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Kindred Spirits: Art And Money

by Jonathan Mandell, May 24, 2005
 What would the lions in front of the New York Public Library fetch at auction? This seems a reasonable question, given that the New York Public Library recently sold off one of the most celebrated paintings in the city, “Kindred Spirits” by Asher Durand -- hanging for decades in the main library, now being shipped, astonishingly, to Bentonville, Arkansas, hometown of Wal-Mart. Will it become Wal-Art? Are the two marble lions next?

The daughter of the founder of Wal-Mart, Alice Walton, bought "Kindred Spirits" this month reportedly for at least $35 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting by an American artist -- though, since it was bought at a "silent auction" at Sotheby's, the parties involved are denying the public even the right to be told what the precise purchase price was, much less have any say in the disposition of what we previously were told was a public treasure.

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Art-lovers have reacted with outrage. Francis Morrone in the New York Sun called it "New York's most egregious act of self-desecration since the demolition of Pennsylvania Station," Michael Thomas in the NY Observer deemed it a "sorry affair," a "scandal", a "dirty deed," and an example of "institutional philistinism"; to the library's explanation that the sale was needed to raise funds for book and manuscript acquisition, he wrote: "I find the arithmetic unpersuasive." New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman condemned the sale in three separate articles (so far), labelling the painting “a civic landmark,” and arguing , with a kind of eloquently restrained anger, that it should at least have been kept in New York. The painting certainly has New York all over it: In it, the (New York) painter Thomas Cole stands on a ledge with the (New York) poet William Cullen Bryant in the (New York) Catskills. “A grand inherent irony” of the sale, CBS correspondent Morley Safer added a few days later, is that “all that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates.”

A week after the sale of “Kindred Spirits,” a front-page article in the Times questioned the decision by the New York City Opera to allow “Atsushi Yamada, a one-time Sony salaryman without conservatory training or a single English-language review to his name” to conduct the company in a tour of Japan for which Yamada helped raise nearly $2 million from Japanese businesses.


"Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand -- from NY Public Library to Wal-Art in Arkansas
Both stories are but the latest incidents to suggest that, public institution or not, money is what matters these days in the arts. Examples abound. Cultural institutions are now much more likely to be named after people with money than people with talent: On Broadway, the Helen Hayes, the Gershwin and the Eugene O’Neill Theaters have been joined by the American Airlines Theater, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and the Cadillac Winter Garden; this month, Gerald Schoenfeld renamed one of the theaters he owns as chairman of the Shubert Organization after himself. Museums offer exhibitions that are little more than paid advertisements for the corporations that gave money to mount them: "Every year, in one way or another, museums test the public's faith in their integrity," Kimmelman wrote recently, in an article entitled "Art, Money and Power", which laments such cultural commercials as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “current Chanel-sponsored Chanel show, a fawning trifle that resembles a fancy showroom."

Why is this happening?

One can chalk it up to our commercial culture, which finds money more interesting than mere art. Type “art and money” into Google, and get more than 70 million results. Type "art and beauty"? "Art and meaning"? Nowhere near as many. This is why supporters of the arts have learned to sound like economists -- talking about the arts as an “economic engine” etc. -- a book is more likely to make the news if its author gets a big advance, and a movie these days is judged primarily by the money it makes; is there a newspaper in America that doesn't now list weekend movie grosses?

But there is another reason -- the arts are desperate for funds.

The Budget Ballet

It is certainly relevant to point out that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget for the arts this coming fiscal year, about $105 million, is 12 to 15 percent less than last year's budget (depending on whose analysis you read); and the budget for the public libraries of New York, separate from the one for the arts, shows a decrease of about 10 percent from the previous year. (Reading the library budget is complicated by a Byzantine accounting procedure by which a huge chunk of funding from last year has been deemed “prepayment” for the coming year.) But it would be misleading to focus exclusively on the 2006 executive budget.

For one thing, the mayor and the City Council are still in negotiations, and the exact amounts will change by the deadline of June 30th. For another, the budget process is almost a kind of performance art -- a budget ballet, where the mayor cuts, and the City Council restores -- repeated with little variation year after year.

