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At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Christmas starts four days early this year. On Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2004, the Met's latest acquisition, Duccio di Buoninsegna's Madonna and Child, executed ca. 1300, goes on view (until Mar. 13, 2005). Only reproduced in color for the first time last year, the tempera and gold-wood panel is estimated to have cost the museum more than $45 million. Met director Philippe de Montebello says that he knew the work "belonged at the Met" in a brief 25 seconds. At a recent press gathering, as he was projecting details of the work on a screen for the gathered journalists, de Montebello said, "I don't need to say much more about it." For him, the Duccio is "transformative to the collections." Quoting Met curator of European paintings Keith Christiansen, the director added, "Don't confuse the physical size of the picture with imagination and response." According to de Montebello, "This is a season devoted to the Italian Renaissance." The museum is presenting "From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master," Feb. 1-May 1, 2005, an exhibition of 50 important works from 33 museums in Europe and the U.S. One highlight of the show involves Fra Carnevale, a native of Urbino who trained in Florence, and who in modern times has been known as the Master of the Barberini Panels. One of his most important works, a Birth of the Virgin, from the Met's collection, is being reunited with a companion painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. And the Met's Virgin and Child by Fra Fillipo is being reunited with its two wings, one of which comes from a museum in Tallinn, Estonia.
                                                                                                         -- Phyllis Tuchman

The National Endowment for the Arts has announced 839 grants totaling $21 million in its first round of awards for 2005. NEA gave out a total of $19.9 million to 780 projects in the euphemistically named "Access to Artistic Excellence" category. Among the winners in New York are the Metropolitan Museum ($100,000 for "Prague, the Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437"); the International Center for Photography ($75,000 for a touring show of Robert Capa's photographs); the Museum of Arts and Design ($70,000 for "The Studio Craft Movement 1945-1965: A Community Emerges"); Exit Art ($45,000 for a show about water conservation); Creative Time ($45,000 for "Truisms for New York City" by Jenny Holzer); P.S. 1 ($35,000 for "Greater New York II"); and the Drawing Center ($30,000 for "Eva Hesse: Studies and Drawings").

Other museum grantees include the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco ($100,000 for "Daughter of Re: Hatshepsut, King of Egypt"); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ($75,000 for "Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship"); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles ($70,000 for "Visual Music: 1905-2005"); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ($75,000 for a touring retrospective of works by Richard Tuttle); the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ($70,000 for "The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950"); the Frick Collection ($50,000 for a show of portraits by Hans Memling); the Allen Memorial Art Museum ($45,000 for "The Splendor of Ruins in French Landscape Painting, 1630-1800"); the Orange County Museum of Art ($35,000 for a touring retrospective of work by Mary Heilman); and the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D. ($25,000 to help commission a work by native North Dakotan James Rosenquist for the museum atrium).

In the visual arts division, NEA grantees include ArtPace, San Antonio ($50,000 for artists' residencies); Escuela de Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico ($44,000 for artist-in residence programs in Puerto Rico); the Abington Art Center in Jenkintown, Pa. ($20,000 for a residency and installation by Morgan Puett in an abandoned 19th-century Quaker meetinghouse); Art Papers, Atlanta ($20,000 for reviews of contemporary art); and International Sculpture Center ($18,000 for articles in Sculpture magazine).

NEA stopped giving out artist's fellowships during the culture wars of the 1990s, though somehow the literature program's grants for individual writers survived. In this round, NEA awarded 45 poetry fellowships of $20,000 each, selecting the winners from some 1,590 applications. For a complete list, go to

The art market loves John Singer Sargent. The American painter's bucolic scene of napping picnickers, Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905), sold for a fantastic $23,528,000, well above its presale high estimate of $12,000,000, at Sotheby's New York on Dec. 1, 2004, a new auction record for a work by the artist. The painting came from the collection of Rita and Daniel Fraad; the buyer was an anonymous private collector.

