Published: May 25, 2021
By Madelia Hickman Ring
NEWARK, N.J. – Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was considered unethical for museums to sell artwork to raise funds for anything but acquiring more art. With so many museums facing budgetary shortfalls due to mandated closures, the Association of Art Museum Directors eased deaccessioning guidelines in April 2020. In doing so, it opened the door for museums around the country to take stock of their collections and cull works that they might previously not have been able to.
Facing a reported $6 million shortfall, the Newark Museum took advantage of the relaxed parameters and consigned 17 works to auction at Sotheby’s, including examples by Childe Hassam, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, Albert Bierstadt, Marsden Hartley, Charles Sheeler and Frederic Remington.
One of the most controversial works slated for sale was Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) “Arch of Nero.” The sweeping landscape, done in 1846 at the height of the painter’s artistic career, has been interpreted as a political and critical commentary on the state of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Art history scholars and curators at museums around the country opposed the sale, penning an open letter to executives at the museum, including director and chief executive officer Linda Harrison.
“By monetizing this and other works, you and your trustees are inflicting irreparable damage to your recently renamed museum of art and to the broader fields of history, art history and American history,” the letter said. “We beseech you to cancel the self-diminishment and monetization of Newark’s art. Welcome ‘The Arch of Nero’ and the other paintings and sculpture back into your collection.”
In a statement issued prior to the sale, Harrison defended the decision as “thoughtfully considered. For our museum, with its 112-year history, we need to cast a critical eye on outdated and harmful narratives that have hung in our galleries without enough questions being asked,” she said. “From here, we look toward righting previous misrepresentations and ensuring that as many voices as possible are heard.”
The sale of the painting went through and, on Wednesday, May 19, “Arch of Nero” sold for $988,000. It had been estimated at $500/700,000. The combined total realized for all of the museum’s works has not been announced.
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