Historians Denounce Newark Museum’s Plan to Sell Works at Sotheby’s

More than 50 cultural historians have signed an open letter denouncing the Newark Museum of Art’s plan to sell 17 works from its collection at auction.

When the museum first announced its plan to deaccession artworks in March, few details were provided about which pieces would appear at Sotheby’s. But it has since been revealed that several pieces by American artists—including a painting by landscape artist Thomas Cole—are among those included in the sale. These works will hit the block on May 19.

The letter, addressed to museum director Linda Harrison, called the deaccessioning a “senseless monetization” of the art. The writers demanded she “cancel the self-diminishment and monetization of Newark’s art” because it was “inflicting irreparable damage” on the museum. Among the signories are professors from Harvard and Yale, a former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and past employees of Newark such as William L. Coleman, current director of collections and exhibitions at the Olana Partnership in Hudson, New York.

Among the group of works slated to appear at Sotheby’s are paintings by Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Eakins. Opponents have brought particular attention to Cole’s 1846 painting The Arch of Nero, which depicts a decrepit Roman arch amid a lush landscape. It carries an estimate of $500,000–$700,000.

The letter described the Cole painting as “an urgent and important address of America’s republicanism” that used Nero’s ruinous rule of the Roman republic as a metaphor for political corruption. “The painting urges Americans to be on guard against the dilution and potential dissolution of their republican experiment.”

“Newark’s great The Arch of Nero was one of the earliest paintings to address these issues,” the letter continues. “It should be a centerpiece of a great museum’s American galleries.”

In a statement, Harrison said that the decision to sell the works by Cole, Moran and Eakins was “carefully and thoughtfully considered,” and defended deaccessioning as a necessary means to finance care of the entire collection. “Deaccessioning is a routine and necessary component of the work of any museum, and is especially important for the Newark Museum of Art, which currently has holdings numbering around 130,000,” she said.

Harrison said that the sale does not violate deaccessioning guidelines from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the AAMD. Last year, the AAMD, which represents 240 North American museums, temporarily loosened its restrictions on deaccessioning policies to help institutions recoup losses from the pandemic. Since then, several museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, have generated controversy with plans to sell works from their collection. Last October, amid protests, the BMA put on its plan to deaccession three paintings by Clyfford Still, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden on hold.

Like many institutions worldwide the Newark Museum has been shuttered throughout most of the past year. If the sale proceeds, it could generate millions of dollars for the museum.

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