WDEL Blog: Allan Loudell

Is selling art the only way for the Delaware Art Museum to save itself?

You might have first heard the story on the air yesterday afternoon:

Board members of the Delaware Art Museum - which houses the biggest collection of British pre-Raphaelite paintings outside the British Isles - have voted to sell as many as four art masterpieces (paintings, sculptures) in an attempt to repay the museum's debt and build up the endowment. The museum pledges not to sell art that was gifted or bequested to the museum.

(When I toured the newly renovated, expanded Delaware Art Museum in 2005, I remember thinking to myself: Quite impressive, but how are they going to pay for this when the the big recession hits? I still find it amazing that so many folks failed to see the warning signals of that financial storm. Plus, we know many of the well-heeled, artsy folks are dying off, and younger generations are unlikely to replace them. Anyway, cost overruns and postponements marred the 32-and-a-half Million dollar expansion project.)

Within the art museum world, selling works of art to finance debt, pay for operating expenses, etc., is a no-no. The Delaware Art Museum risks ostracism among its peers, loss of accreditation, etc.

But, the museum's board apparently thought it had no choice, after Wells Fargo yanked a loan guarantee.

Certainly, the Delaware Art Museum is not alone among museums confronting sharp declines in corporate and private donations, as a result of aging demographics and the Great Recession. But with the coming sale of art works, would-be donors of art might think twice before donating. It becomes a vicious circle.

But, ultimately, it would seem the Delaware Art Museum's longterm challenge is demographic: As noted above, younger people, except for that rare young art connoisseur, don't often flock to art museums. It doesn't help that very few schools - caught in the trap between obsessive testing on the basic subjects and athletics - offer fine arts appreciation courses. In the popular culture, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) was perhaps the only mainstream, pop-culture movie in which hip characters are shown appreciating art -- at The Art Institute of Chicago. (One of my favorite scenes from the movie, and I credit the late director John Hughes with indulging his own passions.) Similarly, commercially licensed, classical music stations have faded away.

But the current climate, I think, was aptly described by a 20-something person on our staff: "Why would I bother going to an art museum, when - if I was really interested - I could find all that art on the internet?" That's the new generation; physical intimacy with art or nearly anything else seems less important when most everything is a click away. And that's ultimately the longterm demographic dilemma for the Delaware Art Museum.

The Delaware Art Museum's sell-art-or-die stance has gotten nationwide attention in the art world. The reaction ain't pretty. Here's a story from The Los ANGELES TIMES...


Posted at 7:38am on March 27, 2014 by Allan Loudell

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Comments on this post:

Mike from Delaware
Thu, Mar 27, 2014 8:23am
This sort of mirrors my comments from the Football thread Allan posted. Yes, do public middle and high schools even offer Art and Music Appreciation any more? Many don't offer Wood/Metal Shop or Home Economics either. So yes, not surprising that art museums are hurting as young folks were not raised to appreciate art, or fine music either. Our society is losing those sorts of things, which doesn't speak well for our society.

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 8:31am
The museum in Philadelphia is only a few more minutes away. Why not just go there? As Delaware has launched on the downward slope from a well-heeled New Castle County Republican population, to a below-average Blue State population, investing in the arts is not wise.

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 9:28am
I agree with JimH.

Delaware is located so close to "real" art museums in Philly, D.C. and NYC...if a person wanted to experience the art (something you can't do on the "interweb") I would recommend going to one of the museums in these large cities.

Mike from Delaware
Thu, Mar 27, 2014 10:31am
JimH: I find I must disagree with your definition. Many RED states are Southern States that are definitely POORER than most of their Blue State neighbors. I've seen info, where nine of the ten states that pay the LEAST tax to the Feds, yet get the MOST back from the Feds, are those RED states. The same group that hates the Federal government. Blue States are wealthier states, yet they pay more taxes, and get less back from the Feds.

While yes Philly, D.C., and N.Y.C. do have far larger and nicer art Museums, there's no reason why Delaware can't support some culture here. But I agree, for a broader experience, certainly the Philly Museum of Art [the stairs that Rocky trained on in the movie] is a fantastic place to go see great art. The only drawback is you have to go to Philly.

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 11:21am
When MBNA left Delaware, a ton of arts funding left also. But this is typical of Delaware where something is believed to be worth more than it is. But what is going to happen when Congress disallows on-line gambling? That was the new great thing to bring in money (Casinos - another thing Delaware overvalues).

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 7:57pm
So why don't they just ask the state for a bailout? The casinos seem to think they deserve one. How much more should the state care about a longstanding Delaware institution?

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 8:18pm
mrpizza: Please don't give the Delaware Progressives any ideas.. I'm sure quite a few of them would agree that the state should "bail out" the arts no matter what the cost.

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 9:20pm
I think a $1.45 a month charge should be put on to the utility bills of every New Castle Countian just to keep those jobs here at the Art Museum, without resorting to the selling of any of our assets.

Fri, Mar 28, 2014 8:47am
...see what I meant mrpizza.

Fri, Mar 28, 2014 9:30am
Without a detailed analysis of the finances of the Museum by an outside party, will anyone know what is going on there? The board members often have no financial acumen, and no responsibility for their actions. Why they would spend so much money on the renovation is unclear, except that they could. If things get dicey, the board members just resign and bear no financial penalty for their decisions.

I've heard of several volunteer companies in DE that are facing insolvency now after undertaking huge expansions of their firehalls.

Mike from Delaware
Fri, Mar 28, 2014 10:36am
Funny how "cool" marches on. I had a wedding band for almost 20 years and we played quite often at firehalls. I've noticed over the last few years, every wedding reception I've been to has NOT been at a firehall and the kids today say they want a "venue", and they tell me a firehall is tacky. So it's not surprising that the volunteer companies might be having some issues with their newly expanded firehalls.

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