Sotheby's American sale totaled a record-breaking $107,885,400, with almost 90 percent of the 272 lots finding buyers. New auction records were set for 32 artists, including Everett Shinn ($7,848,000), George de Forest Brush ($4,824,000), Dennis Miller Bunker ($3,592,000), Fairfield Porter ($988,000), Eastman Johnson ($708,000). Guy Pne Du Bois ($512,000) and Albert Pinkham Ryder ($209,600). The de Forest Brush painting, The Indian and the Lily (1889) was sold by former Gucci chief Pierre Bergé as part of an auction of furnishings from his apartment in the Pierre Hotel.

For a complete listing of the results, see Artnet's signature Fine Arts Auction Report.

Last Sunday, the New York Times finally published the long-anticipated investigation of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which many art-world insiders had expected to skewer the museum, in part for having a board president, Robert J. Hurst, who admittedly was delinquent in paying $2 million in sales taxes on his art purchases. But the report, by Robin Pogrebin and Timothy L. O'Brien, touched only lightly on that issue, instead focusing on the role played by longtime Whitney benefactor and museum board chairman Leonard Lauder, 71, who is also chief executive of the cosmetics company Estée Lauder.

The story balances tales of Lauder's generosity (from writing a $2.5 million check to fix the museum faade to convincing his fellow trustees to buy $200 million worth of art for the museum) with suggestions that his influence at the museum is too domineering or even improper. Many of Lauder's beneficences, for instance, involve artists that are represented by PaceWildenstein. Pace director Arne Glimcher rejected notions that he influenced the museum, however. "If you tried to do that," he said, "it would be the kiss of death."

Former Whitney director Max Anderson, who resigned in 2003 after running afoul of the museum board, claimed that the Whitney has "an identity crisis," resulting in tension between the staff and the trustees over the museum's mission presumably a reference to disputes over whether to emphasize classic American art or international contemporary trends in the museum's exhibition program.

The Times paid attention to the Whitney budget as well which new director Adam Weinberg has balanced for the first time in several years. In a memorable quote, former Whitney development director Tess O'Dwyer said, "While most nonprofit contemporary art organizations suffer fiscal anemia, the Whitney suffers bulimia. It gorges itself on art, parties, cash and staff, and then ritualistically purges itself of the same. The Whitney blows through $30 million and 250 events per year, plus a new director and staff every few years."

The Times put the Whitney's endowment at a "minuscule" $52 million, and its operating budget at $23 million (compared to The Museum of Modern Art's $450 million and $85 million).

Lauder, for his part, claims frugality. "I reuse paper clips," he said. The story notes as well that Lauder has no heir apparent and also no plans to retire.

New York City is about to get another dose of Surrealism. "Surrealism USA," a survey of Surrealist works made in America between 1930 and 1950, opens at the National Academy Museum on Fifth Avenue, Feb. 17, 2005-May 8, 2005. The show features U.S.-born artists like Peter Blume, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, Arshile Gorky, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning and Jackson Pollock, along with European artists who were exiled in America during World War II, including Salvador Dal, Max Ernst and Andre Masson.

The Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea may be shuttered, but the pioneering nonprofit's curatorial program lives on in cyberspace. The latest addition to Dia:Chelsea's web project repertoire is Approximations/Contradictions by Belgian artist Ana Torfs. The work features 21 short film clips, tightly framed like mug shots, of people performing songs from German-Austrian composer Hanns Eisler's Hollywood Songbook, composed during Eisler's 1942 California exile. The strange and isolated performances simulate an experience that is eerie and voyeuristic much in the same way viewing a peep show might be. Other artists who have created projects for Dia:Chelsea web since it was established in 1995 include Francis Als, Glenn Ligon, Juan Muñoz, Allen Ruppersburg, and Marijke van Warmerdam.

Syracuse University in upstate New York has a new public artwork by famed Minimalist Sol LeWitt. Six Curved Walls, a set of six concrete block walls measuring 12 feet high and spanning a total of 140 feet, rests on the hillside of Crouse College, and took a record 35 days to assemble. A Syracuse alum, LeWitt has previously donated two other works for the school. Six Curved Walls was designed in response to a direct request from the university's new chancellor, Nancy Cantor.

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions director and head curator Irene Tsatsos has announced plans to step down from the post in early 2005. Tsatsos, who has been LACE director for seven years, said she is remaining in L.A. to pursue other creative projects, including writing. LACE plans a four-month search for a successor.

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