The bottom line is that the bottom line hasn’t changed much in the city, no matter who the mayor is. Just look at the numbers: The supposedly pro-arts Mayor Bloomberg is proposing to spend $105.4 million on the arts in fiscal year 2006, out of a total operating budget of nearly $50 billion. Eleven years ago, under the supposedly anti-arts Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the arts budget was $96 million -- just $10 million less, at a time when the total operating budget was some $18 billion less. In other words, the percentage of the total operating budget dedicated to the arts in fiscal year 1995 was less than a quarter of one percent. The percentage of the total operating budget dedicated to the arts in fiscal year 2006 (even after the inevitable additions negotiated with the City Council) is sure to be even less than that.

What Ever Happened To The Poor, Pure, Starving Artist?

Linda Ferber does not complain about the funding. “The city is a great partner,” she says. Still, she has to acknowledge that money is tight. “All cultural institutions work very, very hard to program within limits.”

Ferber is a museum curator, currently for the Brooklyn Museum, soon to be the director of the museum at the New-York Historical Society. Right now, she is walking in a high-ceilinged gallery on the second floor of the society, where she is serving as the guest curator for "Nature And The American Vision," an exhibition that coincidentally opened the same week as the sale of "Kindred Spirits" and includes, among other exemplary works from the Hudson River School of New York-based landscape painters, some two dozen paintings by Asher Durand.

"This is an early Durand," she says, stopping at a painting from 1844, called "The Solitary Oak." "Look at the light, the luminous glow," she says. "It confers on that tree an almost religious aura."

A century and a half after Durand created it, the painting now has a special aura for a different reason. "The record price for an American painting is considered newsworthy," Ferber says, "and people will become curious about the painter."

For all her savvy and experience, Ferber was shocked when she heard the news about the sale of Durand’s masterwork to the Wal-Mart heiress. She had been planning the first major retrospective of Durand's work in three decades, an exhibition scheduled to open at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. “Before this sale, one could have put together an entire show just from what was available in New York -- that’s how much of a New York artist he was,” Ferber said. “Now, a key work has gone.” The library had promised to lend "Kindred Spirits” for the Brooklyn Museum show. “We hope we’ll still be getting it,” Ferber says.

She cannot remember a time when she didn’t know about “Kindred Spirits.” ”It’s such a famous image that a lot of people who would recognize the painting probably don’t know who painted it.” Durand was commissioned to create “Kindred Spirits” a year after Thomas Cole’s death as a gift for William Cullen Bryant. (It was Bryant’s daughter who eventually gave it to the library.) The title, meant to commemorate the friendship between Cole and Bryant, comes from a phrase in a poem by John Keats, who believed the "highest bliss" is Nature enjoyed by "two kindred spirits."

It is easy to consider all the lofty devotion to art and beauty and Nature that emanates from this one painting, and to wonder -- in this age of artist as entrepreneur -- what has happened to the idea of the poor but pure artist? Where is today’s Vincent van Gogh, who sold only one work of art during his lifetime, but who eventually changed the way we look at art –- and, ok, whose “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was sold in 1990 for the highest price ever paid for a painting, $82.5 million (a figure surpassed last year by Picasso’s "Boy With A Pipe," which sold for $104 million)? Are the only “kindred spirits” these days art and money?

To art historians like Linda Ferber, the poor, pure artist has always been “a romantic image” -- a polite way of saying fake -- creating a misleading sense of artists as being apart. The truth is, of the four artists connected to the painting “Kindred Spirits,” only John Keats fits the image – broke…exploited…starving…tubercular, dead at 25. (And even he studied to be a surgeon.) Thomas Cole, though he died relatively young at 47 after a sudden illness, was America's most successful landscape painter. William Cullen Bryant, in addition to being a poet, was a lawyer, editor and part owner of The New York Evening Post, who helped in the creation of both Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And Asher Durand?

"He made money," Ferber explains. "Literally."

Durand was an engraver who created the intricate designs for banknotes. Even after he switched careers, he helped found and was president of the National Academy of Design, part of whose purpose was to nurture the marketplace for art. ”Durand was in the best sense of the word an organization man,” Ferber says.“He was a dedicated artist, but he was also a pragmatic businessman.”

His paintings helped inspire people to start touring the countryside, which led to the birth of an entire industry, tourism. But he was such a New Yorker that, while on a grand tour of Europe, he wrote home: “I shall enjoy a sight of the signboards in the streets of New York more than all the pictures of Europe.” There is no evidence that he ever set foot in Arkansas.

 


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