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Dec. 7, 2010

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Back in the 1970s, the National Lampoon made light of a deranged vandal’s attack on Michelangelo’s marble of Jesus and Mary in St. Peter’s Basilica with a photo captioned, "Pietà? I thought it said ‘pinata’!"

This parable of cluelessness came to mind while reading Robin Pogrebin’s front page New York Times story about the casual, unannounced sale by the Philadelphia History Museum of more than 2,600 items from its collection, bringing in about $3.5 million over the last seven years. The museum has sold "mountains of stuff," according to museum treasurer Gregory J. Kleiber, and plans to sell still another big-ticket item, though Kleiber declines to say what.

The proceeds are earmarked not for new acquisitions but for the ongoing, $5.8-million renovation of its 1826 building -- things like new carpet, paint and lighting.

The top lot in the museum collection seems to have been a 1915 Raphaelle Peale still life, which sold at Christie’s New York for $842,500 on Dec. 2, 2009. A jewel-like -- 9 x 7 in. -- Thomas Sully portrait of Andrew Jackson sold for $80,500, also at Christie’s New York, on May 20, 2010. Other lots included a galloping horse weather vane ($20,000) and a group of cigar-store Indians ($1 million total). 

Despite the general rule against selling works from museum collections, it happens all the time, with the understanding that the institution’s savvy curators have some grander vision in mind, finely tuned by their years of sophisticated experience in their field. Not so at the PHM, which seems to be run by a confederacy of dunces, with Kleiber as head fool. "The Peale we felt was very much outside the mission," Kleiber told the NYT. "We’re a history museum, not an art museum. It’s a picture of a fish."

United States Artists, the five-year-old grant-making organization -- it announces this year’s 50 winners of $50,000 awards tonight -- is getting into the microfinance business. USA Projects, as it is called, allows artists to propose any kind of artwork, residency or esthetic undertaking -- and encourages online visitors to the site to donate money. During the beta phase of the project, photographer Zoe Strauss raised more than $5,000 to document the Gulf oil spill, for instance, and ceramist Kukuli Velarde raised more than $3,500 to establish a ceramics workshop in her Philadelphia neighborhood.

USA Projects officially kicks off today with a high-profile donation of $100,000 by Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford for Artists2Artists, still another fund that is to match the gifts received through USA Projects. The event is being live streamed; to watch, click here.

It’s back. Robert Wilson and Philip Glass are bringing back the epochal avant-garde theater piece Einstein on the Beach, which premiered in 1976 (and was revived in 1984 and 1992). The 2012 world tour of the five-hour gesamtkunstwerk -- which includes Lucinda Childs as choreographer -- debuts at the Opera Berlioz Le Corum in Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, Mar. 17-18, 2012, before appearing for the first time in the UK at the Barbican, May 4-13, 2012, in conjunction with the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival. The North American premiere takes place in Toronto in June 2012, and the opera then comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Museum 2012 Next Wave Festival. Finally, the show runs for two weeks in fall 2012 at Cal Performances at U. Cal Berkeley, in its first West Coast presentation. The tour celebrates Glass’ 75th birthday year, as well.

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