Category: Museums

A National Historic Landmark?

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

On April 23, 2014, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and the Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Jonathan B. Jarvis, announced four new “National Historic Landmarks” for the United States. The Detroit Industry murals painted by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan were among the new landmarks.

Detroit Industry joins 2,540 sites across the U.S. now recognized by the government as possessing “exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”

In part, the dual press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the NPS, read: “Considered by many scholars to be Rivera’s greatest extant work in the United States, Detroit Industry is an exemplary representation of the introduction and emergence of mural art in the United States between the Depression and World War II.”

Killing the Detroit Institute of the Arts was an article I wrote in May of 2013. It detailed a bit of Detroit’s history, its economic crisis during the Great Depression when Rivera painted his Detroit Industry mural, the city’s current bankruptcy crisis, and attempts by creditors and government forces to seize and sell-off the world class art collection of the DIA in order to pay down Detroit’s $18 billion debt.

My article also celebrated the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service declaring the 1930s mural, The Epic of American Civilization, as a National Historic Landmark. Painted by José Clemente Orozco at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the mural was so recognized in March of 2013. I questioned why Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals could not also be recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Has Obama been reading this web log?  For the first time in my life, the US government has actually done something I wanted them to do…. but I am still not satisfied.

No doubt the DIA must be pleased by the federal designation. Arts professionals and art lovers around the globe, myself included, have a small victory of sorts to take delight in. But let us be clear, it is only a symbolic triumph. The announcement that the government recognizes the Detroit Industry murals as a National Historic Landmark has absolutely no bearing on the powerful creditors that are still pressing to vandalize and auction off the DIA’s art treasures - Rivera’s murals included. The historic landmark designation does not provide a site with protection or guarantee of legal rights.

The National Park Service website says as much in their National Register of Historic Places Program document under “Listing and Ownership.” The NPS explicitly states that: “National Register listing places no obligations on private property owners. There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.” What that means is, since the City of Detroit claims to “own” the collection of the DIA, the historic landmark designation does nothing to shield the “private property” from being auctioned off by the city.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that there are “more than 100,000 creditors considering a debt-cutting plan” for Detroit, a plan that will impose drastic cuts in the health benefits, pensions, and jobs of city workers, who have been sold down the river by obsequious and corrupt unions. There are enormously powerful financial interests that are baying for the seizure of DIA artworks, banks and insurers like the U.S. Bank National Association (the fifth largest bank in the U.S. with assets around $364 billion), and MBIA Insurance (the largest bond insurer with assets of some $32 billion.

On April 9, 2014, the Detroit Free Press reported that insurance giant Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. (FGIC), announced it had a coalition of big investors ready to bid over $2 billion dollars for the DIA’s entire collection. The vultures include the allied Catalyst Acquisitions and Bell Capital Partners, who have offered $1.75 billion for all of the DIA’s property. Beijing Poly International Auction Co., Ltd are willing to bid up to $1 billion for the DIA’s collection of Chinese art. Though unnamed in the article, Ambac Assurance, Hypothekenbank Frankfurt AG, and the Wilmington Trust Company are also in on the potential looting. So to is the huge bond insurer, Syncora, described in a different report from the Detroit Free Press as “among the most strident creditors seeking the sale of DIA assets to reduce losses to the city’s creditors.”

The Detroit Free Press also noted that plans to sell the DIA collection have the full support of at least one union, the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees Council 25 (AFSCME). The union has joined the FGIC coalition in mounting a legal action to compel the city to sell the DIA’s collection. The union’s website says nothing about their role in forcing the DIA to sell its collection, but the AFSCME local joined in filing a motion to do just that. The “progressive” Obama-supporting leadership of the union apparently thinks that art and culture has nothing to do with bettering the lives of workers!  The life and work of Diego Rivera was entirely dedicated to making art accessible, understandable, and inspirational to every individual who views it  - wherever in his homeland of Mexico, or the murals he created north of the border.  It is with tragic short-sightedness, that any worker’s union would choose to sell out that legacy, and potentially lose the national treasure that they are lucky enough to have in their midst.

Newseum: Super-Sized R-Rated Version

On Nov. 14, 2013, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. opened what it hoped would be a “blockbuster” show, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy - The Exhibit. If there was ever a more blatant abuse of a museum’s mission, I cannot think of what it might be. Slated to run until Aug. 31, 2014, the exhibit was created in partnership with Paramount Studios to promote its latest movie, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, written and directed by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Ferrell stars in the film as a 1970s anchorman at a fictional television news station.

A fictitious burgundy suit belonging to a fictitious newsman, who recited fictitious news, man, all displayed at a fictitious museum back by a fictitious movie studio. Photo courtesy of a fictitious photographer.

A fictitious burgundy suit belonging to a fictitious newsman, who recited fictitious news, man - all displayed at a fictitious museum backed by a fictitious movie studio. Photo courtesy of a fictitious photographer.

Presenting some 60 costumes and props from Ferrell’s 2004 movie, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the Newseum exhibit was timed to coincide with the formal opening of Anchorman 2 on December 18, 2013.

The “personal effects” (read: movie props), belonging to the fictitious  anchorman - a burgundy suit, mustache brush, and jazz flute, are displayed in the Newseum as if they were the property of an actual historic journalistic figure like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward, or Carl Bernstein. Another prop from the Paramount film - the news desk of the imaginary Ron Burgundy - will also be on display, along with various costumes worn by Ferrell and co-star Christina Applegate.

Developments at the Newseum give added weight and validity to The Newspeak Newseum, an article I wrote after the opening of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on April 11, 2008. Quoting that critique:

“The traditional concept of a museum as an elite institution dedicated to research and the acquisition, conservation, and safeguarding of humanity’s collective heritage - seems to be giving way to a profit driven, entertainment oriented, glitzy pop culture approach to museum management. As corporate monopolies move ever closer to controlling the cultural life of the nation, the Newseum provides the clearest look yet of a cultural institution in the service of big business.”

Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Chrysler Group contracted Ferrell to appear in character as Ron Burgundy in a series of “70 different commercials of varying length and format” for the 2014 Dodge Durango SUV. With help from one of the largest ad agencies in the world, Wieden+Kennedy (known for its work with sweatshop giant Nike), the ads have proliferated on television and across the web, from YouTube to Ferrill’s sophomoric funnyordie.com. But that is not the end of it. Ferrill’s flood of publicity stunts, television and radio appearances, not to mention branded products promoting the Anchorman franchise, led the director of Anchorman 2, Adam McKay, to declare it has all amounted to “at least 20 million in free publicity.” The Newseum is just another component to that mass marketing campaign.

As of this writing, Anchorman 2 has made more than $125 million in the U.S. since it opened in Dec. of 2013. But for Hollyweird enough is never enough. On Feb. 28 the movie will be re-released in around 1,000 theaters. Advertised as a “Super-Sized R-Rated Version,” it runs 20 extra minutes and contains “763 new jokes.” The late 2013 release of Anchorman 2 had 95% of its jokes stripped-out through digital editing, replacing them with filthier jokes for the re-release. And to what effect? Co-director McKay is quoted as having said, that in talks with Ferrell, the two realized they could “replace every single joke in the movie with another joke.” McKay went on to say that “there were a couple of jokes left for continuity.”

The museum’s curatorial philosophy seems akin to McKay’s vision of film-making. The Newseum can replace every single legitimate exhibit giving insight and focus to history, with faux exhibits that are nothing more than advertising campaigns for mega-corporations. For continuity’s sake, a few examples of how a museum should archive actual historic materials will be kept in place. Behold the future of U.S. museums.

Protest at the Detroit Institute of Arts

"Show Me The Monet" -  This photo shows protestors at the Defend the DIA demonstration of Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias for MLive.com.

"Show Me The Monet" - This photo shows protestors at the Defend the DIA demonstration of Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias for MLive.com.

History was made on October 4, 2013, when hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan for a demonstration against city plans to sell the museum’s world-class art collection. The city has paid Christie’s auction house $200,000 to appraise the DIA’s holdings. The process is now underway to prepare for a massive auctioning off of the museum’s cultural treasures in order to pay down Detroit’s multi-billion dollar debt. The city’s appointed but unelected “Emergency Manager,” Kevin Orr, has repeatedly made clear that the option of selling the DIA’s collection is “on the table.”

A sizeable flying picket line of protestors gathered in front of the museum; they walked behind a large banner that read “Defend The DIA!” and carried homemade signs that read, “Don’t show me the money - Show Me The Monet,” “Gogh Away from the DIA,” and “Preserve the Picasso - Defend the Dali - Maintain the Michelangelo.”

Perhaps the most poignant handmade sign that I spotted was carried by a young woman, it read, “Hearts Starve as well as bodies, We Want Bread and Roses!” The sign was a direct reference to the Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 carried out by mostly female immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Also known as the “Bread & Roses Strike,” the workers took their slogan from American poet, James Oppenheim, who had written the pro-labor poem Bread and Roses just a year earlier: “Yes, it is bread we fight for - but we fight for roses, too!” Oppenheim’s poem denoted that the fight for pragmatic necessities like jobs and decent housing is crucial, but the quest for beauty and the spiritually sublime is also essential to our wellbeing.

As more than a dozen drummers gathered at curbside and people chanted slogans like “Hey, hey corporate vultures, keep your hands off our culture!”, and “The working class is here to fight, culture is a social right!”, Auguste Rodin’s 1904 bronze sculpture The Thinker seemed to survey the lively scene from its granite base located on the steps of the DIA. Even the words chiseled into the stone facade of the museum contributed to the spirit of the day: “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.” Video of the protest anonymously uploaded to Youtube shows the type of glorious activism in defense of art that I have advocated for years. I hope to see much more of this type of joyous but combative creative action in the months and years to come. It is long overdue in the United States.

