NEW YORK—The Cleveland Museum of Art, which has drawn criticism from art experts recently for its attempts to use endowment income to help fund a major renovation, announced several major acquisitions this week.
In a statement, the museum highlighted several noteworthy acquisitions that it said were approved by the collections committee at the September meeting of its board of trustees. The new works include Julius Caesar, one of just a dozen autographed imperial figure reliefs known to have been created by Mino da Fiesole (circa 1429–84). The relief, which “depicts Caesar as a political, rather than a military figure … addresses a significant gap” in the museum’s collection of 15th-century Florentine sculpture, which according to the museum statement is heavily focused on religious subjects and small-scale objects. Museum representatives declined to disclose any of the prices it paid for any of the new purchases.
The museum also acquired Codex Artaud XXI, 1972, a work by pioneering feminist artist Nancy Spero composed of a series of drawings combining texts written by the French actor, playwright and poet Antoine Artaud with the artist’s personal imagery.
In the same statement, museum officials also announced the acquisition of Rock at Sea, 1920–22, which was described as a “striking, stylistically rich example of early American modernism by the little known painter Raymond Jonson” (1891–1982). The record price for a work by the artist at auction is $108,000, which was paid for the oil painting Composition eleven–Rain Opus to Vera, 1931, at Bonhams & Butterfields, San Francisco, in August of last year (estimate: $40,000/60,000).
Alternative Funding Efforts Draw Fire
Last month, attorneys for the museum filed papers with the Probate Court of Cuyahoga County seeking permission to deviate from the wills of wealthy donors who died decades ago (ANL, 9/8/09). Museum officials want to divert up to $75million in income over 10 years from two funds in the museum’s endowment and from two outside trusts managed for its benefit. Proceeds from all four funds are normally restricted to the purchase of artworks for the collection.
Wall Street Journal leisure and arts features editor Eric Gibson criticized the museum’s action in a lengthy column on Sept. 16: “The precedent this could set is bad enough. You only have to look at how museums have played fast and loose with the deaccessioning rules over the past several years despite [the Association of Art Museum Directors’] restrictions to worry about what they might do if given an opening to finesse the rules governing restricted endowments. Most troubling, though, is the museum’s rationalizing its actions by communing with the dead.”
Janet Landay, executive director of the AAMD, said her organization was contacted by the Cleveland Museum of Art regarding its proposal. “The museum subsequently provided us with a copy of its court filing and we are now in the process of reviewing it,” Landay wrote in a letter to ARTnewsletter. American Association of Museums president Ford Bell told ARTnewsletter that the museum’s plan “does not violate any ethical standard” of the association.
The court is scheduled to hand down its ruling on Sept. 23, though that date is subject to change, a museum spokesperson said. In 1955, the museum sought and won approval from the Probate Court to make a similar temporary divergence from the restrictions of three of the four funds it is seeking permission to tap into now.
At that time, it took the court about eight weeks to render its decision. However, sources say the museum is hoping for a ruling sooner, because the board of trustees is to vote in December on whether to go ahead with the next major phase of construction. —E.K.
Additional reporting by Steven Litt