ART TO BLAME FOR LEHMAN BROS. FALL?
It’s been one year since investment giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, touching off the most catastrophic financial crisis since the Great Depression. Former Lehman trader Lawrence McDonald has been making the media rounds to promote his new book, A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, which is billed an insider’s account of the fall. And, what do you know, McDonald claims that Lehman Brothers’ sideline in art collecting had something to do with the whole mess.
In McDonald’s telling, Lehman was an institution "rotting at the head," whose leaders had become too wrapped up with the trappings of success to see the looming disaster. Their fatal self-absorption, McDonald claims, was reflected in their art patronage. In an interview on CNBC a few months ago, McDonald said that the firm’s 31st floor headquarters had come to resemble a "Sotheby’s art collection facility" (or at least, a cross between Sotheby’s and "a human resources pom-pom bonfire festival"). Instead of paying attention to the market, McDonald says, top Lehman Brothers executives "were very concerned about their new membership in the Billionaires Club, and were very concerned about their $200-billion art collections."
No doubt McDonald is referring to the art holdings of former Lehman Brothers head Richard Fuld, widely quoted to have been valued at $200 million at the top of the market. However, in yet another interview on CNBC last week, McDonald added that it was not merely Fuld’s personal collection, but the firm’s attempts to build a global corporate collection that proved distracting. Gloria McDonough-Taub summarized things in a review of McDonald’s book, "A fair and logical question you might have: If Lehman’s top executives were not minding the store then what on earth were they doing?. . . Art collecting, philanthropy, dress codes, and human resource campaigns such as diversity training ruled the daily agenda up on ‘Club 31.’"
As Artnet News reported after the Sept. 2008 collapse, Lehman’s collecting and patronage activities were indeed extensive, touching every major museum in New York, and reaching far beyond [see Artnet News, Sept. 17, 2008]. Philadelphia’s Freeman’s Auction House is set to sell off the first "tranche" of art from the Lehman Brothers corporate collection in three upcoming sales Nov. 1, 2009, Dec. 6, 2009 and Feb. 12, 2010. The eclectic 650 lots include works by Bernice Abbott, Louis Bourgeouis, Herbert Brandl, Bernard Cathelin, Willie Cole, Terry Frost, Arturo Herrera, Roy Lichtenstein, Louis Lozowick, Pouran Jinchi and Bernar Venet. Contrary to what McDonald implies in his book, however, this first pile is valued at a mere $1 million.
CRYSTAL BRIDGES: A PREVIEW
Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark. (pop. 20,000), may be a ways from opening to the public, but its pedestrian biking trail is ready to go. The 1½-mile-long Crystal Bridges Trail "ambles along the western edge of the museum grounds," taking advantage of the 100-acre property’s forest canopy and sylvan views, and features an observation deck overlooking the museum site. Artworks by Mark di Suvero and James Turrell are slated to be installed along the path, and in the meantime, its entrance is marked by a 1999 cast of Paul Manship’s A Group of Bears, whose 1932 original is currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But that’s not all. Last month Crystal Bridges opened an actual exhibition at its temporary gallery space in downtown Bentonville titled "Harry Miller’s Vision of Arkansas, 1900-1910," Aug. 21-Oct. 25, 2009. Billed as an exploration of Arkansas’ past, the show presents 30 copy prints of original photos taken by Harry Lewis Miller (1870-1943), who photographed the people and places of nearby Batesville, Ark., in the first decade of the 20th century. The show is organized by freelance historian Jo Blatti.
In the meantime, work has begun on Moshe Safdie’s 100,000-square-foot museum building, which is now slated to open in 2011, two years behind schedule. Safdie’s unusual design has something of a theme park feel, featuring eight ribbed ovoid pavilions of glass and light-colored wood placed around a pair of spring-fed pools to be created by damming a natural ravine. The new museum is to have 35,000 square feet for exhibitions. When announced in 2005 the cost of the project was put at $50 million; the museum has declined to give a current estimate, though published reports indicate that the Waltons have contributed over $300 million to the undertaking.
The slightly amateurish air of these recent developments is compounded on the museum website, which engages in a little local boosterism -- one section is devoted to "Discover NW Arkansas," an area "blessed with abundant natural and scenic beauty as well as a thriving business community." No doubt.
More troubling, of course, has been the museum’s notoriously predatory acquisitions policy. Walton and her advisor, National Gallery of Art trustee John Wilmerding, were able to successfully pirate away a bit of New York State patrimony when the New York Public Library sold Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849) to Crystal Bridges for $35 million and Gilbert Stuart’s 1791 "Constable-Hamilton Portrait" of George Washington for $8 million (with the library director then awarding himself a $200,000 annual raise for his duplicity). The museum was blocked in its attempt to pay a whopping $68 million for the Philadelphia icon, Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic (1878), of course, and its effort to pay $30 million for a half-interest in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection willed by Georgia O’Keeffe to the financially beleaguered Fisk University in Tennessee remains snarled in legal limbo. Crystal Bridges did successfully acquire Eakins’ 1874 portrait of Benjamin H. Rand (who taught the painter anatomy) from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia for a reported $20 million, and even bought six Colonial-era portraits of Jews by Gerardus Duyckinck from the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan.
As if to atone for these depredations, many of the pictures are currently on loan elsewhere -- Crystal Bridges is highlighting the notion of collaboration with other museums. Durand’s Kindred Spirits is at the Met through May 2010, the Eakins Rand portrait is at the Philadelphia Museum, and the Constable-Hamilton Washington is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. For a more thorough look at the Crystal Bridges collection, see www.crystalbridges.org
ARTISTS PAINT MARY MAGDALENE
When it comes to painting characters from the Bible, you can’t complain if contemporary artists seem to be drawn to the Good Book’s bad girl, Mary Magdalene. Thus, we have "Something about Mary," Sept. 22, 2009-Jan. 30, 2010, an exhibition of portraits of the penitent prostitute by 14 artists, organized by Dodie Kazanjian for Gallery Met at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The exhibition celebrates the Met’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, which opens on Sept. 21.
One contributor to the show is James Rosenquist, whose studio and archives were destroyed by fire in April; his painting, Tosca 2009, is the first work he has made since the disaster, and is reproduced as the front-of-house banner for the Met, announcing its new season. Other artists who have contributed works to the show include Hugh Bush, Paul Chan, Francesco Clemente, George Condo, John Currin, Marlene Dumas, Rachel Feinstein, Barnaby Furnas, Elizabeth Peyton, Julian Schnabel, Dana Schutz, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, Rudolf Stingel and Francesco Vezzoli.
ART TACOS ON THE HIGH LINE
Of the dozens of gallery openings in New York on Sept. 17, one stands out -- a mobile taco stand, offering free tacos on one side and a 10 x 4 ft. wall hung with works by Fiona Tan and Regina Silveira on the other. Specials, as it is called, is a project of Paul Ramirez Jonas and Lisa Sigal, and it is slated to appear on the High Line at the 14th Street Passage (between 13th and 14th Streets) on Sept. 17, 4-8 pm. This is the third appearance of the art cart, which is designed to be an ongoing, roving project that blurs the boundaries between art and daily life. For more info on Ramirez Jonas (and Silveira), see their gallery website, Alexander Gray Associates.