The New York Times takes a very late hit on Fisk University which was embroiled in controversy during the financial crisis over its attempts to sell the Alfred Stieglitz collection to raise money to continue its academic mission. Now the Times reveals that the university sold two paintings—one by Rockwell Kent, another by Florine Stettheimer—at the same time that the school was under attack.
Playing to the knee-jerk prejudice that suggests art that is not in an institution is somehow “at risk,” the Times goes as far as suggesting that the artist herself was negligent in “protecting” her work.
At the center of this supposed controversy is the prejudice against art being an asset. In the case of Fisk University, the art was a very valuable asset that would allow it to continue in its primary mission, educating students, at the cost of a secondary role as custodian of an art collection. And though there are too many museum professionals and their mouthpieces who would advocate an institution betray its primary mission, the story of these sales the Times tells also offers an unintentional illustration of the cost of this kind of bullying.
Because of the uproar and court conflict surrounding the Stieglitz works, Fisk’s leaders were forced to raise cash quickly with a quiet sale to a dealer. What subsequently happened with the Stettheimer shows how Fisk was cheated out of desperately needed cash, not by the dealer, but by those who put their professional status over the needs of an important school like Fisk.
Put bluntly, if Fisk could have sold the Stettheimer at auction, it would have received a much higher price. The Times suggests from its reporting that the work was sold for a low six-figure price then quotes auction house enthusiasm and another dealer who suggested $3m might be a good price for the work (presumably today, not in 2010.) Gerald Peters Gallery, who flipped the painting at the Armory Show in 2012 probably didn’t make $2.5m on the sale. But whatever profit the dealer did rightfully make could have gone directly to Fisk if it was able to auction the work instead of making a quiet sale out of necessity.
The New York Times explains:
The institution was “under duress,” said Patrick Albano of Aaron Galleries, an art dealer from Illinois whom Ms. O’Leary asked to broker the sale.
One painting was Florine Stettheimer’s exuberantly detailed “Asbury Park South.” Its sale represented the first time a major work by Stettheimer, the beloved New York modernist artist and salon hostess, had come on the market in 20 years.
According to Mr. Albano, Fisk decided to sell work by Stettheimer and the well-known illustrator Rockwell Kent, which had been donated to the university with “no strings attached.”
Another dealer ultimately bought the Stettheimer painting, offering it for sale at the Armory Show in New York in 2012. When Michael Rosenfeld, a gallery owner, saw “Asbury Park South,” halfway out of a crate, “I literally got on my knees, and said to the person in the booth, ‘I have to have this painting,’” he recalled. “It was virtually impossible to own a major painting” by Stettheimer, he added. Mr. Rosenfeld scooped it up for an undisclosed amount.
A Prized Stettheimer Painting, Sold Under the Radar by a University (The New York Times)