When Seattle Art Museum sold two Marsden Hartley paintings and a Mary Cassatt pastel last spring for $1.35 million, the sale was part of a larger plan. According to the Sotheby's November sales catalog, SAM is aggressively pruning its American collection—clearing away the weeds in the hopes of making way (dollars-wise) for better, bigger purchases. The museum stands to gain $1 million or more on November 29 from the sale at Sotheby's. The money will be used to buy more American art, but the museum isn't saying yet what purchases it has up its sleeve.
"We are really interested in landmark works," said American-art curator Patti Junker. "Paintings are really just out of the question. It seems to me the time is right to build an important museum collection of American sculpture, because I think it's a great area of the market still—everyone from Hiram Powers to Paul Manship."
Powers was a 19th-century neoclassicist; Manship bridged the modern period with proto-Deco works including 1934's Prometheus Fountain at Rockefeller Center.
The prize had better be worth the sacrifice, said Seattle art dealer and regional historian David Martin. He recalls sales in recent years of a painting by John Singer Sargent and a pastel by Cassatt that were replaced by what he believes to be inferior examples of the artists' work. SAM sold a mother-and-child Cassatt and purchased a portrait of the artist's brother that Junker describes as "important" and "great," but which Martin says "looks like a taxidermist did it."
The reason museums hate talking about sales is that not everybody agrees on what's dispensable. For instance, Hartley lover and scholar Patricia McDonnell recently said the loss of the two Hartleys this past spring was no tragedy for Seattle. She referred to the paintings dismissively, as "bad days at the office" for the artist, and her take seems to align with their nearly nonexistent exhibition history.
The comprehensive history of SAM's sales, or deaccessions, is unknown to the public, because the museum didn't decide to publish sales until The Stranger asked it to this summer, and it still hasn't come out with any. (Its annual report is not expected again for several months.) The history that can be gleaned is spotty and anecdotal.
In 1989, according to a report of museum activity written in 1999 by a museum employee (and passed along by a source who has asked to remain anonymous), SAM got rid of nine American oil paintings by William Mason Brown, William Merritt Chase, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Thomas Doughty, Jonas Lie, Frederick Judd Waugh, John Singer Sargent, Guy Wiggins, and Irving Ramsey Wiles. Then-curator Patterson Sims "judged these paintings either second-rate or in poor condition," the report reads. "The museum realized $468,970 and the money was placed in a fund for the acquisition of American art." It bought a stained-glass window by John La Farge; the landscape Mount Rainier, Washington by Sanford Gifford; and a Cleveland Rockwell seascape.
Martin says he finds it hard to believe that the La Farge, Gifford, and Rockwell were worth giving up the Chase, Cropsey, and Sargent for, let alone the whole compendium of names, some more obscure.
Take Hovsep Pushman, an Armenian-born American painter of Orientalist scenes who died in New York in 1966. All three of SAM's Pushmans are on this month's block at Sotheby's. No one would call Pushman a genius, but will SAM end up with a shallow greatest-hits collection? Is the link between Pushman's Orientalism and SAM's world-renowned specialty in Asian art, for example, immaterial?
The eight American paintings now for sale include a few that Martin says it will be a "mistake" to get rid of, including John Marin's 1934 oil painting New York Abstraction (valued at $600,000 to $800,000), Chauncey Foster Ryder's 1907 oil painting That Which the Sea Gives Up (What Will the End Be?) (valued at $30,000 to $50,000), Preston Dickinson's 1928 oil painting Still-Life No. 1 (valued at $150,000 to $250,000), and the Pushmans (valued at between $30,000 and $90,000 each). Other paintings for sale are by Wiggins and Waugh, who also were on the block in 1989.
Junker spoke frankly about each piece, and said that in her review of SAM's history of American sales, she hasn't found a single misstep. When the expanded museum opens in May, Seattle will see the fruits of SAM's decisions in the first exhibition, focusing on new acquisitions of all kinds.
New York Abstraction is a "B-minus, C-plus Marin," she said. "It was probably the only Marin on the West Coast for a while, and probably in its day it had a place here, although I can tell you it never had a permanent place. We're confident that we'll have opportunities to add a really great Marin oil."
Orientalism is important, Junker said. But, she added, Pushman made little more than decorative retakes of a style done better earlier by artists like Emil Carlsen and Charles Caryl Coleman, whom she'd rather bring into the collection.
Dealer Martin said the Ryder is significant as an example of early collecting in Seattle. But according to Junker, the family was not devoted to collecting art, they were simply looking for something to hang above the sofa and found it in a piece that had traveled from one exposition to another waiting for a buyer.
"It looks like a painting done in 1887, and if it was, we'd be hanging on to it," Junker said. "Look at when it was done, in 1907—the year of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It was a very conservative picture trying to follow a tradition. Now that's not always a bad thing. I'm a huge fan of the academic tradition from Eakins on, but trying to hang someone like Chauncey Ryder with George Bellows? It just doesn't work."
The hiring of Junker two years ago—as SAM's first-ever curator devoted to pre-1945 American art—represented a new commitment for the museum in response to avid American collectors such as Tom Barwick, a SAM trustee. American art has traditionally been spat upon by museums. Junker recites horror stories of important paintings once dumped by museums in department stores and veritable flea markets.
"The most notorious deaccessions cases have all involved American art, it seems," she said. "So I come at it as someone very defensive about American art. I've worked for institutions where American collections were deaccessioned wholesale because American art was seen as unworthy. I've worked on a number of obscure artists who've been in museum basements. So I know what this is like. And I know you don't deaccession according to matters of personal taste."