Why do they squirrel all that art away?

Fernand Leger: The Smokers

How often has it happened that Emsworth has made his way to the doors of a notable art museum, far from his Rochester home, only to find that its famed collection is not being exhibited?

We speak not of cases in which a museum is closed for renovations (will the Cleveland Museum of Art ever reopen?), but of museums that stubbornly choose to display anything and everything in their galleries other than their own paintings and sculptures.

(For example, Fernand Leger’s The Smokers, owned by the Guggenheim and one of the cubist painter’s masterpieces, was decidedly not on display during a recent visit by Emsworth.)

Nothing is more frustrating to art museum junkies like Emsworth. Let us catalog the chief culprits:

Max Beckmann: Paris Society

1. The Guggenheim Museum (Fifth Avenue, Manhattan). The most egregious by a landslide. The Guggenheim owns one of the finest collections of modern art anywhere — dazzling works by Picasso, Mondrian, Modigliani, Franz Marc, and Ernest Kirchner. And what Kandinskys!

Yet for years, disappointment has awaited the modern art lover who hoped to see more than a few of these works when in New York City. (Max Beckmann’s Paris Society, owned by the Guggenheim, was not on display during a recent visit by Emsworth.)

Emsworth took another chance on the Guggenheim again just a couple of weeks ago. You know (the ticket-seller asked me) that it’s mostly just photographs right now, don’t you? I did know it, having seen a poster announcement when I finally entered the building. It wasn’t what I came for, but I’d waited so long in line that I went in anyway.

By my actual count, the Guggenheim was exhibiting only eleven works of art from its collection: two paintings by Franz Marc, two by Chagall, one each by Kirchner and Jawlensky, and five early Kandinskys. Not even the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser collection was on display.

We didn’t want to waste our money, so we visited the photography exhibit, a retrospective of Catherine Opie. She was a new artist for us, and we can report that she has a keen eye for urban landscape and also an interest in what the exhibit termed “queer culture.” We rolled our eyes at a pretentious description of a group of photos as “Opie’s most complex investigation of community to date” and wished there had been more Kandinskys to see.

Frederick Carl Frieseke:Hollyhocks

2. National Academy of Design (also on Fifth Avenue, just north of the Guggenheim). The crimes of the management here are remarkable.

No chance of seeing either Frederick Carl Frieseke’s Hollyhocks or Asher Durand’s The Evening of Life at the National Academy of Design, which squirrels them away in storage somewhere.

We walked into the Fifth Avenue mansion which the National Academy occupies, bought our ticket, and were then told that there was nothing to see but exhibits of George Tooker and Henry Blakelock in galleries on the fifth floor.

Asher Durand: The Evening of Life

But in a nearby atrium a large plaque gave the history of the institution and informed me that the National Academy has a collection of more than 3,000 works of American art from the 19th and 20th centuries, including works from the Hudson River School, the tonalists, the American impressionists, the Ashcan painters, and the modernists. Our heart quickened; surely the ticket man was mistaken.

I spent some time in the exhibits (which, in fairness, were excellent, especially the Tooker), and when I saw the ticket seller again, I asked him again about the 3,000 pieces of art. You might ask this lady about it, he said — she’s the director.

I turned and intercepted a woman walking by, who interrupted my question to say that the Academy now actually had over 5,000 works. They weren’t ordinarily displayed, she told me, in a tone that suggested she was weary of the question. Wasn’t it a shame, I asked, that such a fine collection should be kept in storage? Well, she said, next year sometime we’re going to make a point of having at least some of the collection on display.

Total number of works of art from the National Academy’s permanent collection on display? Two, that I counted — a Tooker and a Blakelock. They were part of the exhibits.

Hopper: Ground Swell

3. The Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., just north of the White House). The Corcoran has a fine, comprehensive collection of both American and European art. At least, we think so. For in perhaps half a dozen hopeful visits to the Corcoran over the last 25 years, we’ve seen only bits and pieces of it. (For example, Edward Hopper’s Ground Swell. We’ve never seen it at the Corcoran.)

As far as we can tell, there aren’t any galleries in the Corcoran regularly dedicated to its permanent collection. The management seems to think that it’s enough, every now and then, for it to cobble together an “exhibition” of works from the permanent collection. There are a couple such exhibits there now. But one never gets a sense of the entire collection.

The Corcoran is big on high-profile exhibits like the retrospective of Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, that we ran into last year, or of the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, which amazed us a while back. But shows like that are unsatisfactory when you can’t wander through the rest of the museum and put them in context with other art.

Alfred Sisley:The Loing at Saint Mammes

4. The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). At times we’ve actually been a card-carrying member of the MFA, so we feel fully justified in complaining that a good part of its magnificent collection of European impressionists hasn’t been seen in Boston for years, like Alfred Sisley’s The Loing at Saint Mammes. At least, we never see them when we’re there. Our frustration is compounded by our strong suspicion that the MFA has, in fact, been selling its members and visitors short by renting out the Sisley and other masterpieces to a casino in Las Vegas.

Max Weber: Chinese Restaurant

5. The Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City). The Whitney has 12,000 works. It could easily fill up a couple of floors of galleries with its permanent collection, as the Museum of Modern Art does. (Your chances of seeing Max Weber’s 1915 cubist masterpiece, Chinese Restaurant at the Whitney, which owns it? Slim.)

