The New York Times
October 31, 2003

Selling Off Yesterday's Art to Make Way for Tomorrow's

By ALISON LEIGH COWAN

RIDGEFIELD, Conn., Oct. 29 —In a cavernous building in Binghamton, N.Y., that once housed a giant supermarket, the walls are lined with works that run the gamut of 20th-century art. By Sunday, when the entire collection arrives, there will be hand-colored etchings by Salvador Dalí, a 1908 sketch by Fernand Léger, a 1967 print by Roy Lichtenstein and a working 1985 Chrysler LeBaron that was called "Endless Summer" eight years ago when Joel Otterson turned it into art.

It all belongs to the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art here, but every last item is for sale. In fact, no reasonable bids will be refused. To carry out its plan to sell everything in its collection, the Aldrich turned to an upstate New York auctioneer, Bob Connelly, who ordinarily handles items like watches, classic cars and other merchandise.

The museum's collection, samples of which will be available for viewing on Friday and Saturday in Cleveland, will go on sale on Nov. 8 in the Binghamton building. Bidders may also participate by phone and, in a limited way, over the Internet (www.bobconnelly.com). The museum says it expects every last object to be sold, because it has not attached a reserve price, or minimum bid, on any item.

The assistant director of the museum, Richard Klein, acknowledged that the sale is almost without precedent, one reason that it has caught the eye of the Connecticut attorney general, who said this week that he had some concerns. But Mr. Klein and the Aldrich's director, Harry Philbrick, said the usual taboos about selling art from a museum were hard to square with the mission of an institution devoted to art of the moment.

Certainly other contemporary-art museums have wrestled with the question whether to keep holdings whose creators represent the past. Five years ago the Museum of Modern Art in New York parted with two van Goghs worth more than $40 million because the donor had stipulated long ago that she did not want the museum to have them once they ceased to be au courant.

In this case, Aldrich officials say the sale is not about money because they expect to clear less than $50,000 after expenses. That, according to Mr. Klein and Mr. Philbrick, is far less than the $200,000 for which the collection is insured and hardly material for an institution with a $1.5 million annual operating budget and a $7.5 million renovation and expansion under way.

They also said that life was always easier for institutions whose stock in trade is household names and so the Aldrich should not be faulted for its decision to showcase artists who, almost by definition, are unknowns. "Sure, it is a challenge, but someone has to do it," Mr. Klein said.

He contends that the sale is meant to honor, not subvert, the wishes of Larry Aldrich, the clothing designer who founded the museum in 1964 near his weekend home in Connecticut and almost singlehandedly built its collection. Mr. Aldrich, who sold his own French Impressionists to raise the money to start the museum, was chairman in 1981 when, according to Mr. Klein, the board resolved to divest itself of its collection and refocus the museum's mission: showing an ever-changing roster of art-world newcomers whose work it would exhibit but not own.

Some artworks were then sold or given to other institutions, Mr. Klein said, but much of the collection was put in storage and was unavailable for viewing. The sales slowed after Mr. Aldrich became ill and retired from the board in 1991. He died in 2001, at 95.

This year, when the museum was closing so it could get its new 19,000-square-foot annex ready to open next spring, its officials seized the opportunity to find new homes for the remaining 330 or so works in the collection rather than pay to store them elsewhere.

One of the first things they did was hire someone to track down artists whose work the museum owned, "as a gesture of support," said Amy Gabowski, the museum's spokeswoman. The last thing the museum wanted to do, officials said, was harm the market for the artists' work if the pieces failed to sell. The artists were told they could have the work at no charge on condition that they fetched the items or arranged shipping. Mr. Klein said roughly 75 works were reunited with their creators.

That left 257 items whose creators declined to reclaim them, could not be found or were no longer alive. That group will be auctioned off together with 53 items belonging to Mr. Aldrich's heirs.

Mr. Philbrick and Mr. Klein both play down the value of what was given away and what is left, noting that only a fraction were by artists whose names mean much to the general public, and some of those items are limited editions, not one-of-a-kind works. "Frankly, there is a certain percentage of works in this collection I just don't know if anyone's going to be interested in," Mr. Klein said.

Others in the art world interviewed this week tended to support the Aldrich's decision to let go of the past, once they learned the particulars. "It doesn't sound to me that this is a case of people giving away the store just to get rid of it," said Willard Holmes, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. "My impression is they are doing this in a logical and thoughtful manner," especially, he said, given what the costs of maintaining a collection that is not being exhibited.

Still, the Aldrich museum may have breached its fiduciary duty to donors by giving away parts of its patrimony without demanding much in return, said Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, who is the chief overseer of nonprofit organizations in the state. "The long and the short of it is no one has consulted us," he said.

He said he would look into the question of donor intent and the giveaway of art that preceded the coming auction. Even if Mr. Aldrich always "meant there to be turnover in the museum's assets, he didn't mean for the assets to be wasted or squandered," Mr. Blumenthal said.

He said he, too, was sympathetic with the museum's desire to help new artists. "But," he added, they also "need to follow the law."

On Wednesday museum officials said they were not overly concerned by the attorney general's sudden interest in the sale. "The main concern is whether any of the material we're selling is restricted, and as far as we're concerned, none of it is," Mr. Klein said. As for the trickier question of whether the museum has given anything of real value to the artists who reclaimed their work, Mr. Philbrick pointed out that museums like the Aldridge "do, in effect, give things to artists all the time."

The example he offered may be more precious to unknown artists than many works of art: the chance to show their work for the first time. "In many cases we're giving the artists their first exposure anywhere," he said.


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