National Academy of Design Sale is ‘Worst of ’08’ in Art World

Around this time each year, art critics who normally laugh at a "Top Ten" list as an aesthetic criterion are prompted to cite their "Top Ten" favorite exhibitions, events, ephemeral holes in the gallery floor, etc., from the past year. These lists seem to serve two purposes. The first is to shame those of us who have grown inured to the city’s cultural offerings (what, you actually missed that?) to get out more. The second is to record 10 art world wrinkles in the hope that one will turn out to have been important.

It’s easy to forget. Dust off "The Top Ten of 2002" and you are likely to remember one thing on it, like the big summer show at MoMA or the Whitney exhibition whose handsome, ten pound, $65 dollar catalogue you lugged all the way home and haven’t cracked since.

That said, in keeping with national mood, I would like to propose a leading candidate for "The Worst of 2008," at least as far New York is concerned. (Los Angeles has its own problems.)

On Friday, the National Academy of Design announced that it sold two works from its permanent collection: Frederic Church’s Scene on Magdalene (1854) and Sanford Gifford’s Mount Mansfield, Vermont (1859). The backdoor sale of the works, by two-good-to-great Hudson River School painters, is a considerable loss to the city. Both Church and Gifford worked in New York during their careers as leading members of 19th century American Art’s Greatest Generation.

Granted, the 183-year-old National Academy, which began as a club and exhibition space for artists like Church and Gifford, is impoverished. There is nothing genteel about a museum that’s broke, even if that museum is cosseted in one of the fancier buildings on one of the fancier stretches of Manhattan. It is probably churlish to criticize a museum you don’t visit often enough for selling two paintings you can’t quite remember ever seeing.

But the story stinks. Big time. Selling your permanent collection to cover operating costs is just about the worst thing a museum can do. The National Academy’s own guilt is apparent in its timing: they put out a press release on Friday, the preferred tactic of the less-than-honest. According to Lee Rosenbaum, who scooped the story on her CultureGrrl blog, the sale netted the institution $15 million. But we don’t know who bought the paintings, or what they plan to do with them.

(See Randy Kennedy’s catch-up story in the Times, too.)

OK, National Academy, you’ve gotten our attention. As part of our New Year’s resolution, we promise to visit you from time to time, to check up on the collection. Provided you leave it intact.

National Academy of Design Sale is ‘Worst of ’08’ in Art World