But no. I’ve virtually given up visiting the Whitney, even though it has many of my favorite paintings, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen more than two or three galleries worth of its permanent collection. And as with many art museums, it’s virtually impossible to get a sense, from visiting its website, how much of the permanent collection can actually be seen at any given time.

(October 30, 2008)


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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Marjorie, thanks for that! We’re doing Mike Albert and Blue Dog next year, or plan to. I tried to think of a good project using a Rochester artist, but for various reasons, we settled on two artists conducive to quick, self-contained projects at the school.

  2. The Art Ambassadors program is great. Please let us know if we can be helpful at all.

  3. Marjorie, Maria, thanks to both of you for coming in with information! I’ve lived here just three years, and it certainly won’t be another three before I visit the MAG again. Maria, the upcoming show sounds great!

    Incidentally, I’m one of the “Art Ambassadors” at my daughter’s school (Thornell Road Elementary). We put together presentations and activities for two or three artists a year and get the kids involved with them. We’ve started brainstorming next year’s show, and I made a suggestion or two based on artists I saw at the Gallery.

  4. Kip: You JUST missed the Tooker, as it was on view for 10 weeks in our last exhibition, “Wine and Spirit.” It’s a great painting, and I’m sure it will be returning to the walls before long.

    Emsworth: I can’t tell you how happy I was to know that you remember our “treasures from storage” series from so many years ago — we had so much fun with that. You might be interested to know (and this is a scoop, as it hasn’t yet been publicly announced)that we’re currently working on an exhibition for spring of 2013 that will bring out literally hundreds of objects from our vaults, many of which probably haven’t been seen in living memory. Paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings, ceramics, tribal art, textiles, jewelry, etc., etc. — plan to be amazed!

  5. I stand corrected! Obviously I couldn’t have seen the Tooker at the MAG after all, though I surely did see it as part of the National Academy exhibition — and then deceived myself into thinking I’d seen it before.

    Ms. Searl, thank you for your comment. Please note that my original post did NOT identify the MAG as one of the art museums that failed to exhibit its permanent collection. Any regular patron of the MAG knows that you’re making good use of the space you have.

  6. The Tooker has been in the Gallery collection for only four years. For a part of that time, it was in a travelling exhibition organized by the National Academy of Design. We do not ‘squirrel things away’ deliberately or to keep it away from the public. Indeed, our intent is completely the opposite. If you pay a visit to MAG and find that your favorite artwork is not on view, chances are good that it is: 1) on loan to another venue or 2) at a conservation lab being treated. We are delighted that the commenter missed the Tooker and we hope to put it back on view soon. Any contribution for the construction of more exhibition galleries at MAG would be welcome, as well, so that more of the collection could be on view at any given time! I welcome all questions of this type so that I can provide answers to people who want to know.

  7. Kip,

    I’ve SEEN the Tooker at the MAG, but not for years. Who knows why not? I don’t think you missed it by accident. Surely he was a first-rank contemporary artist. I really loved the Tookers in the exhibition mentioned in this post.

    Several years ago, in connection with some visiting exhibition, the MAG set up a small gallery devoted to paintings from its collection that it hardly ever exhibited. I wish they’d do that on a regular basis.

    Have you been reading the news about the Whitney recently? Seems that they’re going to move to a new larger facility farther downtown. I hope that means they’ll have generous space for showing the permanent collection. And it appears that the Met is going to take over the existing Whitney building for space to exhibit contemporary art.

  8. I’ll throw in another vote for the Whitney. I went there, all excited, 25 years ago to see Tooker’s “The Subway,” only to find that they didn’t have it out. I bought a poster. Yay. Poster.

    Speaking of Tooker, I visited the Memorial Gallery here in Rochester today. They have a book of Tooker, but I didn’t see any on the walls. According to some document I found in a search, they have his painting “Supper.” Are they hiding that, too, or am I just bad at finding things?

  9. Lily Bart:

    Your nomination of the Tate Britain is welcome and no doubt well-deserved. Regrettably, during my first and so far only visit to London two years ago, even though we took in as many art museums as we could during the week that we had, we didn’t get to the Tate Britain and were thus spared its disappointments.

    But the Tate Modern was an enormous letdown. I expected to see a grand collection on a par with the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, or the Pompidou Center in Paris. But the management seemed to be treating the permanent collection as an after-thought — not much space given over to it, and such as the galleries were, hopelessly disorganized.

    Postcards of works not on display have long been a major source of irritation to me, too.


  10. You are my idol. I have been saying this for years. May I add the Tate Britian to that list? I’m an amatuer Whislter nut and they never exhibit their wonderful Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge or Harmony in Grey and Green, Miss Cicely Alexander. To make matters worse, they placed Whistler books next to works on Ruskin in the bookstore which seemed disrespectful. And the dreadful Tate “Modern” is a disorganized mess. Did this all start with John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing?” I could go on. So sorry to digress. It is a sad day when the post cards in the museum book shop remind one of the great works owned by the museum, but off limits to the art lover. What a tease those cards are. Your site is fabulous! I wish I could get in the car and drive to Miss Griswold’s Boarding House tomorrow. Thank you so much.

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