The museum world is a bastion of visual culture, and, for the most part, ethics. A sanctuary far removed from the crass commerce of the marketplace, this is where the most important artwork is bequeathed for the greater public good, where it will be available to enrich the lives of generations of citizens for years to come. Of course, museums don’t always behave according to the rules, and the work doesn’t always stay in one place. In 2010, the Guggenheim Museum in New York auctioned off the majority of an exhibition that had been on view for only two months, stirring controversy. Another breach of the wall between the gallery and museum worlds took place when high-profile art dealer Jeffrey Deitch was appointed director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (though only after he agreed to close his wildly successful New York City gallery). Which brings us to the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, which has raised the ire of several glass dealers with their selling of a collection the museum recently acquired from a couple from Atlanta. The Burke collection has ended up at the Liberty Museum either by purchase, by donation, or by some combination of the two—exact details are hard to come by. Reached by telephone, collector Wayne Burke would confirm to the GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet only that his former glass art collection was now at the Liberty Museum. He declined to offer any details or comment further. Scott Patria, an art dealer currently serving as director of glass at the Liberty Museum, responded to a series of questions from the GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet by declining to comment out of respect for the collectors’ privacy. Instead, he sent a reiteration of the museum’s mission statement and said that, “The Museum’s relationship to glass art has been and will continue to remain strong. Many collectors (and galleries) are aware of this and often will donate pieces from their collection to the Museum.” Arlene Silvers, chief operating officer of the Liberty Museum, did not respond to repeated telephone messages seeking clarification about the sale of the Burke collection.
While eager to discuss the general goals of the Liberty Museum, Patria did not respond to the specific emailed question of whether or not he continues to work as an art dealer alongside his duties at the National Liberty Museum. Patria was named a director at the museum in October 2011. In the nine months since, he’s closed the PRISM gallery (which he founded), though, according to his LinkedIn page, seems to have maintained connections to Function + Art (which he also founded) in addition to managing another gallery, Patrajdas Contemporary Art. When reached by phone, Patria requested questions in emailed form and then declined to comment about whether or not he continues to work as an art dealer, the terms of the acquisition, the National Liberty Museum’s apparently new strategy of acquiring and selling artwork, and what feedback he might have received about this bold move.
What is known comes from a PDF catalog entitled “Special Collection for Sale” that has been emailed to glass collectors showcasing 50 works available for purchase. Text included in the electronic catalog reads: “We have complemented our world-class glass art collection with approximately 200 additional pieces. … We plan to display some of these works in new and changing exhibits at the Museum. Others will be used to support our important charitable work by being made available to collectors as an extension of our fundraising efforts … “
The selling activity of Patria and Silvers (collectors report receiving a series of emails about specific pieces with steadily dropping prices) has enraged art dealers who have been carefully cultivating the secondary market in glass art, establishing the resale prices for pieces by many of the same artists in the National Liberty Museum’s online sales catalog.
“I’m alarmed by it,” says Ferd Hampson of Habatat Galleries. “We’re all trying to coexist, and we need to do so if we’re going to move forward and become a viable market. Every non-profit and for-profit is trying to maximize what they can do to that end, but I don’t think they’re using any forethought with what they’ve done.”
The sale of these pieces (which includes artists such as Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra, Harvey Littleton, Dan Dailey, Toots Zynsky, Laura De Santillana, Richard Jolley, and Joel Philip Myers) are walking a fine ethical line, according to experts in this area. Julie Hart is the senior director for museum standards and excellence at the American Association of Museums; regarding the sale of the collection she said, “With this kind of situation the question becomes, were these items acquired or donated with the intention they go into the museum’s collection, then the museum turned around and sold them? Or was it the donor’s intention that they be used as assets to fund other collecting or activities?”
Museum of Art and Design curator Jennifer Scanlan said, “There are legal issues: you can either donate something to be part of the collection, and there are tax laws that apply for that; or you can donate something to be put up for auction, and then there are laws for that as well.”
Lewis Wexler of his eponymous gallery in Philadelphia said that, “I have questions as to the ethical nature of a museum buying work for the sole purpose of reselling it, especially in such large quantities. It seems to me that that would be the role of a dealer, not the role of a museum, and most museums that do deal others’ work do so in a discreet manner, usually through auctions or private dealers.”
David Rago of Rago Arts said that in his 40 years of business “This is a first.”
According to the AAM’s guidelines (which, if the NLM were an accredited museum, it would be obliged to follow) a museum can operate in a commercial capacity so long as this is to further its stated mission. NLM’s mission statement (which Hampson called “tenuous at best”) says that glass is what they “use in [their] mission to promote non-violence and acceptance of others by showing visitors that freedom is ‘fragile’… like glass.” Though, with the sale of two hundred pieces that would substantially complement their current collection, it does beg the question—as Wexler commented, “Is the mission of the museum to be an art dealer, and if so are they as a non-profit dealing on a level playing field with the rest of us?”