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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Modern Art Grows Old

It's not often you hear about museums giving away art work. Under most circumstances they'd sooner part with the roof. But that's the situation which some time ago faced the Museum of Modern Art in New York (known affectionately at MoMA). The problem revolved around the name. As this institution became a little long in the tooth, its art became anything but modern. Founded in the 1920s, MoMA is now well passed the three-quarter century mark and some of its collection is much older than that, which in anybody's book challenges the definition of "modern" art. The oldest pieces in MoMA's collection are well over one hundred years old. The problem is, their oldest pieces are the Van Goghs and the Seurats and they are among their most valuable pieces.

Ordinarily, even a museum of "modern" art could simply let the conflict between its name and the age of its best work rest quietly in the back of patrons' minds. But in this case, one particular patron, though she's been dead for over fifty years, will not let the matter rest. Her name was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a co-founder of the museum and a major name in art even without the added distinction of being the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. When Mrs. Rockefeller bequeathed four drawings to the museum in her 1948 will, she stipulated that the two Van Goghs and two Seurats were to be given new homes after fifty years based on the logical assumption they would no longer be appropriate to the collection of a museum whose whole reason for existing was to promote that art which is "modern."

Street at Stes-Maries, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
Hospital Corridor at St.-Remy, 1889,
Vincent van Gogh
It was a windfall for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which got the Van Goghs, one, a drawing, which dates from 1888 (Street at Stes-Maries), and another, a gouache painting dating from 1889 during Vincent's stay in the mental hospital at St. Remy (Hospital Corridor at St.-Remy). The Art Institute of Chicago now houses the two Seurat drawings next to the painting for which they were done, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The Van Gogh drawings are now valued at a cool forty million, the Seurats, a mere $1.4 million. But, before you shed tears for MoMA, they continue to exhibit their three other Van Goghs including, perhaps his most famous, The Starry Night and its companion piece, The Olive Grove both painted in 1889 (112 years ago). Nonetheless, for MoMA, parting with four of her most beloved was anything but sweet sorrow.

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