"The Orator, Madison Square" - Martin Lewis. Etching. 1916. Collection of the DIA.

"The Orator, Madison Square" - Martin Lewis. Etching. 1916. Collection of the DIA.

I first wrote about the crisis at the DIA in a March 2009 post titled, Zombie Banks, Art Museums, & War. That was followed up by a June 2009 post titled, The Death of Motor City. As the economic collapse in Detroit escalated and the city threatened to auction the DIA’s holdings to pay down city debts, I wrote two major articles, Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Defend the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Needless to say, I am heartened that the people of Detroit took to the streets on Oct. 4th to stand up for the DIA; I was there in spirit.

The protest to save the DIA was organized by the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and its youth wing, the International Youth and Students for Social Equality. Largely coordinated and promoted on the SEP’s World Socialist Web Site, the party has closely followed the crisis at the DIA and has published innumerable insightful and informative articles on the matter; they have certainly dedicated more column inches to the subject than an other publication or organization that I can think of. The SEP has set up a dedicated website, DEFENDTHEDIA, from which they hope to maintain and enlarge their campaign.

As of this writing the protest has only been covered by a few Detroit media outlets: ABC Detroit, The Detroit News, MLive Detroit, Examiner.com, and CBS Detroit. It is telling that the “paper of record,” the New York Times, could not be bothered to report on the demonstration, despite the national and international implications of the story. Likewise, major dailies like the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have also ignored the protest. Notably but not surprisingly, the so-called art press did just as poorly, due no doubt to its general political apathy and postmodern detachment.

It was the alleged “left” press in the U.S. that possibly made the worst showing of all, which only fuels my general disdain for what now passes as a political left in the United States. During the course of this year self-styled “progressive” websites like The Nation, Mother Jones, Common Dreams, and The Progressive have not written a single solitary word concerning the possible destruction of the DIA and what this will mean for the American cultural landscape! Democracy Now, the vaunted flagship news and views show of the “progressive - liberal” Pacifica Radio network has remained completely silent regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts. Over the years these social democratic types have been droning on about what a threat the U.S. rightwing presents to the arts; it is an accusation that only serves to mask their own philistinism.

 "The Arc Welders at Night" - Martin Lewis. Drypoint etching. 1937. Collection of the DIA.

"The Arc Welders at Night" - Martin Lewis. Drypoint etching. 1937. Collection of the DIA.

The general indifference concerning cultural and artistic matters displayed by the contemporary U.S. “left” make the efforts of the Socialist Equality Party all the more remarkable.

Critics may say the SEP is only attempting to recruit members, but organizing a defense of art and culture is not exactly the way to further an organization’s growth; art is not a “meat and potatoes” issue for most people.

The SEP has gone out on a limb to make the DIA, and broader cultural issues, a focus of their work: if only such a commendable stance was taken up by others - especially, from my perspective, by those professionals working in the arts.

But I am not making an argument meant to promote or otherwise advance the SEP, which is more than capable of doing so on its own. I have never joined nor endorsed any political party; you know, “artistic temperament” and all. I really enjoy being a contrarian and a totally independent artist, but I do admire the SEP for taking up the banner of the DIA and bringing some clarity, passion, and necessary visionary action to the fore.

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930), the American labor agitator and cofounder of the Industrial Workers of the World, once said: “If I can’t sing and dance in your revolution then I want nothing to do with it.” The faux “radicals” and art world hipsters that think the struggle to save the DIA is beneath them and a waste of time, should deeply contemplate the meaning of Jones’ famous quote. As for myself, I will continue to cover events in Detroit and beyond, and I shall carry on the “fight for roses, too.”

Defend the Detroit Institute of Arts

Why is an artist in Los Angeles, California writing to defend a museum in Detroit, Michigan? Because I understand that whatever the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), it will affect museums all across the United States. The agony of Detroit is one of today’s enormously complex political and economic questions, but one that American artists must grapple with. While many in the U.S. arts community support the DIA in its time of crisis, there are those that side with the forces bent on selling off the museum’s collection of masterpieces. One such voice is James Yood.

Mr. Yood teaches modern and contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition, Yood is a regional correspondent and art critic for ArtForum, and a contributing editor to art ltd., where he published an editorial that was circulated in the Visual Art Source (VAS) newsletter on Aug. 9, 2013. I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Yood’s editorial, which calls for the “deaccessioning” or selling of art treasures in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), in order to pay off Detroit’s multi-billion dollar debt. On May 26, 2013, I wrote a web post titled Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts, that addressed that same issue.

Mr. Yood’s editorial titled, Deaccession in the Civic Context, can be read on the VAS website. Excerpts of Yood’s editorial will be contested by this author in the following:

James Yood: “I’m not sure why everyone has their knickers in a twist over the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts might auction off some of its collection to assist Detroit defray an $18 billion deficit, one that has put the city into bankruptcy.”

It is difficult to take Yood seriously when in his opening sentence he uses the idiom - “knickers in a twist” - to belittle those who are outraged over the anticipated pillaging of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The expression of ridicule is usually aimed at someone who is upset about a trivial issue. The matter at hand, the value and future of American museums and the public’s access to them, is far from being a frivolous affair.

Detail from "Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel" - Michelangelo. 1508. Pen and brown ink and black chalk on cream laid paper. 14 11/16 x 9 7/8 in. Collection of the DIA.

Detail from "Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel" - Michelangelo. 1508. Pen and brown ink and black chalk on cream laid paper. 14 11/16 x 9 7/8 in. Collection of the DIA.

On March 14, 2013, Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed Mr. Kevyn Orr as the unelected “Emergency Manager” of the city of Detroit.

On July 18, 2013, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy; it is the biggest municipal bankruptcy filling in U.S. history. With near dictatorial powers to restructure the city’s finances, make cuts to government spending, and see to it that the city’s debts are paid, Orr set about ascertaining the value of everything the city might be able to sell, from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Coleman Young International Airport. The collection of the DIA was quickly targeted by Orr as a potential “asset” to be sold.

For his part Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, a Democrat, cut $247 million from the city’s budget last year, and has submitted a 2013-14 budget that will bring even more extreme cuts to social services and government spending. Emergency Manager Orr proposes huge cuts to the pensions and health care programs of police and fire departments, as well as emergency medical teams and other public workers, not to mention slashing the pensions of retirees.

The massive privatization of public assets and services is well underway - and it is a bi-partisan attack. Rather than have his editorial raise volatile political issues, Yood instead launches a dissertation on the history of “deaccession” and how the practice of de-acquisitioning a collection supposedly benefits art museums:

James Yood: “Deaccessioning art has been standard practice for so long as to be an integral part of the museological landscape (….) That’s the way it works - it might be the museum world’s dirty little secret, but trust me, all museums deaccession, it’s happening where you live, in the museum you love, amidst the permanent collection you always thought was, well, permanent. It’s how museums prune their collections, dispose of duplicate material, etc. (….) When the Art Institute of Chicago or a similar institution sells a Picasso from its permanent collection at Christie’s or the like it is obligated to use all of the funds it accrues - and these can run into millions of dollars - solely in its acquisitions budget.

In other words, institutions that are members of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) have agreed never to sell works from their permanent collections to pay salaries or operating budgets, but are free to deaccession to amass funds to buy that Malevich or LeWitt they’ve always coveted.

(….) If a museum has 30 paintings by Monet (the Art Institute of Chicago currently owns 33), why not provide another museum or collector the opportunity to purchase the one your curators believe is the least significant, and in so doing get the funds to buy that Tissot or Morisot that will make your collection broader, richer?”

It is hard to believe that Mr. Yood could miss such an obvious point. The Detroit Institute of Arts is not being asked to voluntarily auction its art treasures “to assist” the government of Detroit in paying down the city’s long-term debts. Nor is the museum planning to “prune their collection” as Yood put it, in order to acquire new works. The DIA’s collection is estimated to be worth around $2 billion. Simply put, the government of Detroit has declared that the museum’s entire collection is a “city asset” that the state can sell at auction, an assertion that the director of the DIA, Graham W. Beal, strongly refutes.

Mr. Beal insists that the DIA’s holdings are a public trust. Apparently Michigan’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Bill Schuette, agrees with him. On June 13, 2013, Schuette’s office released a 22-page opinion that read in part: “The art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations.”

Mr. Yood mentions the principles of the American Alliance of Museums in an attempt to further his position that deaccession can fund new acquisitions for a museum, but again, the profits from a forced sale of DIA holdings will not go to the museum, but to Detroit’s creditors. Yood does not tell his readers that the president of the American Alliance of Museums, Ford Bell, opposes a forced sale of the DIA’s holdings, saying that “the museum should be a rallying point for the rebirth of Detroit and not a source of funds.”

James Yood: ” Back to Detroit, though - because the fig-leaf of selling permanent collection art to raise funds for acquisitions isn’t at play here - my conclusion is that since that city is in bankruptcy, in fiscal extremis, and as citizens and businesses and tourists are all going to be asked to help, to make sacrifices, why shouldn’t its art museum?”

Mr. Yood’s way of thinking should sound familiar. What comes to mind is how the Bush and Obama administrations handled the economic crisis after the pirates of casino capitalism crashed Wall Street on September 29, 2008. The reckless speculators responsible for the crash were rewarded with government bail-outs totaling hundreds of billions of dollars… all provided by U.S. taxpayers. In 2010 PBS reported that the actual cost of bailing-out Wall Street was close to $12.5 trillion. In the wake of the 2008 crash, millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes, but the Obama administration did not arrange a bailout for them.

