Sunday, October 24, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks #7: The Frank Stella Acquisition That Wasn’t

Frank Stella, Chocorua IV, 1966, Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas, 120 x 128 x 4 in., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
By Carl Belz

The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth recently opened an exhibition of Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons, a major 1966-67 series comprising 44 pictures in 11 shaped-canvas formats, each executed in four versions, and each titled for a New Hampshire town where Frank and his father took fishing trips when Frank was growing up in the 1950s. The show marks the first time that all 11 formats have been hung together, and it constitutes a spectacular event in documenting the moment when Frank laid down the blueprint for the artistic identity we continue to associate with his work today.    

In checking the website for the exhibition, one item in particular caught my attention, which was that Chocorua IV had recently been purchased by the Hood in honor of Brian Kennedy who was Director there between 2005 and 2010, who curated the show, and who is currently Director of the Toledo Museum of Art.   

That acknowledgment was heart breaking: It catapulted me back to September 1997, about a week after my birthday, when Brandeis Dean of Faculty Irv Epstein called me to his office for a meeting. We exchanged greetings. He asked me how I was. I told him I felt as though I’d arrived, I’d finally become a sixty-year-old smiling public man among school children. I got a blank look in return. I asked him what was on his mind. He asked me if I’d ever thought about retirement. Whoa, baby, what was coming down here?  

Undaunted—you can never say I wasn’t naïve—I told him I’d thought about 2001 but rejected it because it was so embarrassingly awful a movie, then I added quickly that I’d also considered 2000, a nice number—you know, the millennium and all that—plus 25 years at the helm, a dignified span. “Oh,” he queried, “You became director in 1975?”  

“No, Irv, it was actually 1974, but we could say it was 1975, we could bend the facts a little for esthetic effect, like artists do all the time.” Then, wondering what was behind his question, I asked him what he and the President had in mind.   

“We were thinking of this coming January 1st.”  

Yikes! And again yikes! He was proposing I take an early retirement, and it was a proposal that, lacking the security of academic tenure, I was in no position to refuse.   

But I nonetheless told him at once that January was impossible, I was in the process of curating a full-scale, mid-career survey of paintings by Joseph Marioni, which would take place in the spring, and I was working with my colleague, curator Susan Stoops, on a couple of major acquisitions we hoped to secure by the end of the academic year. He said he’d get back to me, which he did: I was permitted to finish out the academic year as Director of the Rose.  

One of the acquisitions I was referring to was a picture by Frank Stella, whose work I had followed enthusiastically since we were both undergraduates at Princeton in the late 1950s, and whose association with Brandeis had begun in the 1960s. He received a Jack and Lillian Poses Creative Arts Award in 1966. He taught courses in the Department of Fine Arts as a Visiting Artist during the spring semester of the 1968-69 academic year, and an exhibition curated by William Seitz took place at the Rose Art Museum in coincidence with his residency. I curated a second exhibition, “Frank Stella: Metallic Reliefs,” a decade later. He was presented with an honorary degree at the Brandeis commencement in 1986, and he returned to campus a year later to help us celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Patrons and Friends Exhibition Program. I’d be hard-pressed to name an artist—let alone an artist of Frank’s stature—with a relationship to the University more steadfast than Frank Stella’s. That he should be represented in the Rose Art Museum permanent collection in my eyes needed no further explanation.  

I talked with Frank about acquiring a picture for the Rose—an “historical” picture, if possible, something from the 60s or 70s—and was pleased to learn we could work directly with him instead of going to the secondary market via one or another of his gallery representatives. We then zeroed in on his Polish Village series from the early 70s, which referenced conceptually his Irregular Polygons, included his first three-dimensional relief-painting constructions, and initiated the exploration of sculptural expression that he pursues into the present moment. Each of the 40 Polish Village formats was executed in three versions, the first in paint and collage on canvas, the second in raised materials on wood, and the third in paint and collage on cardboard built into tilted sections.   
Frank Stella, Jarmolince III, 1973, Mixed media on board; 116 x 90 x 8 in.
 What we settled on was this: The Museum would acquire three works—a first, a second and a third version, each representing a different format among the 40 formats in the series. We would purchase the first two works for a total of $180K, while the third would be a Gift of the Artist in Honor of Carl Belz. It was an extraordinarily generous offer, and I was accordingly excited to present it to the Museum’s advisory Board of Overseers for their approval, which I did in the early spring of 1998.   But the presentation didn’t go off as planned. From the outset, there was contention around the table. A handful of voices seemed to have a separate agenda: The Polish Village pictures weren’t very strong; there was one in the Victor Ganz auction last year, and it was the weakest painting in the whole collection; Stella was just trying to unload works that wouldn’t sell; we should save the money to enhance the search for a new director. And so it went, I couldn’t believe the pettiness of the opinions, I was flabbergasted, but I took a vote anyway, and it was 9 to 5 in favor. Phew! The good guys had won, but it sure didn’t feel that way, it felt not like a cause for celebration, it felt like a bummer, as though we’d staggered to the finish line. And it got worse. When I called the Dean to report on the vote, he told me he couldn’t approve a transaction of that magnitude with that close a vote; it had to be unanimous, or close to it, which was a whole new procedural wrinkle, invented on the spot as far as I could tell. So there was no victory at all and no Stella for the collection. I felt like crying.  

The whole business became clear soon enough. Among those opposed to the acquisition were two or three individuals with strong donor potential who had the attention of Brandeis President Jehuda Reinhartz, and who were, therefore, effectively in control of how business was being done at the Rose Art Museum at that moment. And what did they know? “Save the money for the next director”? How degrading to the Museum—as if the Rose’s programming history and collection couldn’t by themselves attract worthy candidates for the job. Likewise, my “lame duck” status as director, which I was earnestly reminded of by one of the businessmen on the Board when I informed him of the dean’s decision—as if that fact outweighed the artistic, intellectual, and institutional substance of the proposal that had been on the table.   

So here’s the moral of the story, as I see it, for those of you who might be thinking about a museum career: Make sure the professionals run the show, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that having a lot of dough entitles the amateurs to dictate how you should do your job of work—as happened back in 1998 when a few of our wealthy Overseers got muscle by getting the ear of the President. Which makes me wonder how those folks responded when they heard that same President announce in 2009 that he was closing the Rose Art Museum and selling off the permanent collection. I wonder if they enjoyed getting a proposal they couldn’t refuse?  And should I take consolation in knowing that Brandeis at least won’t have any Frank Stella paintings to cash in on?

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.                


Left Bank Art Blog said...

And this is the behavior of what is supposed to be one of the great enlightened institutions! It confirms my greatest fears about the dominance of the market economy.

Jeffrey said...

Carl. I thank you for these introductions into your world and what you have had to deal with amongst all the people whom think that money can buy you taste. It doesn't.

Deborah Barlow said...

There is more to this story than just the misfire of bureaucratism and the short sighted, ego-driven decision making that happens in many institutions, be they art focused or otherwise. In the spirit of how to fend in matters such as these, I don't know what you could have done differently. I am moved by this account and by what we all missed out on having access to here in Boston had things gone differently. Thank you for the telling Carl.