Pound-Foolish Public Library Brass No Kindred Spirits to New York

Much has recently been made of the complaisance of boards of directors with respect to outrageous goings-on within the enterprises they’re supposed to watch over on behalf of the stockholders: fun and games encompassing everything from looting and fraud to weight-in-gold pay packages that the late Aga Khan would have considered excessive.

We all know the names: Enron, Hollinger, the New York Stock Exchange and so on. Hanky-panky, thy name is legion. Well, I have another name to add to the roll of disgrace: the New York Public Library.

Little can I think of that in recent years better demonstrates the degraded state of elite culture in this city, or more sweetly proves a proposition dear to my heart-which is that, taken all in all, the fat cats of Manhattan are not worth their net worth-than the announcement by the NYPL that economic privation is forcing it to sell off its art collection. In particular, to divest itself of Kindred Spirits, Asher B. Durand’s 1849 painting that depicts the painter Thomas Cole and the writer William Cullen Bryant standing on a Catskills outcrop, conversing in a lively way about-doubtless-the beauty of Nature (and, quite possibly, the vileness of man).

In last Monday’s New York Sun, the architectural critic and historian Francis Morrone, writing with his customary elegance and acuity, closed a lovely piece on the Durand painting by observing that its sale by the library “will mean not just the removal of a beloved painting from a beloved setting, but also a diminishment of New York City itself.”

According to the library, the sale of its art will raise between $50 million and $75 million, the income from which (let’s say between $3 million and $5 million annually) will be available for purchases of scholarly and other research materials-library needs that have been woefully underserved in recent years. While it’s hard for any reasonably cultivated person to turn the pages, say, of The New York Review of Books, and to study the offerings of university and other scholarly presses advertised therein, and then to imagine that in all the wide world, there is $3 million to $5 million worth of stuff like this deserving of serious shelf space, let us grant the point.

What troubles me is that $3 million to $5 million is really not very much money if you look at the NYPL board and how rich its money members (as opposed to its cultural-figurehead members) are. Or are pleased to let us know they are-as well as how exquisitely they live, and what fine company they keep (as, for example, in the splendidly risible portrait of NYPL board member Steve Schwarzman that appeared in The Times a few months back, complete with photos of him partying in what he happily calls “the Rockefeller apartment,” but which others of us will always think of as “the old Sol Steinberg place”). A tony crowd like this should easily be able to come up with whatever it takes to keep the Durand, at a minimum, hanging where it is.

I’m wholly opposed to the idea of throwing money at nostalgia. It’s why I won’t give a dime to Yale. But this is different. There’s a whole lot of history here, history of the kind we need to fight to preserve and protect. One wonders how many of the NYPL board realize that the Bryant in Durand’s painting is the same Bryant whose name is borne by the park behind the library, which they probably think of mainly as a place to see what Prada’s up to this season.

These are bad times for high culture at the cash register. Seats aren’t being filled, turnstiles aren’t whirling. Cultural institutions are having to scramble. That this is happening at a moment when there’s more wealth around than at any time, in any one single place, in history suggests that a tipping point has been reached, that the dumbing-down epitomized by the Styles section of The Times, or the failure of our great universities to educate, or what works and what doesn’t on Broadway or at your local multiplex, has finally achieved implosive velocity. It suggests that there’s more to what’s happening than a simple post-9/11 fall-off in tourism, that some kind of sea change is in the works.

A lot of these NYPL big-hitters got rich by buying at the bottom. The same is true of culture. Now’s the time to step up. Kindred Spirits belongs here; it’s part of this city, part of us. It doesn’t belong in Seattle. Keep it in New York-where it is.