"Self Portrait" - Paul Gauguin. 1893. Oil on canvas. 18 1/8 x 15 inches. Collection of the DIA.

"Self Portrait" - Paul Gauguin. 1893. Oil on canvas. 18 1/8 x 15 inches. Collection of the DIA.

Now that Detroit has crashed, developers, speculators, investors, and assorted oligarchs have descended upon the city like a murder of crows. The asset stripping Emergency Manager Orr is holding a fire sale, and the money bags are itching to buy.

Oh, the working people of Detroit will have to “make sacrifices” to be sure; they will suffer the loss of their hard earned pensions, health care plans, government services, and perhaps their homes and livelihoods. They may also lose the DIA. But the plutocrats will get along fine, in fact, just as with the Wall Street Crash of 2008, they will make out like bandits.

In March of this year CBS Detroit reported that Forbes Magazine published its annual list of the richest people in the world, and in the words of the CBS local affiliate, the list revealed that “10 percent of the billionaires’ club resides right here in and around the Motor City.” The station also reported that the combined wealth of these 12 individuals tops $5.4 trillion. Let us take a look at just two of these Detroit billionaires, Mike Ilitch and Dan Gilbert, and how they will “make sacrifices” for their city.

Mike Ilitch owns the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain, as well as the Major League Baseball team the Detroit Tigers, and the Detroit Red Wings National Hockey League team. Forbes rated Mr. Ilitch’s net worth at $2.7 billion as of March 2013. Ilitch has convinced Mr. Orr and the Detroit city government to spend over $400 million on building a new hockey arena for Ilitch’s Detroit Red Wings. As Emergency Manager Orr slashes the retirement pensions and health care plans that many thousands of people depend on, as he cuts the pay of police, firemen, and emergency medical teams that serve the city, as street lights are permanently shut off, he will also be funding Mr. Ilitch’s new sports arena with monies provided by Detroit tax payers.

Dan Gilbert tops the Forbes list of Motor City Moguls. With an estimated worth of $3.5 billion, Gilbert owns Quicken Loans, the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Detroit based real estate company, Rock Ventures. CNBC reported that Gilbert wants to “tear down chunks of Detroit,” quoting the mortgage tycoon as having said, “There’s something like 128,000 buildings, commercial and residential, that need to be removed. And once that happens, there’s going to be opportunity…where developers and people can start making investments again.” Guess who will be there to make a killing. According to Yahoo News, Gilbert is “buying up, remodeling, and repurposing downtown properties” like they were going out of business, because… well, they are. Big fish eats little fish, or as John D. Rockefeller infamously put it, “The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets.”

So according to James Yood, the Detroit Institute of Arts will just have to make sacrifices like everybody else. And when it is all over, when the schools, libraries, and hospitals are shuttered, and those 128,000 buildings that Mr. Gilbert dreams of bulldozing are turned to dust like the rest of Detroit’s history, the pirates of casino capitalism will have won another victory. But since the DIA will have been forced to sell their collection, the oligarchs may very well walk away from their latest triumph with a few of the DIA’s “assets” tucked into their investment portfolios.

James Yood: “Does anyone really believe that the DIA would no longer be a great art museum if they carefully deaccessioned about five or six works - choose among their great Poussin, Van Eyck, Caravaggio, Brueghel, Bellini, Cezanne, Bronzino, Van Gogh, or many others - and raised and then chipped in about $1 billion of the $18 billion Detroit owes? What’s wrong with a museum functioning as a good citizen in a time of crisis?”

Does anyone really believe that what we are witnessing in Detroit is anything less than a massive redistribution of wealth from those on the bottom to those on top? The great Poussin, Van Eyck, and Caravaggio canvases Yood mentions might very well end up in some billionaire’s private collection - never again to be seen by the public. There is a great certainty that the artworks would be moved out of Detroit, or perhaps out of the U.S. entirely.

What Yood proposes - that the DIA sell its masterpieces to help pay down government debt - flies in the face of the autonomy from government decree and control enjoyed by U.S. museums. What about the endowments made to the DIA over the years, works and collections bequeathed to the institution with the understanding that the donated artworks became part of a public trust? Are these works merely to be stripped away as “assets,” ignoring the original intentions of their donors? Diego Rivera’s glorious Detroit Industry mural series at the Detroit Institute of Arts was commissioned in 1932 by the museum’s Director, William Valentiner. Like all of Rivera’s monumental fresco paintings, he intended Detroit Industry to be a public work of art, specifically, a tribute to the American working class. Is this historic work now to be privatized? I should mention that the DIA commissioned Rivera during the Great Depression, and throughout that period of extreme crisis, there were no demands that the museum sell-off its collection.

"The Beach Hat" - Robert Henri. 1914. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. Henri was the founder of America's very first avant-garde art movement, the Ashcan School. Collection of the DIA.

"The Beach Hat" - Robert Henri. 1914. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. Henri was the founder of America's very first avant-garde art movement, the Ashcan School. Collection of the DIA.

The government of Detroit is pressing for a forced sale of the DIA’s art treasures, and not just of “five or six works” as Yood would have you believe. On August 5, 2013, Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr revealed that Christie’s auction house had been contracted by the city to appraise the holdings of the DIA, and that the city would pay Christie’s $200,000 for the appraisal.

This is a serious indication that the city fully intends to liquidate the DIA’s collection, otherwise, why would it pay such an outrageous appraisal fee while city workers are having their pay, hours, health care benefits and pensions cut to the bone? Christie’s is expected to complete their appraisal of the DIA collection by October, 2013.

Detroit is not the only major U.S. city faced with bankruptcy, it is just the first to declare it. The big picture is that the U.S. government currently faces debt that is expected to be somewhere around $20.541 trillion dollars by the end of 2013.

Given his editorial stance Mr. Yood should have absolutely no objection to the collections of America’s top museums being sold off to help bring down the national debt. The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC has a stunning collection surely worth a few billion dollars on the auction block. The NGA has in its permanent collection the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the America’s - the incomparable portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (just think of the millions that painting alone would fetch at Christie’s or Sotheby’s).

But why stop with the National Gallery of Art? Let government force the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, in Boston, Massachusetts, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and every other great American art museum large and small, to sell their masterpieces in order to help bring down the U.S. debt. The logic of Yood’s position demands, “never mind that these museums have played absolutely no role in creating the government’s enormous debt, make them pay regardless.”

James Yood: “Those paintings, all of which somehow left collections in Europe to come to Detroit in the first place, would just move on to another life somewhere else. Are museums frozen tight, never to evolve, mausoleums for art, or might a little interior ebb and flow actually be interesting, and freshen the eye?”

Let us apply Yood’s logic to the trillions of dollars worth of federal debt faced by the U.S. government. There are scores of famous monuments in the U.S. that could be placed on the auction block in order to help pay down the national debt, take the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for instance. Heck, it was a gift from France that moved “on to another life” in Manhattan. Similarly, the original U.S. Constitution on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D.C. would make a fine edition to some oligarch’s private collection.

James Yood: “I hear no one suggesting that the DIA’s entire collection should be sent tomorrow to Sotheby’s for immediate dispersal (though such an act could theoretically bring in more than $18 billion - what’s the opening bid for their Diego Rivera murals?).”

Mr. Yood should read the comments section of mainstream websites that are publishing reports on the possible auctioning of art treasures held by the DIA. There is unfortunately a great number of people who think it is a grand idea, and Yood’s editorial does nothing to disabuse them of the notion. Though he cannot name anyone that might suggest the entire DIA collection be put on the auction block, Yood ignores the preparatory moves currently being undertaken to do just that. He barely conceals his excitement over the prospect of the entire DIA collection bringing in over $18 billion on the auction block, and shamelessly jokes about the bidding price for Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural series at the DIA.

That an art critic for ArtForum writes such bilge in support of a forced sale of a major museum’s permanent collection is beyond disgraceful.

I would like to reiterate my view that plans to seize and auction off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, if successful, will be a strategy visited upon museums all across the country. We should all give direct assistance to the DIA, by visiting the museum’s website to make a donation or by signing up to become a member.

James Yood: “But if your community is dying you have to consider what you can do to help it survive. If the Art Institute of Chicago or your local art museum can (and did, and will again) sell something like a first-rate Braque, why can’t the Detroit Institute of Arts sell a first-rate Brueghel? Why?”

Yood writes about bankruptcy as if it were an act of God for which we mortals must pay penance, and he makes no attempt at describing the context of the crisis… the political and economic decline of the U.S. over the years and how this has deeply impacted Detroit (not to mention other U.S. cities). He writes as if the state auctioning off the permanent collection of a major American art museum is not an earth-shattering political event with profound national and international implications. He fails to explain why the DIA should be made to pay for the greed and mismanagement of those who are actually responsible for Detroit’s financial crisis. In essence, he writes as an apolitical intellectual.

"The Resurrected Christ" - Sandro Botticelli. 1480. Paint on wood panel. 18 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of the DIA.

"The Resurrected Christ" - Sandro Botticelli. 1480. Paint on wood panel. 18 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of the DIA.

Yood’s position denies the museum as a commons, a vital gathering place where people can share ideas and collective experiences. In the case of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a museum founded in 1885, we are talking about a very rich history indeed. The DIA is an integral part of the community, city, and nation, not a building full of what creditors and bureaucrats might simply see as “assets.”

