Whose ethics?

Maurice Davies, 19.03.2014
Why National Gallery's Bellows acquisition is bad for museums
The highly influential American Association of Art Museum Directors has censured the Maier Museum of Art over an unethical collections sale, instructing its members to suspend any loans to the museum, and call off any collaboration on exhibitions and programs.

The museum is part of Randolph College in Virginia, which, as Randolph-Macon College, was a pioneering women-only institution for over a century.

A spokesperson for the college explained that the collection sale was to raise funds for "bolstering Randolph’s endowment and strengthening its finances".

The association has a slightly different take: "The funds realised from this sale will be utilised for a purpose that we believe will, ultimately, be damaging to our field.

"The prohibition against the sale of works of art from museum collections for such purposes is a violation of one of the most fundamental professional principles of the art museum field."

But why should we be bothered by another US spat about the sale of expensive works of art by a museum?

The work in question, Men of the Docks by George Bellows, has just triumphantly arrived in London as the most recent great acquisition by the National Gallery.

Yes, you have read all that right. "Our" National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, London, has spent $25.5m on a work of art unethically disposed of by another museum.

That means the situation is analogous to a UK university forcing its museum (think Ashmolean, Courtauld or Fitzwilliam) to sell a significant British painting to, say, The Met in New York, or even the National Gallery in Washington DC.

Perhaps as a bit of a face-saver the purchase is being billed as "a new, transatlantic academic partnership, the first of its kind between an American college and a UK gallery". But it’s unclear quite why the National Gallery would want to partner with a relatively obscure private American college, now regarded as a cultural pariah.

Randolph College is no doubt delighted by the result.

Not only has it got $25.5m for a picture most reputable American museums wouldn’t touch, it's also able to boast of "plans for high-level staff members of the National Gallery to lecture at Randolph College as well as a special internship program for Randolph students that will be established in London with the museum...

"Randolph students studying abroad will be granted special access to the museum’s permanent installation and to classes held at the National Gallery."

The American Association of Art Museum Directors is in no doubt that the action of Randolph College – condoned and aided by our own National Gallery - "not only erodes the credibility and good standing of the Maier Museum, but also affects all art museums and the trust that the public has placed in them".


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21.03.2014, 11:02
As a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, I can remember seeing the Bellows almost daily as it hung in the college Library prior to its later move to the safety of the Maier Museum on campus. Many alumnae helped to fund a legal challenge the planned sale of pieces in the collection after a number of them were spirited out of the Maier Museum behind the back of the then Curator in 2007 and shipped to a major auction house. Sadly, two paintings, including the Bellows have since been sold and the current President of Randolph College is apparently now making a specious argument that the Maier museum is not a 'museum' as it is part of an educational institution. The Bellows was purchased directly from the artist in 1920 and was the start of what became an American Art collection of national importance. Randolph-Macon Woman's College alums still resist the use of the art collection as an effective cash machine supporting current operations and bank balances. Your public comments here have been seen, appreciated and are being forwarded and we thank you.

Carole Colley
Randolph-Macon Woman's College 1975
20.03.2014, 19:00
Perhaps, say, analagous to the even more recent sale of the Ruysdael by Worcester college, Oxford, to the Kimbell.