The publisher and billionaire art collector Samuel I. (Si) Newhouse has quit the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art in New York after buying a 1913 Cubist Picasso painting that was deaccessioned from the museum’s collection. Newhouse, who controls Conde Nast Publications, Random House, and a chain of newspapers, had been on the MoMA board for 27 years.
A museum spokesman said that Mr Newhouse had violated a museum policy that bans trustees from buying works from the institution. In this case, the 1913 Man with Guitar was sold from the collection to raise funds for new acquisitions. The guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) discourage the selling of art from museum collections except for the purpose of buying similar works of art. In this deal, the museum appears to have been acting within those rules. The painting was sold by the museum to an art dealer, said to be Larry Gagosian (from whom Mr Newhouse has purchased many paintings in the past) and then sold to Newhouse for $10 million.
New York State requires that museums which receive government funds deaccession works at public auction, a law established after the Metropolitan Museum of Art surprised donors with the sale of a number of paintings in the Seventies. The Guggenheim’s lucrative sale at Sotheby’s of works by Kandinsky, Modigliani and others in 1990 to buy the Panza di Biuma Collection of Minimal and Conceptual art was condemned as unethical. Yet private museums, like the Guggenheim and MoMA are permitted by New York State law and the AAMD to sell their works privately.
The MoMA board is considered by many to be a billionaire’s club. It includes the cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, David Rockefeller, the real estate mogul Jerry Speyer and others, and no institution likes to lose a wealthy benefactor, especially one whose collection it might covet.
Questions arise about the deeper reasons for Mr Newhouse’s departure at a time when MoMA has still to raise half of the $800 million needed for its renovation and expansion on 53rd Street in Manhattan.
Had Mr Newhouse wanted to remain on the board, he might have handled such an acquisition discreetly, sources say, explaining that collectors usually wait a year or two to purchase a painting. MoMA's director, Glenn Lowry, said that Mr Newhouse's relationship with the museum was “warm, but distant.”
The plutocrat’s departure could not come at a worse time for MoMA. More than 100 of its employees are on strike for higher wages and job security. The museum is also more than two years into a lawsuit over a painting by Egon Schiele on loan from the Rudolf Leopold Foundation in Vienna that is now held by the United States Justice Department (see p.xx). Agnes Gund, president of MoMA, has announced that she will be almost certainly be ending a thirty-year involvement with the museum in 2001, although she deinies that it has anything to do with the museum’s problems.
Si Newhouse has been an important benefactor of other cultural institutions in New York. Now that he has left MoMA, another museum may well try to bring him onto its board. Newhouse’s wife recently published a book on museum architecture and the cafeteria in Conde Nast’s new headquarters is designed by Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Guggenheim Bilbao and has produced plans for a new Guggenheim outpost in downtown Manhattan. Could the Guggenheim be waiting in the wings for Si?
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "'Warm but distant': Museum of Modern Art’s relations with former trustee"
Update: a 2020 Vision
In the controversial field of museum deaccessioning, the Museum of Modern Art has a clear advantage. Secondary and tertiary works in its collection have high market value—and the MoMA brand adds more. The Picasso Si Newhouse stepped down from the board in order to buy, for a reported $10m, has not yet appeared on the market, but other works have after the publishing magnate died in 2017. They include Jeff Koons’s Rabbit, which set a record for a living artist when it sold at Christie’s for $91m last year. And although MoMA has been nurtured by the Rockefellers and other wealthy families, it still regularly sells valuable art from its collection to buy more valuable art. Back in in 1989, MoMA bought Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin with funds from deaccessioning works. And in 2004, MoMA sold nine paintings at auction—including a Picasso landscape from the artist’s early transition to Cubism—for more than $25m to fund acquisitions as it moved back into its newly expanded home in mid-town Manhattan. MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, who has defended deaccessioning more than any head of a major US museum (and is paid more than $2.2m annually), told an interviewer: “We live and die by the amounts of money we can raise privately.” — David D'Arcy