To say that “art is for everyone” might sound like a glib cliché to some, but for the people of Michigan’s Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties outside of Detroit, the phrase was taken seriously. During an August 7, 2012 election, voters passed a tax increase for their Tri-County area that would help fund the DIA. The magnanimous vote indicates just how important the DIA is to the people of Michigan.

Currently Oakland County supplies approximately $9 million a year to the DIA, Macomb County puts in around $7 million, and Wayne  County pays some $10 million. These monies are a significant portion of the DIA’s current operating budget, which has been cut drastically over the years. Personally, I was ambivalent about the tax increase, thinking that it would not shield the museum from escalating cuts, but the good people of the Tri-county had their say. However, there is a caveat to the recently passed legislation. Oakland County wants to pass a resolution that stipulates, if the state seizes and sells any art from the DIA collection in order to satisfy creditors, the special Tri-County tax will be terminated. Macomb and Wayne counties plan to follow suit.

To counter Yood’s hyperbole head on, if a community is dying, the first obligation of the citizenry would be to ascertain who is responsibility for killing it - and then hold that individual or group accountable. The working people of Detroit are not responsible for the city’s financial mismanagement and collapse, and neither is the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “museum” as follows: “An institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value; also: a place where objects are exhibited.” Webster’s also defines the word “stock exchange as follows. “1): a place where security trading is conducted on an organized system. 2): an association of people organized to provide an auction market among themselves for the purchase and sale of securities.”

Perhaps the problem with James Yood’s editorial is that he has forgotten the difference between a museum and a stock exchange.

– // –

UPDATE: On August 18, 2013, the Detroit Free Press published an article titled, “Christie’s appraisal will reveal value of Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection.” I encourage readers of this web log to read the article. Here is a brief excerpt:

“‘This is like the weighing of souls,’ said Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art. ‘This is biblical stuff, not the approximations that insurance companies look for. It’s extremely problematic for all museums, because it alters the public’s perception of artworks from being ciphers of public heritage of transcendent value, to objects for sale to pay other people’s debts.’”

The Mexican Museum of San Francisco

I am pleased to announce that I am now a member of the Arts and Letters Council of the Mexican Museum of San Francisco. I was asked to join the council by the museum’s director, David de la Torre, and by accepting the position I have become part of a group of esteemed artists, writers, and scholars who have lent their names in support of the museum and its upcoming expansion.

Too numerous to list, my colleagues on the council come from across the nation and work in various disciplines. Some I have had the honor of meeting and or working with, others I hope to collaborate with in the future. All of us however, are united in promoting The Mexican Museum as it prepares to move into its new state of the art facility in the Yerba Buena Arts District of San Francisco. A groundbreaking celebration marking the start of construction of the brand new museum will take place sometime in 2014, and a grand opening for the new museum is scheduled for 2017.

The Mexican Museum, the only San Francisco museum that is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, holds a growing permanent collection of over 14,000 Pre-Hispanic, Colonial, Popular, Modern and Contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Chicano artworks. It is the largest such collection in the continental United States.

The Mexican Museum's new facilities as envisioned by architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos and Handel Architects LLP. Artist's conception courtesy of Handel Architects LLP ©.

The Mexican Museum's new facilities as envisioned by architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos and Handel Architects LLP. Artist's conception courtesy of Handel Architects LLP ©.

Currently located in the Fort Mason Center of San Francisco’s Mission District, the museum’s new home in the Yerba Buena Arts District will place it near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the African Diaspora Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the California Historical Society museum. In the words of David de la Torre, the museum will be a “national center for the serious study of Latino art, history and culture.”

The museum continues to hold exhibits and events at its old Fort Mason Center as it prepares to move in 2017. To give an idea of what one can expect from The Mexican Museum, as of this writing the institution is about to open its latest exhibition, Diálogos Gráficos (Graphic Dialogues). Opening September 13, 2013 and running until April 2014, the exhibit will showcase Mexican and Latino printmaking from the past to the present. Divided into historical and contemporary sections, the show will present hand-made prints by José Guadalupe Posada, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Leopoldo Méndez, Francisco Mora and Alfredo Zalce. The contemporary section of the exhibit will show prints by Rene Castro, Enrique Chagoya, Juan R. Fuentes, Rupert García, Carmen Lomas Garza and Esther Hernandez.

While many in the U.S. are familiar with Posada, Siqueiros, and Orozco, it is exposure to the works of Méndez, Mora, and Zalce that is essential for an American audience as the three are so unfamiliar in the United States. They all worked in Mexico’s legendary Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - “Popular Graphic Arts Workshop”), in fact Méndez and Mora were founding members of the TGP. In my opinion, Méndez (1902-1969) remains Mexico’s most important printmaker, if you want to understand Mexico, view his prints. As for Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003), he was the last of Mexico’s great revolutionary muralists - a contemporary of Rivera and Siqueiros known for his own searing brand of social realism.

The Mexican Museum exhibiting classic Mexican prints in Diálogos Gráficos is significant enough, that it offers a platform for current Chicano and Latino artists - in the same exhibit - is quite extraordinary. It is a blessing to us all that the works of these artists are being shown, and just one out of many reasons why I think this museum promises to be a major institution in our collective future.

I urge readers to spread the word about The Mexican Museum, and consider supporting it by making a donation or becoming a member (which gives you free unlimited admission to all Smithsonian Museums no matter where you are in the United States). If you live in California, you can show your support for the museum by attending the Diálogos Gráficos exhibit… perhaps you will see me there.

Farewell Mr. Deitch

Jeffrey Deitch is throwing in the towel after serving as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) for three uneasy years out of his five-year contract. Details concerning his reign at and departure from MOCA abound, but you will not find the minutiae detailed here.

A large segment of L.A.’s art community did not trust Deitch from the very beginning, viewing him as an entrepreneur that wanted to transform MOCA into a celebrity theme park rather than a serious art institution. In June of 2012, MOCA’s curator Paul Schimmel was apparently fired by Deitch, though the circumstances remain unclear. After Mr. Schimmel’s firing, the four artists that sat on MOCA’s board of directors resigned.

Wanting to share my annoyance over Deitch’s style of directorship led me to write an essay in 2011 that remained unpublished - until today. I was pleased that Schimmel selected a work of mine to appear in his 2011 Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 exhibit at MOCA, but I continue to be critical of MOCA and its departing director. Though I never published my 2011 missing essay, I have decided to do so now as a sort of farewell to Mr. Deitch. That original essay is presented here for the first time:

– // –

You might say the premise of this article has its basis in a quote from Oscar Wilde, “Everything popular is wrong.”

In 2008 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was in deep financial crisis and faced the danger of being shut down altogether. By 2009 the museum’s yearly attendance had dwindled to a mere 148,616 visitors, and its endowment fund, plundered to maintain museum operating costs, hit its lowest point since MOCA’s founding in 1980. Eli Broad (with a net worth of some $5.8 billion) bailed out the failing museum in Dec. of 2008 to the tune of $30 million dollars, adding it to his growing collection of L.A. cultural institutions he controls or influences.

Mr. Broad, the founding chairman and now life-time trustee of MOCA, was interviewed by the New York Times, where he said that in the wake of MOCA’s collapse and rescue the museum’s board sought a new director “who was, call it what you want, a game-changer, an impresario.” That flashy entrepreneur turned out to be Jeffrey Deitch, and he was appointed director of MOCA in 2010.

Up until Deitch’s entrenchment at MOCA, museum directors have generally come from the world of academia. Deitch is the first art dealer and commercial art gallery owner to be named director of a major non-profit museum, an appointment that signaled how museums will be run in our new gilded age. Before Deitch began his foray into the world of art he obtained a Master of Business Administration from Harvard and became Vice President of the international banking giant, Citibank. Moving from financial services, Deitch became an extremely successful and well-connected “art consultant,” servicing several high-end corporate collections. He then became a successful art dealer and established his for profit gallery, Deitch Projects, in 1996.

It is enough that many observers have compared Mr. Deitch to P.T. Barnum, that supreme American huckster known for exhibiting “human curiosities,” the marketing of hoaxes, the founding of Barnum & Bailey Circus, and for allegedly coining the phase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” A similar assessment of Deitch came from the senior art critic of Artnet.com, Charlie Finch, who wrote; “As with Cecil B. DeMille, the three words to describe Jeffrey Deitch are control, self-promotion and spectacle.”

Art in the Streets was curated by Jeffery Deitch and the exhibit ran at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) of Los Angeles, from April 17, 2011 until August 8, 2011. According to the museum’s press release, the show was “the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art” that traced the development of the phenomenon from “the 1970s to the global movement it has become today.” Far from being a review that offers considered opinion on the strengths or weaknesses of street art, this article instead focuses on the mechanics of the MOCA show, a process that barely concealed a money mad art market seeking to commodify art from the street.

The mural created by Italian street artist, Blu.

The mural created for MOCA by Italian street artist, Blu.

MOCA’s Art in the Streets exhibit received a lot of media attention, even months before the show opened its doors to the public. Jeffrey Deitch commissioned the Italian street artist named Blu to paint a mural on an outside wall of the Geffen Contemporary as part of the effort to generate publicity for the exhibit.

Detail of Blu's MOCA mural.

Detail of Blu's MOCA mural.

Known for his politically pointed images, Blu finished his contentious but awkward mural on Dec. 8, 2010. It depicted giant coffins wrapped in U.S. dollar bills, a caustic statement regarding the never ending wars in the Middle East and beyond that the U.S. is actively engaged in.

