Wadsworth exhibits private furniture collection destined for the market
Museum says collector has pledged to donate 30 works
By Jason Edward Kaufman. Museums, Issue 196, November 2008
Published online: 09 November 2008
NEW YORK. An exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford includes 166 pieces of Stickley furniture and related decorative objects that belong to a private collector who openly admits he plans to sell the bulk of them. “At Home with Gustav Stickley: Arts and Crafts from the Stephen Gray Collection” (until 4 January) exemplifies the ethical ambiguities that can arise when museums show private collections. Though Stephen Gray says he may donate some objects to the museum, most of his collection will be sold “to take care of my family”, he says. “There will be a liquidation and [the proceeds will be] used for that purpose. I have no tangible assets other than my collection.”
Museums rarely show dealer collections because “it would look like you were hawking someone’s wares”, observes Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums (AAM), which, along with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), sets guidelines for art museums in North America. But the same issues arise when showing private collections destined for the market. Mr Bell says that AAM guidelines make no distinction between loans from private collectors and dealers, recommending that borrowed works be consistent with the museum’s mission and the intellectual integrity of an exhibition, and that they should not present conflicts of interest such as a contemplated sale. The Wadsworth show appears to contradict these guidelines.
“I am not out actively to sell anything in my collection and I am not trying to sell anything that’s in the museum,” says Mr Gray. But he adds: “If someone comes to me because they saw something in a museum or in my house and say they’d be interested in buying that, I may be interested.” Mr Gray insists that he is not a dealer and does not sell material that belongs to other owners. But he acknowledges that he has “probably sold over the course of 30 years a few hundred things”. He says: “Most collectors operate like that. They all do a little bit of business.”
Susan Talbott, who became director of the Wadsworth after the exhibition was on the calendar, says that Mr Gray has promised to donate 30 pieces to the museum, including 16 by Stickley, mainly from a dining ensemble on display. Mr Gray says: “There’s no contract. If I’m going to give them something it will be stipulated in my will.” But Ms Talbott insists the promise is “ironclad”. “Our legal counsel says it’s legitimate,” she told The Art Newspaper. “We were very satisfied with the written document. There is absolute clarity, we are not concerned and feel very confident that a promised gift is a promised gift.”
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