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Sublime painting hits auction block

Carol Vogel’s art and the economy piece in the NY Times this morning is just too sad. (NY Times user id=lrrfartblog; password=artblog) It’s about a great public institution — the NY Public Libary — and its struggle to remain great after being hit hard by the post-911 economic downturn. The story comes at a time when the Philadelphia Free Library is also embattled due to funding cutbacks and rising cost of books and other materials.

The constant nibbling away at the country’s cultural infrastructure by the economy is disturbing. Gone are the days when private philanthropists have the dough to rush in and save the institutions. Gone also are the days when a philanthropist would have the public-spirited thought to do so. Government eschews its obligation towards the nation’s cultural institutions preferring instead to fund stadiums or casinos. Where will this end?

Anyway, on the block at Sotheby’s will be a work of art I remember seeing and loving (although I didn’t see it at the Library) — Asher B. Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits.” The painting was part of the great, travelling “American Sublime” exhibition organized by the Tate Museum in 2002. The show came to PAFA several years ago. (pictured above is Durand‘s “Kindred Spirits”)

Quoting from Vogel’s story:

Among the works to be sold – 15 paintings and 4 busts – the overwhelming star is Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849), which is named for a phrase in a Keats sonnet and depicts the painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant standing on a rocky ledge overlooking the Catskills. That painting and most of the others being sold have been on public view in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the main library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

“Kindred Spirits” was commissioned by Jonathan Sturges, one of Durand’s most important patrons, as a gift for Bryant and remained in Bryant’s family until it was donated to the library by his daughter, Julia, in 1904. Although Ms. Mitchell declined to say what she believed the painting was worth, experts in the field suggested that it could fetch $25 million to $30 million.

Also being sold, two Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington and a portrait of Francis Deering Atkinson by John Singleton Copley.

The big culprit is the economy:

[Paul] LeClerc [Director of the Library] said the soaring cost of books and research materials, coupled with city and state cutbacks and the shrinkage of the library’s endowment as a result of the tepid stock market performance after Sept. 11, 2001, left the library with little choice but to sell the artworks to continue expanding its collection. The library owns some 43.3 million research materials, including 15.5 million books.

Fund-raising at the library has remained strong, he said, but the library has sought to channel much of that money toward restoring the branch hours that it reduced for financial reasons after 9/11.

In 2000, the library’s endowment hit a high of $530 million, but because of 9/11 it dropped to $426 million by the end of 2002. Since then, the endowment has grown to roughly what it was at four years ago. “But during those four years we lost a huge amount of purchasing power,” Mr. LeClerc said. “There was not sufficient revenue to support growth.”

“Inflation meant that with the same amount of money we were buying fewer books or passing up collections we wanted,” he said. “Had we been growing at our projected 8 percent a year, we would have had $18 million” – versus the $13 million it had this year to buy books. It would take $100 million in new endowments well invested, he said, to generate the $5 million in income that the library needs.

Unlike museums, which generally charge admission to supplement revenue, public libraries are, of course, free. The New York Public Library relies on private sources for 70 percent of its financing, Mr. LeClerc said. Asked if he expected a benefactor would emerge to enable the library to keep the artworks, he simply said no.