The very next day Deitch had the entire mural whitewashed, even though MOCA had received no complaints regarding the artwork. Deitch said the mural might have been offensive to some since it was located in the general vicinity of the Go For Broke Monument, a national memorial to the Japanese American soldiers who fought in World War II.

"Ayatollah Deitch" - 2011 street poster by the iGreen activist group.

"Ayatollah Deitch" - 2011 street poster by the iGreen activist group.

By whitewashing Blu’s antiwar mural, Mr. Deitch left himself open to denunciation. Alarmed over censorship, the L.A. art community’s concern was translated into action on the streets of downtown L.A. where MOCA is located.

On Dec. 16, 2010, anonymous street artists wheat-pasted posters of Deitch portraying him in the act of obliterating Blu’s mural. The poster depicted Deitch as an Iranian Ayatollah wielding a paint roller dripping with whitewash. As it turned out, iGreen, a group that supports the “pro-Democracy” movement in Iran through cultural work and art events, took credit for designing and posting the broadside.

A spokesperson for iGreen commented on the group’s Facebook page, “We usually keep our focus on Iran, but since there is a new Ayatollah in town we had no choice but to take a position!” The art collective appropriately titled their poster, Ayatollah Deitch.

In early January of 2011, LA RAW, a collective of Los Angeles artists, was formed to wage a street campaign against Jeffery Deitch and his censoring of Blu’s mural. On Jan. 3, 2011, dozens of artists and activists held a protest at MOCA decrying the obliteration of the mural and the commodification of street art. At that demonstration Carol Wells, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), offered her summation of Deitch’s handling of Blu’s mural; “Curation is what happens before it goes public. Censorship is what happens after it goes public, and putting it up on the wall and taking it off is a clear act of censorship.”

Projection on the outside wall of Geffen Contemporary MOCA. Part of a protest against censorship carried out by L.A. artists on Jan. 3, 2011. Projections were made over the mural Jeffrey Deitch had just ordered whitewashed. Screen capture from a video made by Jesse Trott - www.vimeo.com/18419889

Projection on the outside wall of Geffen Contemporary MOCA. Part of a protest against censorship carried out by L.A. artists on Jan. 3, 2011. Projections were made over the mural Jeffrey Deitch had just ordered whitewashed. Screen capture from a video made by Jesse Trott - www.vimeo.com/18419889

On April 6, 2011, a little more than a week before the Art in the Streets exhibit opened, an unidentified group known only as LA Anonymous added their two cents to the controversy by wheat-pasting parody posters of an old fashioned circus announcement on a downtown avenue.

The large full color print depicted billionaire Eli Broad dressed in the traditional garb of a circus ringmaster, replete with top hat and whip in hand, with Jeffrey Deitch dressed as a clown bowing at his feet. Behind the ringmaster and clown, the whitewashed wall of MOCA appears at the bottom of the poster, a reminder of the destruction of Blu’s mural. The poster’s text declared, “Broadum and Deitchey - Safest Show on Earth”, a reference to the Barnum and Bailey “Greatest Show on Earth” circus posters of old.

"Broadum and Deitchey - Safest Show on Earth" - 2011 street poster by "LA Anonymous." Photo courtesy LA RAW/laraw-art.blogspot.com

"Broadum and Deitchey - Safest Show on Earth" - 2011 street poster by "LA Anonymous." Photo courtesy LA RAW/laraw-art.blogspot.com

The week before the MOCA exhibit opened, Deitch commissioned a second mural to be painted on the very wall where Blu’s mural had been whitewashed. It does not speak well of the street art “movement” that Deitch could so easily find a group of veteran graffiti artists to assist in painting over the memory of Blu’s mural. The founding of America and the founding of the graffiti movement was the replacement mural’s rather confused theme - and what the two supposedly have in common was not clarified by the substitute mural.

Titled Birds of a Feather, the alternate mural showed a Plains Indian woman wearing a majestic eagle-feather war bonnet (in reality a headdress worn only by exemplary male warriors, each feather representing a foe humiliated or killed in battle); a copy of the U.S. Constitution upon which the words of its preamble “We the People” can be read; a 19th century steam locomotion train whose coal car is filled with spray paint cans (trains and railroads in actuality helped make possible the destruction of Plains Indian culture), and a feather quill pen scribing the edict, “What you write.” Lee Quiñones, the graffiti maven in charge of creating the wall painting, explained that the proclamation was intended to mean, “What you write is what you are, respect the movement that moves with you and for you.” Respect the movement? How is a team effort at facilitating an outrageous act of censorship any less disrespectful than the suppression of art carried out by a lone censor - Jeffrey Deitch?

Butoh dancer/performance artist protesting censorship at the opening of "Art in the Streets." The dancer had literally been whitewashed. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

Butoh dancer/performance artist protesting censorship at the opening of "Art in the Streets." The dancer had literally been whitewashed. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

At the April 17th opening of the Art in the Streets exhibit, artists and activists held a protest in front of MOCA to denounce Deitch’s censorship of Blu’s mural, but also to show their opposition to the commodification and marketing of street art. Seeing as how the museum is located in the historic Little Tokyo area of L.A., it was fitting that a major component of the protest was a performance piece based on Butoh, the unique dance-art movement founded in Japan in the late 1950s by choreographers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Independent filmmaker James Knight videotaped the opening night protest, creating an intriguing film he titled Whiteout: Butoh for Blu. In the film’s opening, one protestor, after saying he thought highly of “90 percent of those in the show,” offered the following remark regarding the exhibit, “The question remains - who legitimizes this? Do we really need the market as the driving force in our culture?”

During the opening of "Art in the Streets," this alter was created to commemorate Blu's obliterated mural. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

During the opening of "Art in the Streets," this alter commemorated Blu's obliterated mural. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

One of the Butoh dancers, Khadija Anderson, commented off camera: “I think it’s very dangerous to view MOCA’s reaction to Blu’s antiwar mural by erasing it as anything less than censorship. I believe not to boycott this show after the mural has been buffed would be to go against the very intention of any street art that isn’t about self-aggrandizement. The quickest way to silence dissent is to give the dissenters authority and put them on the payroll.”

On July 10, 2011, the L.A.’s arts magazine, Artillery, sponsored a debate at the Standard Hotel in downtown L.A. concerning topics relevant to this article. Some 100 people representing a wide spectrum of L.A.’s arts community attended the event. I went to hear pro and con arguments regarding: “Eli Broad: How much is too much”, and “Whitewashing MOCA’s mural: censorship or sensitivity?” Winners of the debates were decided by audience applause, and the event was moderated by Artillery magazine’s editor, Tulsa Kinney.

When Kinney began the intro to the debate, before she even finished the sentence -”MOCA’s director Jeffrey Deitch had Blu’s mural whitewashed” - there were loud boos and catcalls from a good portion of those gathered, a clear sign of audience anger towards Deitch. In the debate over the mural’s destruction, artist Anthony Ausgang argued that Deitch was within his rights to eradicate the mural, as MOCA owned the wall and Blu had received compensation. Artillery columnist Josh Herman did not even present a case against the censorship of Blu’s mural, instead he presented an off topic litany of complaints about L.A.’s art scene. Even so, when it came time to vote, the audience overwhelmingly condemned Deitch for whitewashing the mural.

Artist and former director of the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, Mark Steven Greenfield, debated writer and Artillery magazine contributor Ezrha Jean Black on the subject of Eli Broad subsidizing or owning virtually every major cultural institution in the city. Greenfield argued that Broad was a “venture philanthropist” who sought to enhance his public image and expand his influence by controlling and manipulating the city’s arts institutions. Ms. Black took the position that in these days of austerity and shrinking government support, Broad’s money has benefited the arts. She went on to exclaim, “As to the charge that he is a manipulator, oh yeah, it is called ‘good business.’” While Black was pronounced the debate’s winner, some 40 percent of the audience agreed that Broad exercised undue hegemony over the cultural life of L.A. Needless to say, I profoundly disagreed with Ms. Black’s opinion regarding Eli Broad’s pervasive influence, and by extension, the growing domination of corporate power over the arts.

In January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that banned corporations from using their vast wealth to support or oppose candidates for political office. In essence the 2010 Supreme Court decision allows corporations to pump unlimited funding into the coffers of political candidates. The outcome has been the further distortion of the democratic process by giving corporate powers the ability to openly purchase candidates and the legislative process. If it is reprehensible to short-circuit democracy by legitimating the absolute takeover of government by massive corporations, and yes, Fortune 500 plutocrats like Eli Broad, then is it not also unfitting to give control of the nation’s cultural life to those same corporate powers and tycoons?

Eli Broad and his fellow billionaires sitting on the MOCA board of directors fully expected Deitch to pull the museum out of its financial doldrums, and Art in the Streets, Deitch’s first blockbuster extravaganza at MOCA, was concocted as a spectacle to generate large crowds and even larger ticket sales. The show attracted 201,352 visitors during its 16 week run (April 17-Aug. 8, 2011); it would be the highest attended ticketed exhibit in MOCA’s history.

That long-standing capitalist anecdote, “Give the people what they want” (as if they had any real choice in the matter), is pertinent here. I do not believe the role of a museum is to provide an uncritical venue for popular entertainment, any more than I assume a library should be the repository for self-help books, fashion magazines, and cheap romance novels. Deitch’s exhibit was less a “museum survey of graffiti and street art” than it was the positioning of certain artists for acquisition at the next Christie’s and Sotheby’s private art auction (several of the artists in the MOCA exhibit were previously represented by Deitch Projects, which closed in June 2010 as Deitch became director of MOCA).

