Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cleveland Purges More Than 10% of Its Old Masters Paintings in Sell-Off at Sotheby's

In what's being referred to as the "largest sell-off from its collections in more than half a century," the Cleveland Museum of Art is purging itself of 32 of its Old Masters paintings.  They'll be on sale (including the landscape by 17th-century Dutch artist Philips Wouwermans, below) at Sotheby's January 27 and 28.

The thing is, Cleveland's Old Masters collection is none too large to begin with -- just something over 200 works.  That means that its Old Masters paintings will be reduced by more than 10%.  And Cleveland is pruning its holdings when it's in the middle of a renovation that will expand its gallery space by 30 percent.

The museum insisted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that it's not about the money.  Instead, it's spinning the sale as one about quality, pointing to two works acquired as Tiepolos being no longer accepted as autograph and a Bernardo Strozzi being so overcleaned as to be "a mere shadow of its former self."

Still, it admits that "the money is certainly helpful."

Indeed.  According to its most recent annual report, its investments and charitable perpetual trusts have declined precipitously, from $821 million in June 2007 to $560 million in June 2009.  In 2009, the museum eliminated 41 of its 300 staff positions and instituted rolling salary cutbacks.

Then there's the massive renovation project, begun in 2005 and not scheduled to be completed until 2016.  It's projected to cost $350 million, with a third of that yet to be raised.  "The renovation and expansion of the museum stands to play a leadership role in shaping the region's quality of life and economic rebirth," the website brags.

An economic rebirth in Cleveland, one of the country's most depressed areas in the chronically depressed state of Ohio?  Dream on.

Build a museum, get rid of the art.