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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Private Patronage Lives!

Before there was government funding for the arts, the arts flourished under private patronage. Somewhat lost in the debate about de/funding the National Endowment for the Arts is the fact that the age-old private-patronage tradition lives on:

When copper heiress Huguette Clark died last month, just shy of her 105th birthday, it was revealed that she had earmarked most of her $400 million fortune for the arts, setting up the Bellosguardo Foundation. The bequest includes a sprawling estate, antique musical instruments, rare books, and an art collection with works by Monet, Renoir, John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.

Separately, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC will receive an original 1907 Monet “Water Lilies, valued at $25 million, which hasn't been seen by the public for eighty years.

Huguette inherited her fortune from her father, William Andrews Clark, who served briefly as a U.S. Senator. Clark built railroads across the United States, and Las Vegas’ Clark County was named after him.

Created "for the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the arts, the foundation was is named “Bellosguardo” after the 24-acre Santa Barbara, CA estate. The 21,000 square-foot mansion, which will house the art collection, is set on overlooking the city and the Pacific Ocean and is surrounded by formal gardens. It sits across the street from the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, named after her sister, AndrĂ©e, who died of meningitis at the age of 16.

Ms. Clark had not set foot this home since 1963, but had kept the property immaculately maintained. Huguette had become increasingly reclusive over the years, fearful that people were only after her money. She was last photographed in 1930.

It’s early yet, so details of how the foundation will be administered are unknown. Will grants be made to artists, or will the Bellosguardo Foundation concentrate exclusively on programs at the mansion itself? I suspect it will be somewhat Barnesian: carrying out its mission through teaching, research, and other programs, along with allowing public access to the collection. The Barnes Collection, also made up largely of late 19th- and early 20th-century European paintings, is housed on a 12-acre estate in suburban Philadelphia, is open to the public on a limited reservation basis.

At the very least, we can look forward to another extraordinary museum in California, brought to us by America's 19th- and early 20th-century industrialists.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Unsolved Mystery of the Mystic Lamb


Visiting in Ghent will always remain a highlight among my art-viewing experiences: seeing Jan van Eyck’s monumental triptych (1432) in St. Bavo Cathedral, the location for which it was painted almost six centuries ago.
Generally known as "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (the subject of its central panel) the altarpiece is considered to be the first major painting using oil-based pigments and the first major painting of the Renaissance; thus it is widely credited as the single most influential painting in the history of art.
From a visual perspective, one of the extraordinary aspects of it is that, despite its large size, every panel front and back, is painted with a level of detail that one expects only in very small paintings of the 15th century.
This explains, in part, why viewing the Ghent Altarpiece is fraught with crowds … even those casually interested in art are drawn in, lingering to study the details. But most visitors aren’t aware of another of the fascinating things about the triptych: that it has been the object of thirteen different crimes over the centuries, including seven separate thefts, most recently, in 1934.
“That year," Noah Charney tells us in his blog, "a single two-sided panel, depicting the so-called Righteous Judges (the panel on the bottom left corner when the altarpiece is open) was stolen from the cathedral of Saint Bavo. After months of frankly bizarre ransom negotiations, and the return of the back of the two-sided panel (the side depicting St. John the Baptist), the police closed the case. The case had been riddled with police incompetence and odd decisions that smacked to many of conspiracy — there were even whispers that members of the cathedral were involved in the theft and attempted ransom. …
In 1945, a Belgian conservator called Jef van der Veken, painted an identical replacement copy of the Righteous Judges and … the Belgian government installed the van der Veken copy in the original altarpiece in 1950. Therefore, what we see when we visit the Ghent Altarpiece is 11 out of 12 original panels, plus the replacement copy."
Charney’s blog goes on to describe an on-going element of mystery about the panel … linked to a suspicion that Van der Veken himself -- in addition to his role as the leading conservator of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brussels -- may have had a secret life as an art forger. One certainly has to wonder why he inscribed a poem on the back of the replacement panel which reads, translated from the Flemish: “"I did it for love/And for duty/And for vengeance/Sly strokes have not disappeared." Fascinating stuff! The stolen Righteous Judges panel is still missing. Although a creditable theory suggested that it was actually hidden right on the premises of Saint Bavo Cathedral, government-sponsored searches have come up empty.
Noah Charney’s new book tells the full saga. Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece is high on my list of “must-reads”.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The EU Asks, “Is it art?”

Hosting a Dan Flavin retrospective, the Hayward Gallery in London says that the American artist, who died in 1996, created pioneering sculpture for half a century. Nonetheless, taking on the recurring question, “Is it art?”, the European Commission in Brussels has ruled that the work has "the characteristics of lighting fittings ... and is therefore to be classified ... as wall lighting fittings".

This is no angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate. For tax purposes, classifying the pieces as light fixtures means that any Flavin work imported into the European Union is subject to full VAT, which rose to 20% on January 1; classified as sculpture, the pieces would be subject to only 5% VAT.

Art critic Laura Cumming has said about Flavin’s art, "You wonder how it is possible that so much pleasure could emit from such a dismal source: the cold fluorescent tubes of strip lighting." But in its ruling, the Commission said: "It is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art' but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it."

Hmmm… if the only things installed in a room are lights, and the only reason people go into the room is to look at the effect of those lights … ??? I wonder, is it "the result of the operations" or the purpose of the operations that constitutes a work of art ?

This is not the first time this has come up as a tax issue. The Guardian cites one famous precedent for the Commission's decision; “In 1926 the American collector and photographer Edward Steichen bought a bronze version of [Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s] tall slender Bird In Space, and attempted to import it to the US. Since it had neither head, feet, nor feathers, US customs refused to accept it as a zero-rated work of art, and instead classified it as ‘a manufacture of metal ... held dutiable at 40%’.”

After paying the $600 tax, Steichen and Brancusi took the matter to court – their legal fees paid by the millionaire collector Peggy Guggenheim. The decision was overturned, the judge ruling that "while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental". Steichen got his money back.

Take note, EC.