In 1750 the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, observed that “the arts spread flowery garlands over the iron chains of law, inducing consent without obvious coercion.” Rousseau’s critique seems pertinent here, given that corporate power and men like Mr. Deitch are turning the art world’s remaining shreds of autonomy and integrity into exceedingly bad jokes. As an example of the corporate patronage that has been abetted by Deitch, let us take a look at Levi Strauss & Co. and Nike Inc., both of which were major sponsors of Art In The Streets.

In 2010 Levi’s opened a temporary silk-screen workshop in San Francisco, followed by a photography workshop in New York, a film workshop in Los Angeles (located in MOCA during the street art exhibit), and finally a screen printing workshop in Berlin, Germany in July of 2011. Artists who attended the Levi’s workshops were given access to workspace, equipment, and materials free of charge. During the Art In The Streets show MOCA’s gift shop sold Levi’s denim “trucker jackets” that were emblazoned with art from various street artists, for $250 each. Now consider the following, Levi’s pays Haitian workers 31 cents an hour to manufacture apparel in sweatshops Levi Strauss & Co maintains in Haiti.

In 2009 the Obama administration fought to keep the minimum wage in Haiti to just 31 cents an hour, so that American companies like Levi Strauss, Fruit of the Loom, and Hanes could continue to reap enormous profits from Haitian workers. This is all made very clear in Haiti-related U.S. State Department diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published by the weekly Haitian newspaper Haïti Liberté as well as The Nation. You can read excerpts of the U.S. State Department cables regarding Haiti and Levi’s at the Business Insider, Inc. website.

On July 13, 2011, the Associated Press published an exposé of the abysmal working conditions laborers suffer in Nike’s Asian manufacturing plants, where most of the company’s 1,000 factories are located. Titled Nike Faces New Worker Abuse Claims, the article noted that the 10,000 female workers at the Nike plant in Taiwan make roughly 50 cents per hour; the workers complain of being physically abused by plant supervisors (suffering kicks, scratches, and slaps), and of being fired for registering complaints. Workers in Nike’s Indonesian plants also complain of severe ill-treatment, verbal and physical abuse, extremely low wages, and arbitrary firings.

After the AP released its current findings, Nike promised “immediate and decisive action” to put an end to such abuses. Nonetheless, ever since the 1990s and the following decade, when the company was caught using child labor in Indonesia and Cambodia (involving girls as young as twelve who worked for 22 cents an hour, seven days a week, for sixteen hours a day), the sports equipment giant has said it was “taking steps” to improve working conditions in its Asian plants. It should be noted that while Nike workers in Asia are insulted, physically abused, intimidated, and paid slave wages, Nike Inc. earned $1.91 billion in fiscal year 2010. The company CEO, Mark Parker, received $13.1 million in compensation for fiscal year 2010.

While the word “groundbreaking” was often used to describe MOCA’s Art In The Streets exhibit, the elite art world’s commodification of street art has been ongoing ever since it transformed Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat into international art stars (a special section of the MOCA exhibit featured their works). The crowds of young people that attended Art In The Streets would probably be very surprised to know of Haring’s passion for the book, The Art Spirit, written in 1923 by the American painter and arts educator Robert Henri (pronounced Hen-Rye). A collection of writings and transcribed talks Henri gave to his many art students, the book opens as follows:

“When the artist is alive in any person, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible. The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it. Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit - there will be precious works to fill museums.”

I should add that Robert Henri was the leader of the very first avant-garde art movement in the U.S., “The Eight Independent Painters,” a group that defied the American art establishment in 1908 by painting gritty urban ghetto scenes and portraits of working people instead of saccharine canvases that glorified the wealthy ruling class. For all of their efforts “The Eight” were attacked and maligned by conservative cultural and political circles, and a hostile press christened them the “Apostles of Ugliness.

Henri’s full statement is not only achingly beautiful, it overflows with the undeniable truth about art. While MOCA published a “comprehensive catalogue” to accompany its Art in the Streets exhibit, with a forward by none other than Jeffery Deitch, aspiring street artists would be better off reading Robert Henri’s manifesto from 88 years ago.

Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts

In June of 2009 I wrote The Death of Motor City, an essay on the decline of the U.S. economy and its devastating impact on Detroit, Michigan, an American city once at the very center of the nation’s industrial power but now in a state of near total collapse. My article had much to say about the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), and Detroit Industry, the astounding 27 panel fresco mural that Diego Rivera contributed to the museum’s courtyard.

Much has happened since writing that piece in 2009. As the so-called national “economic recovery” continues to remain a pipedream, social conditions only worsen in Detroit; the city teeters at the brink of bankruptcy. Of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government cuts made or proposed, to me the most shocking is the city’s decision to take almost half of the municipality’s street lights out of service. Roughly speaking that is nearly 40,000 street lights being turned off - permanently. Turning off the street lights in economically depressed neighborhoods endangers the public safety and is an act of criminality. Welcome to America’s “Third World” future.

"Still Life, Three Skulls" - Paul Cézanne. Oil on canvas. 1900. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

"Still Life, Three Skulls" - Paul Cézanne. Oil on canvas. 1900. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In March of this year Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder appointed an “emergency financial manager” to help oversee and implement an austerity budget for the state.

That unelected manager, Mr. Kevyn Orr, has been given sweeping powers to reshape the city of Detroit in order to eliminate its $15 billion debt. In mid-May, Orr’s representatives told the Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal that the museum’s collection might be deemed a “city asset”, and sold off in order to pay creditors if the city goes bankrupt.

Founded in 1885, the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of America’s leading art museums. It houses over 100 galleries and has in its collection over 65,000 works of art. In its holdings are European masterworks by: Jan van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Giovanni Bellini, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas. The DIA also has an impressive collection of American artists: George Bellows, Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, John Singer Sargent, John French Sloan, Andrew Wyeth, and of course, there are the Rivera murals. Wings in the museum hold comprehensive exhibits of Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Islamic, Asian, and African art. I cannot overstate the importance of the Detroit Institute of Arts and its vast collection, both to the people of Detroit and to the people of the United States.

"Detroit Industry" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1932-1933. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, Detroit Institute of Arts © 2013.

"Detroit Industry" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1932-1933. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, DIA © 2013.

In its excellent article of May 23, DIA’s art collection could face sell-off to satisfy Detroit’s creditors, the Detroit Free Press described the enormity of the situation. “The possible forced sale of some of the DIA’s greatest treasures” the paper wrote, “is sending shock waves through the museum world”.

The paper went on to quote the president of the Washington DC based American Alliance of Museums, Ford Bell, who said that if there is a forced sale, “There would be hue and cry the likes of which you’ve never heard. The museum should be a rallying point for the rebirth of Detroit and not a source of funds.” I concur with Mr. Bell’s statement - though I think the time for loud public clamor is right now.

The Detroit Free Press asked art dealers in New York and Detroit to estimate the market value of just 38 of the masterworks in the museum’s holdings; the value was put at around $2.5 billion. Considering the number of celebrated artworks the museum could be forced to sell, that is no doubt a low estimate. Think of Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco, regarded by the artist as his finest work, and like all of his murals, intentionally created as a public work. What is the “market value” of Rivera’s masterwork? How dare anyone even suggest that Rivera’s mural is not held in “public trust”, but instead is nothing more than an “asset” to be placed in private hands. A great number of artworks in the DIA collection were private donations meant as a gift to the public. What really is at issue here is the danger of the nation’s cultural heritage being privatized. What happens to the Detroit Institute of Arts will soon happen to other museums across the U.S.

The crisis faced by the City of Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts should be put in a wider social context. President Obama’s defense budget for Fiscal Year 2014 is $526.6 billion, but as Slate published in its article, Line Item Warfare “(….) this leaves out an estimated $88 billion for overseas military operations (mainly in Afghanistan), $17 billion for nuclear-weapons programs in the Department of Energy, and $7 billion for defense-related programs in other federal agencies—for an actual total of about $638 billion.” God forbid that money be allocated to bail out American cities like Detroit.

"Self Portrait" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on board, mounted to wood panel. 1887. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, Detroit Institute of Arts © 2013.

"Self Portrait" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on board, mounted to wood panel. 1887. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, Detroit Institute of Arts © 2013.

Then there is the April 2013 report that for more than a decade the CIA delivered tens of millions of dollars carried in “suitcases, backpacks, and plastic shopping bags” to the office of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Referred to as “ghost money”, the piles of cash were delivered to Karzai “every month or so”.

The total sum of money gifted to Karzai so far is a secret, but the funds were ostensibly meant to “buy influence” from one of the most corrupt leaders in the world today. Reuters and the New York Times reported that the bags of cash “fuelled corruption and empowered warlords”. No doubt vast amounts of that money fell into the hands of the Taliban, went to the heroin trade, and feathered the nests and foreign bank accounts of Karzai’s crooked relatives and venal cronies.

On May 6, 2013, CNN reported that Karzai held a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he thanked the CIA for the deliveries of cash, and stated that the CIA “promised that they will continue”. Karzai also noted that “This is the choice of the American government”. To state the obvious for those who missed it, while the surreptitious deliveries of U.S. dollars began during the Bush years, President Obama has clearly approved of and extended them. In point of fact, for over four years now Obama has been shoveling “ghost money” at Karzai. In other words, the U.S. government can see to it that tax dollars fill the pockets of a sock puppet like the loathsome Karzai, but it cannot - or will not - help prevent the Detroit Institute of Arts from having to sell off its collection of masterpieces so that the city of Detroit can pay its creditors.

