Dec 20, 2006

Mayor Street Drops Historic Status


Philadelphia Mayor John Street has withdrawn the nomination of The Gross Clinic for designation as a historic object. It seems the only way the work can remain in Philadelphia is for the matching process to take over. It's not clear where the fund raising efforts are at now, but Lee Rosenbaum reports that they are more than halfway there based on her interview with the major gifts officer of the Philadelphia Museum.

The work, recognized as one of the greatest American paintings, has been sold for $68 million to the new Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville Arkansas (a scale model is pictured here), which will share the work with the National Gallery. Trustees of Thomas Jefferson University voluntarily agreed to delay the sale so Philadelphians could come up with funds to keep the work in Philadelphia.

I am not terribly surprised that Mayor Street has declined to continue the Historic Designation procedure, as it amounts to a municipal export restriction. Many nations have export restrictions which prevent the export of works, but the US is the main exception. With the lone exception of some Native American artifacts covered under NAGPRA, generally, any work of art can be freely exported from the US. This is not the first time Philadelphia has acted to prevent the removal of a work of art. Donn Zaretsky pointed out to me that Philadelphia used the historic designation process to keep The Dream Garden in the city in 1998.

Efforts to prevent or delay the sale provide an interesting new way to think about export restrictions. Export restrictions are a reality for the art and antiquities market, but they are quite controversial. They generally involve underdeveloped source nations (such as Peru, Guatemala, or Nigeria) and wealthy market nations (like Japan, the US, or the UK). At issue in the source nation debate are inherent concerns about the less developed world, cultural appropriation, and the continued exploitation of the underdeveloped world. If Philadelphia had continued to prevent the sale, it would have sharply cut against the prevailing position of the US, which generally frowns on export restrictions.

From an intellectual standpoint, I'm disappointed the historic designation process has been abruptly halted. The Eakins debate strips away those concerns, as Philadelphia is on roughly the same footing as Bentonville. This allows us to focus in on the core issue, which asks, do certain works belong in a certain context? Might context be secondary to the interests of the University, which plans to use the funds to expand its campus. Also, might there be a greater value in allowing more of the public to view the work?

It's not clear why exactly the mayor chose this moment to halt the process. Perhaps he did not want the process to get dragged through a lengthy court battle, or perhaps he wants the civic fund raising efforts to receive priority. One potential solution which has not been explored is for Philadelphia to buy a share of the work, which would let it display the work periodically. This would allow people to see the work in Philadelphia from time to time, while allowing a greater audience for the work. Some have estimated that as few as 500 people saw the work last year. The main disadvantage would be the risks inherent in transporting valuable works of art, however, the work will already be traveling anyway, between Arkansas and the National Gallery.
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