes at a time of widespread debate in the art world about whether such institutions should ever sell anything that conflicts with the obligation to maintain their art collections for the public good.

But MICA said it is selling the paintings for the good of the institution, to increase scholarships. "We collect some work we feel has historical or educational value to the college, but we're not a museum, not a collecting institution," said MICA President Fred Lazarus. "As an educational institution, our goals are different."

The school's 11-day sell-a-thon offers the public a chance to purchase hundreds of high-quality artworks at prices ranging from as little as $10 for decorative posters and prints to $40,000 for a half-ton bronze sculpture by Mexican artist Victor Salmones.

The works - with a total value of around $300,000 - were given to MICA over the years with no strings attached other than that they be used to help further the school's educational mission. MICA will use the proceeds to bolster its $43 million endowment.

Cheryl Knauer, a MICA spokeswoman, said the school doesn't know quite what to expect from the sale but would be happy to clear $50,000. She held out the possibility that prices might drop on certain objects as the sale continues on selected days the rest of this month and next.

A tough call

The debate over the sale of institutions' artwork bears most directly on the 198 large art museums with budgets of over $2 million, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which this week offered some 40 works for sale at Sotheby's auction house. In 2003, the Museum of Modern Art sold an important Picasso, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts let go of two Degas works.

But the argument has also spilled over to libraries, schools, hospitals and other institutions. In May, the New York Public Library raised a furor when it sold a painting by American artist Asher B. Durand for $35 million.

Walters Art Museum Director Gary Vikan said that deciding when and what to sell can be a tough call for institutions whose missions aren't as clear-cut as those of museums.

"The American Association of Museum Directors has pretty clear notions about what's right for museums," Vikan said. "For example, if you sell art, the funds must go back into the same category of art that you sold from. You can't use it for capital or operating expenses. You also must strive to sell it publicly and to other public institutions, thereby keeping it in the public trust, because when a donor gives you a work of art, it's for the public good, not for someone's apartment."

Schools and hospitals, however, don't operate under the stringent rules applied to art museums, which must follow policies set by the AAMD and the American Association of Museums when selling artworks, said Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Libraries and educational institutions don't have those kinds of guidelines," Fisher said. "Libraries are always selling books, and it's not unusual for art schools and universities to sell things, either. Museums are different kinds of enterprises, so they have different standards."

When the BMA wanted to sell some Disney animation cels in the 1980s, for example, the proposal had to undergo a comprehensive analysis by the museum staff and trustees before it could be approved, Fisher said.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, by contrast, accepts gifts of artworks with the understanding that, after being displayed for patients' benefit over a specified time, the works may be sold to fund medical and research programs.

Lazarus, MICA's president, made no apologies for his decision to sell some artworks. "Our approach has really been to use this as an opportunity to reduce the amount of objects we have in storage that are not providing educational value to the college, and to generate some revenues we can use to enhance our support for scholarships," Lazarus said.

Artist Grace Hartigan, who teaches at MICA, said she believes the school is doing the right thing, particularly because MICA has no capacity to exhibit the artwork. "The public and the students can't see them anyhow," she said.

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