Conversely, on March 11, 2013, the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park Service declared The Epic of American Civilization mural series painted by famed Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco in the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire - to be a “national historic landmark“. Painted between 1932 and 1934, the murals depict the march of humanity in the Americas from a primitive past to an uncertain future offered by industrialization, science, and technology. Dartmouth College commissioned a film that would tell the story of Orozco’s mural. The resulting 22 minute film made by Robert Canton in 1961 reveals just some of the intensity of the masterwork.

Orozco intoned that his mural was significant because it was “an American idea developed into American forms, American feeling, and as a consequence into an American style.” That is an apt philosophical description of the artist’s fresco painting, but it also provides a fitting descriptive account of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the role it plays in U.S. society. My expressing praise over Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization mural being given national historic landmark status, is tempered, no - frustrated, by the callous indifference shown the DIA collection under threat of seizure and privatization. What President Obama offers as a national arts policy is nothing short of a disgrace.

“Please Do Not Enter”

Gustav Klimt: At The Getty

Gustav Klimt exhibit poster at the Getty. Photo by Mark Vallen © 2012

"Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line" exhibit poster at the Getty. Photo by Mark Vallen © 2012

I had the good fortune to see Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line, at the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles, California.

It is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the drawings of the Austrian painter and leading member of the Vienna Secession movement.

Marking the 150th anniversary of Klimt’s birth, the Albertina Museum of Vienna, Austria, loaned over 100 drawings by the artist to the Getty, where the works will be on display until September 23, 2012. A Getty staff person informed me that the exhibit has proven quite popular, with large throngs of visitors being a daily occurrence. There is little wonder as to why.

This may well be one of the more unusual “reviews” of The Magic of Line exhibit, since it brings the reader’s attention to specific histories regarding a certain number of Klimt’s important works, narratives that the Getty/Albertina inexplicably did not present to the public at large.

I felt compelled to write this article when confronted with captions the Getty provided for Klimt’s so-called Faculty Paintings, descriptions that merely stated the works had been “destroyed in 1945″, while the catalog book mentioned that the paintings had been “burned in a fire”. Amazingly, no further details were offered - but more on that later.

It is an understatement to say the dazzling paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) are well known by many, especially his “golden paintings”; it is no surprise that droves would turn out for an exhibit of his art. But The Magic of Line, is not a celebration of the artist’s opulent canvases, rather, it is an examination of Klimt’s black and white drawings, many of which were studies for paintings. Some will no doubt be disappointed that there are but two small paintings in the entire exhibit, a diminutive gouache and watercolor titled The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater (1888-1889), and an oil study for Medicine, one of the large scale canvases comprising the artist’s Faculty Paintings that the Getty/Albertina asserted burned in a fire.

For those artists like myself who busy themselves with creating works of narrative realism, drawing as the very foundation of art is a fundamental principle, and in The Magic of Line one can see how that tenet guided Klimt’s hand in the making of his paintings. Many will be shocked to see Klimt’s academic background in the 1888-1889 sketches he drew as studies for Shakespeare’s Theater, a fresco he painted on the ceiling of the Burgtheater in Vienna. These six black chalk drawings, with highlights of white chalk, are precise, meticulous portraits; they are renditions of the human form that reveal the touch of a master artist.

Gustav Klimt. 1886/87. Black and white chalk. Study for "Shakespeare's Theater" mural, painted at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria.

Gustav Klimt. 1886/87. Black and white chalk. Study for "Shakespeare's Theater" mural, painted at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria.

I gazed intently at Klimt’s Shakespeare’s Theater drawings for some time, in awe of how he captured almost photographic realism with minimal effort; a three quarter view portrait or a “lost profile” captured with a few scant chalk lines - how well Klimt knew human anatomy!

That he eventually reduced his drawing style to the barest minimalism, makes his early drawings the best evidence that an artist must know the rules in order to break them.

Klimt’s eventual approach to drawing is exemplified in his five sketches of Mäda Primavesi, the nine-year-old daughter of Austrian banker, Otto Primavesi. The drawings were studies for an oil portrait executed in Klimt’s highly stylized manner; what makes the studies so remarkable is that they bear little resemblance to the finished painting.

Bereft of shading, modeling, and details normally associated with portraits, the artist’s scribbling nevertheless captured the essence of his young sitter. The lines in Klimt’s sketches are energetic, jangly, nervous, and broken. His squiggles have all the appearance of automatic writing - the strokes and dabbles unconsciously drawn at a séance by someone possessed. That such spareness showed the way to a fully realized and complex portrait is astonishing. Most of Klimt’s late drawings display this same quality.

Contemporary viewers see Klimt’s works from a modern standpoint, accepting his aesthetics and subject matter as pleasant and agreeable. His erotic sketches seem tame by today’s standards, reinforcing the notion that Klimt’s works were uncontroversial for his time, which was not at all true. What fails to come across in The Magic of Line is the outrage expressed by “polite society” towards Klimt’s art. A founding member of the Vienna Secession in 1897, Klimt and his fellow Secession artists meant to upend academic conservatism in the arts; the Secessionists wanted a “revolution” in art, but not one in any overt political sense.

I feel disquietude concerning the Getty/Albertina failing to put Klimt in the context of the reactionary Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867-1918) under which he lived. Austria-Hungary was an imperialist world power during Klimt’s lifetime, and its aristocracy was opposed by many bourgeois political factions hoping to unseat the aristocratic class - if only to step into their shoes. Industrialization, capitalist production, and technological developments changed the face of the absurdly outdated empire, and the Secessionists were part and parcel of the forces seeking reform.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s internal and external tensions could not help but impact Klimt and his fellow artists, though The Magic of Line neglected to point out how. The June 28, 1914 assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, led to the eruption of World War I (1914-1918) exactly one month later. The war claimed the lives of 37 million civilians and soldiers across Europe and brought about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman, and German empires. Klimt did not live to see the total ruin wrought by the conflict, but as his country rushed headlong into World War I, his work turned somber. None of this is mentioned in The Magic of Line.

These minor criticisms pale in comparison to the details that follow, the particulars of which drove me to write this article. The exclusions made in the exhibit are curious, begging the questions, who made them and why? For those reasons the focus of my commentary is an attempt at revealing omitted histories.

The Magic of Line exhibit and accompanying catalog contain omissions having to do with Klimt’s Faculty Paintings. Preliminary sketches for those paintings, plus an oil study for one of them - Medicine - comprise a key portion of the Getty/Albertina exhibit. Yet, when mentioning the ultimate fate of the Faculty Paintings, the exhibit’s wall text and book state that in 1945 the works were either “destroyed” or “burned in a fire”. The destiny of Klimt’s trio of paintings was far more complicated, and tragic, than that; the paintings were willfully destroyed by the Nazis at the close of World War II.

The following places Klimt’s Faculty Paintings in their proper historic context while tracing their chronicles, from being rejected by the University of Vienna, to their ultimate destruction by the collapsing Nazi regime.

Gustav Klimt. Black crayon and pencil. Circa 1900. Study for the mural, "Medicine". The mural was destroyed by the Nazis in 1945. Collection of the Albertina Museum of Vienna, Austria, on view at the Getty.

Gustav Klimt. Black crayon and pencil. Circa 1900. Study for the mural, "Medicine". The mural was destroyed by the Nazis in 1945. Collection of the Albertina Museum of Vienna, Austria, on view at the Getty.

In 1894 Klimt received a commission from the University of Vienna for three massive canvases to adorn the ceiling of the Great Hall at the university, the Faculty Paintings.

Between the years 1900-1907, Klimt presented his paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, to the University - but the works were scorned as obscene. More than eighty members of the University’s faculty expressed indignation over the “perverted” canvases.

Needless to say, the paintings were not hung in the Great Hall as originally intended.

Klimt tried to abrogate his contract with the university and pay back the commission money; even as the university refused to mount the canvases, it also declined to return the works to Klimt, asserting the paintings were the property of the state. The controversy was distressing for Klimt and he never again accepted a government commission.

Eventually one of Klimt’s devoted patrons, the industrialist August Lederer, purchased Philosophy, and Lederer would ultimately end up owning the paintings Medicine, and Jurisprudence as well.

August Lederer (1857-1936) and his wife Serena (1867-1943) befriended Klimt and became major collectors of his art; the two continuing to collect the artist’s works long after his death in 1918. The couple were part of Vienna’s dynamic Jewish community, where Klimt had found many patrons and collectors, not to mention models, portrait subjects, lovers, and intellectual counterparts. Vienna was a city where a great number of prominent and successful Jews chose to settle; but the darkest of nights would soon befall them.

On March 12, 1938, Nazi Germany invaded and “annexed” Austria in a campaign the fascists called “Anschluß” (political union). Hitler’s military occupation would last until March 28, 1945. In the immediate aftermath of the Nazi invasion, Austrian government officials and tens of thousands of Social Democrats, Communists, Socialists, and Jews were arrested. As the occupation intensified, those able to go into exile did so, but most of those targeted by the Nazis and their Austrian fascist collaborators were either killed or sent to concentration camps.

This photo taken by an anonymous photographer during the opening days of the Nazi annexation of Austria shows Nazi collaborators humiliating Jews by having them scrub sidewalks in Vienna. Photo from the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

This photo taken by an anonymous photographer during the opening days of the Nazi annexation of Austria shows Nazi collaborators humiliating Jews by having them scrub sidewalks in Vienna. Photo from the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Jews in Vienna were made to scrub sidewalks, their homes and businesses were looted, their synagogues destroyed. In May of 1938 the Nazis implemented “racial laws” in occupied Austria, stripping the Jewish people of their civil and human rights and forcing them to wear yellow stars.

