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Arts Leaders Win Fight to Keep Eakins Masterpiece at Home

After six weeks of frantic fundraising, the city’s arts leaders have matched an offer by outside buyers for The Gross Clinic, a monumental 1875 painting by Thomas Eakins. The broad civic effort thwarted a $68 million bid from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the nascent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville,

PHILADELPHIA—After six weeks of frantic fundraising, the city’s arts leaders have matched an offer by outside buyers for The Gross Clinic, a monumental 1875 painting by Thomas Eakins. The broad civic effort thwarted a $68 million bid from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the nascent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., to buy the work, which is considered to be among the greatest achievements in American art.

The painting, which depicts surgeon and teacher Samuel D. Gross performing major surgery at the city’s Thomas Jefferson University, was originally purchased for Jefferson Medical College by alumni in 1878. It now will be owned jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which together led the fundraising effort.

Their spokespersons say the painting will first go on view at the museum, then rotate between that entity and the academy—where Eakins studied and eventually served as director—according to a schedule yet to be determined.

The fate of the painting was clouded in November, when the university announced—in the midst of a $500 million expansion—that it had sold the work, through Christie’s, to the National Gallery and Crystal Bridges, the museum founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton that is scheduled to open in 2009 (ANL, 6/7/05, p. 1). The university gave local institutions 45 days to match the offer.

With the support of politicians the likes of Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Sen. Arlen Specter, the fundraising effort attracted contributions from more than 2,000 donors. The largest gift—$10 million—came from the Annenberg Foundation. Donations of $3 million each were made by the Pew Charitable Trusts; Joseph Neubauer, chair and CEO of Aramark Corporation; and H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, board chairman of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

By the time Street announced that the city had won the bid—41 days after receiving the ultimatum—nearly $30 million in cash and pledges had been raised, and museum officials said they would continue to solicit donations.

Wachovia Bank agreed to loan the Philadelphia museums any funds still needed by the time the payment was due. Herbert S. Riband Jr., vice chair of the Academy’s board, told ARTnewsletter it was possible that the institutions would have to use artworks as collateral for the loan. “At some point there may be some deaccessioning, but nothing has been determined,” Riband explained.

In a joint statement, representatives of the National Gallery and Crystal Bridges expressed disappointment in the outcome. And Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum, told ARTnewsletter, “It would be a great painting in any museum. In Philadelphia it is an extraordinary icon of creative, intellectual and professional life.”

JOEL ROSE

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