The Nazis “encouraged” 130,000 Jews to emigrate, commandeering their property and depriving them of Austrian citizenship in the process; the Nazis considered their stolen Jewish property to have been “Aryanized”.

In 1938 the Gestapo seized a number of important art collections from Jewish owners, amongst these the holdings of the Rothschild family, as well as those of the banker Herbert Gutmann and the industrialist Oskar Bondy. Also commandeered were the collections of August and Serena Lederer, which contained a large number of Klimt’s artworks. August had died two years before the Nazi invasion, and after the Lederer collections were confiscated, Serena fled to Budapest.

Exhibit catalog for the "Gustav Klimt Ausstellung" (Gustav Klimt Exhibition) organized by the Nazis in occupied Austria in 1943. Catalog image courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward/Monica Strauss.

Exhibit catalog for the "Gustav Klimt Ausstellung" (Gustav Klimt Exhibition) organized by the Nazis in occupied Austria in 1943. Catalog image courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward/Monica Strauss.

Incredibly, Hitler’s appointed “Reich Governor” of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, staged a major exhibit of Klimt’s artworks in occupied Vienna on February 7, 1943 - around the same time that he was deporting some 65,000 of Vienna’s Jews to death camps in Poland! The Gustav Klimt Ausstellung (Gustav Klimt Exhibition) was comprised of 66 paintings and 34 drawings by Klimt, most of which came from the Nazi confiscated Lederer collection.

In her article Klimt’s Last Retrospective, art historian Monica Strauss said of the Nazi exhibit: “Though nominally a celebration of what would have been the artist’s 80th year, the exhibition was more accurately a display of looted art.”

Given that the Nazis declared all forms of modern art to be degenerate, Schirach’s Klimt exhibit was certainly a deviation from official Nazi policy, but then, Schirach could afford to be eccentric. He was married to the daughter of Hitler’s official photographer, and up until 1940 he had been the appointed leader of the eight million strong “Hitler-Jugend” (Hitler Youth), the official Nazi paramilitary youth organization.

At the start of 1940 Schirach enlisted as a volunteer in the German army and served as an infantry officer in Nazi occupied France; later that year he was appointed Reich Governor of Vienna.

I should note that after the war Schirach was tried before the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal and found guilty of deporting 65,000 Viennese Jews to Nazi death camps in Poland; he was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau Prison.

At the close of Schirach’s Klimt exhibit, Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” was crumbling. The Soviets had won the Battle of Stalingrad against the Nazis - marking the turning point in World War II. The Nazis began to prepare for “total war” with the Allied powers and the Soviets, which led the Nazis to secretly warehouse their looted art treasures taken from all across Europe.

Some of the Nazis’ stolen treasures where kept in tunnels at the Altaussee salt mines located in an alpine village of Austria; most of the artworks in the mines were of Austrian origin - over 7,000 looted objets d’art were stored there. The plunder at Altaussee included the likes of The Astronomer by Vermeer, The Ghent Altarpiece by brothers Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, and The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo. The Lederer collections, which included Klimt’s drawings and canvases for the Faculty Paintings, were transported by the Nazis from Vienna to Schloß Immendorf (Immendorf Castle), located in the Northeast of Lower Austria.

The Nazis warehoused stolen artworks for two reasons. “Degenerate” and “un-German” works were sorted out and sold on the international market for profit. Works the Nazis viewed as iconic of “Aryan superiority” were to be integrated into the Führermuseum, an immense arts complex and repository for all of the art plundered by the Nazis throughout Europe. Hitler wanted the museum constructed in the Austrian city of Linz, which he considered to be his hometown, but fortunately the institution was never built. The Nazi playwright and “Poet Laureate” Hanns Johst wrote a line of dialog in his play, Schlageter that has some relevance here: “Whenever I hear of culture I release the safety-catch of my Browning!” Those few words best embody Nazi thinking vis-à-vis the arts.

Schloß Immendorf (Immendorf Castle). The Austrian castle where a division of the Nazi SS destroyed the collections of August and Serena Lederer in 1945, including many works by Klimt. Black and white photo taken in 1936 by Seering H. Photograph courtesy of the ÖNB - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek ©.

Immendorf Castle. The Austrian castle where a division of the Nazi SS destroyed the collections of August and Serena Lederer in 1945, including many works by Klimt. Black and white photo taken in 1936 by Seering H. Photograph courtesy of the ÖNB - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek ©.

On May 7, 1945, the Nazis signed a formal declaration of surrender with the Soviets and the Allied powers. Barely a week earlier Hitler had committed suicide after the Soviets broke through Nazi defenses to attack Berlin.

To prevent Immendorf Castle and its cache of stolen art from falling into Soviet hands, a division of the Nazi SS placed explosives in the castle on May 8th and then detonated the demolition charges.

The blasts destroyed much of the castle and the ensuing fire burned for days. It was not just the Lederer collection that was obliterated; everything within the castle was destroyed, including significant paintings by Egon Schiele and the collections of the Museum for Applied Arts of Vienna as well as the collections of the Austrian Gallery.

The story of the Faculty Paintings did not end with their destruction at the hands of the SS. Starting in the mid-1980s some Austrians began a serious reconsideration of their nation’s past, resulting in a flood of critical research and articles. In 1985 Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (1956-2006) began looking into the personal history of Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007), who was then seeking election as President of Austria and had previously served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981. Czernin and other Austrian journalists uncovered the fact that Waldheim had been a Nazi officer in a German army unit that had carried out massacres against Serb civilians in Yugoslavia during World War II. The facts did not prevent Waldheim from being elected President of Austria in 1986, but the story crippled his presidency while opening a path to further investigations into Austria’s Nazi past.

The 1998 New York Times article, Austria Is Set to Return Artworks Confiscated From Jews by Nazis, reported that the Austrian government bowed to international pressure in ‘98 by arranging the return to Jewish collectors of some 100 artworks held by Viennese museums. As Hubertus Czernin wrote, “The art was stolen by the Nazis and stolen a second time by the Austrian Government.” The NYT also quoted Konrad Oberhuber (1935-2007), director of the Albertina Museum from 1987-2000, saying the post-war Allied Commission “came to the museum” and “declared there were no problems with the provenance of drawings and graphics in the collection”.  However Mr. Czernin, the NYT wrote, “did not believe the commission had ever been at the Albertina.” The paper also quoted the Baroness Bettina der Rothschild, who said the Albertina had “a lot of our things.”

The Museum Security Network (MSN) has over the years posted many articles on the subject of art looted by the Nazis and the attempts to return those works to their original Jewish owners. Found on the group’s website is the research paper From ‘Legacy to Shame’ to the Auction of ‘Heirless Art in Vienna’: Coming to Terms ‘Austrian Style’ with Nazi Artistic War Booty, written in 1999 by Oliver Rathkolb, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. Rathkolb’s paper is an eye-opener when it comes to describing, in the author’s words, “the rather shabby habit of restitution after 1945″ that had been conducted by Austrian authorities.

In this photo, U.S. Generals Eisenhower (right), Patton (middle), and Bradley (left), inspect some of the looted paintings hidden by the Nazis at the Merkers salt mine in Thuringia, Germany. Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In this photo, U.S. Generals Eisenhower (right), Patton (middle), and Bradley (left), inspect some of the looted paintings hidden by the Nazis at the Merkers salt mine in Thuringia, Germany. Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

After the May 7, 1945 Nazi surrender, Allied armies poured into Austria. The section of the U.S. army that searched for looted art treasures, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) unit, spearheaded a hunt across Europe for artworks plundered by the Nazis. The MFAA located hidden repositories of stolen artworks in Germany as well as in the salt mines of Altaussee and other locations in Austria.

In time the post-war U.S. authorities in Austria turned over the objets d’art to the new Austrian government, which did little to determine the provenance of the works, or arrange for the return of individual artworks and collections to scores of Jewish owners or their descendants. Many of these artworks - plundered from Jewish collectors - simply ended up in Austria’s museums, were some remain to this day.

Art historian Sophie Lillie has played an indispensable role in discovering and presenting the facts regarding art plundered by the Nazis having ending up in Austrian museums. Her 2003 book, Was Einmal War (What Once Was), documented the Nazi theft of Jewish art collections in Austria. Ms. Lillie provided substantial evidence that the Nazis stole 148 major collections; she also exposed the fact that artworks taken from Jewish owners by the Nazis ended up in the collections of major Austrian art institutions like the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and yes… the Albertina museum.

In February of 2009, ARTnews published The Mauerbach Scandal, an informative article about the ongoing work of Sophie Lillie and others who seek the return of cultural property once stolen from Austrian Jewry by the Nazis and now held by Austrian museums and private collectors. The ARTnews article stated that the Austrian government “made no effort to find the rightful owners of the objects until 1969″, and that government archival documents that could prove rightful ownership of art objects were opened “only in 1998, after the Federal restitution law was adopted by the Austrian parliament”. The ARTnews article concluded by saying that regarding Jewish ownership of paintings and art objects once plundered by the Nazis, Ms. Lillie “believes that the responsibility for concealing information about their ownership rests with the Austrian state”. ARTnews also noted that Austria’s Ministry of Finance, which had control over the “ownerless” artworks for years… did not return phone calls from the arts publication.

Given the track record of the Austrian state and museum system - it should come as no surprise that the Albertina Museum would fall silent on the ultimate fate of Klimt’s Faculty Paintings. To avoid even a whiff of controversy, perhaps someone “thought it best” to merely say the paintings were burned in a fire. It is after all a touchy subject that leads directly to the history of the Austrian state’s reluctance to return art treasures stolen by the Nazis from Austrian Jews.