Monday, November 30, 2009

A Latter-Day Quixote

I am working from my home in Santa Fe while our Associate Director, Vince Hickman, mans the fort in New York. Last week I attended a lecture given by the noted historian and former Director of the New Mexico History Museum, Thomas E. Chávez. It was the first in a series titled “Telling New Mexico: a New History”. It was far from the scholarly history lesson we expected. Casting himself as Don Quixote, this humorous raconteur revealed how he pursued the impossible dream of building the grand new museum that opened earlier this year and he did it with tales out of school.

Long housed in the historic Palace of the Governors, this National Historic Landmarked building dating back to 1610 did not have the capacity to show or properly store the History Museum’s collections. In this fund-starved state finding the funds to build a new museum seemed only a pipe-dream. Tom Chávez was Director of this state museum for two decades. He said that he quickly learned that to do the job he envisioned he first had to take a vow of poverty! He also found that when dealing with the state legislature one had to learn to “assume the position”. Also, known as getting out the knee pads!!

Chávez also highly praised his staff (and really seemed to mean it). He had the idea that they needed some free thinking sessions to come up with ideas for achieving the impossible. Therefore, he instituted what he called “seminars”, Friday afternoon brainstorming sessions fueled with beer and nibbles. When it was brought to his attention that one couldn’t drink in State offices, his reply, “I know”! The juices began to flow and he recruited like-minded dreamers in the community, several of whom he identified in the lecture audience.

In order to build the new museum he wanted to put together three properties located directly behind the Palace of the Governors. The museum owned one, and the city another, but the third was a parking lot belonging to a gallery owner who had plans to expand but later decided to sell. The museum agreed to meet his price but the owner did not want to deal with the State bureaucracy and forthwith raised the price. Chávez was convinced that he would have to risk alienating the public and get the State Government to invoke Eminent Domain A lawyer from his supporters agreed to write a brief and they received permission to go ahead. Thus he brought the owner to the bargaining table, they agreed on a price and Chávez put his lot together. To raise the necessary millions to realize his dream Chávez eventually brought together private financial support with state funding and even Federal grants (then un-heard of for a state museum).

It wasn’t all bricks and mortar. He launched a campaign to purchase the Segesser Hide paintings which are now the crown jewels of the museum’s collection. They are two huge 18th century paintings on buffalo hides illustrating military expeditions dispatched from the Palace of the Governors. They were owned by a Swiss family (von Segesser) and major funding from the state was needed to make the acquisition. It so happens that Chávez’s brother is a wholesale meat purveyor who traveled through New Mexico staying over one night a week in Santa Fe. As Chávez told him of the seemingly hopeless task his brother asked to see photos of the paintings. He spotted the detail of a priest with two arrows sticking out of his hind parts, and suggested putting the image on bumper stickers with the text “Save our Hides”. Each of the legislators was sent a bumper sticker , the newspapers caught on, and sales took off with “Save our Hides” appearing everywhere on the roads of New Mexico. At this point the legislators could simply not turn down the museum’s Don Quixote!

Frances Levine, the current Director of the History Museum finally opened the new museum earlier this year to record crowds. In her introduction of Chávez that afternoon she paid homage to her predecessor and the lessons she had learned from the man who did not understand the meaning of the word ‘No’.

Monday, November 23, 2009

“Avant Le Spectacle” (aka ‘Waiting for the Carriage’)


This painting by Alfred Stevens would have been in the category of contemporary art shortly after my family firm was founded. It shows a lady in a flounced white dress sitting in a Louis XVI style armchair with a pair of opera glasses and a bouquet of flowers lying on the stool beside her. The picture has been traditionally called “Avant Le Spectacle” or ‘Waiting for the Carriage”. But….. why not “After the Opera”?

To me it seems the lady has come home. She sits down in front of the fire and dreams about the evening she has just spent.

That is the wonderful thing about paintings, you don’t have to accept what is said about them by tradition. You can let your fantasy loose and enjoy them even more.

My wife would take the children to the Metropolitan Museum and not tell them what they were looking at, but ask them what the paintings were about. Try it. You will be amazed by the results.

Stevens was well known for his depiction of beautiful dresses, this being a particularly fine one. The scene was probably composed with a model posing surrounded by props in the artist’s studio. The gilded footstool reappears in a similar composition, adding grace to another model’s pose in Stevens’ painting The Blue Dress in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

And what of the tapestry image in the background? Nobody has yet identified it . Does it have some symbolic meaning or is it merely a decoration? Any suggestions?

For more on this work, please click here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Wonderful Exhibition

I saw recently a wonderful exhibition about an art dealer who was a collector, a showman and an exhibitionist.

Oh no, you are getting the wrong impression. Serge Sabarsky (1912-1996) not only showcased the Austrian art he so loved in his Madison Avenue gallery, but he also organized exhibitions that were presented all over the world. He was actually first an actor and stage designer in his home town of Vienna. As he told it, he found his love of art when he went to the dentist at the age of 10. He first saw the erotic watercolors of Egon Schiele on the wall of the dentist’s office and he was hooked for life. After that his mother could never understand why he didn’t complain about going to see the dentist!

The exhibition celebrating his life and his collection is at a gem of a museum in New York, “The Neue Galerie” (www.neuegalerie.org) which focuses on the art at the turn of the last century in Germany and Austria. The museum was founded by Serge and his great friend and patron, Ronald Lauder. Together they did a beautiful conversion of a 1914 mansion where Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt lll once lived.

The exhibition includes Sabarsky’s great private collection of paintings, drawings, prints and posters by such artists as Schiele, Klimt, Kubin, Kokoschka, and Kandinsky. But be sure reserve 20 minutes for the film (shown in a continuous loop) about Serge as told by him and his friends.

If you have time, treat yourself to lunch or tea on the ground floor of the museum at New York’s only conditerei; The Sabarsky Café, so aptly named after a great raconteur and gourmet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Celebrating a Symbiotic Relationship

On November 2 the Private Art Dealers Association (PADA) gave its annual grant to support the goals of a public not-for-profit institution. Past honorees have ranged from Frick Art Reference Library to The Studio Museum of Harlem.

This year the recipient chosen was the Master Drawings Association which has published the scholarly quarterly Master Drawings since 1963. The publication includes articles on the art of draftsmanship from the Renaissance to the present.

The award was given at PADA’s annual dinner at the Lotos Club in New York. There were between 70 and 80 guests including member art dealers, scholars, collectors, as well as museum curators and the Director of the J. Pierpont Morgan Library, William Griswold, who is also President of The Master Drawings Association. Robert Dance, president of PADA explained how important the publication Master Drawings was to the field and to the trade. He warmly welcomed all and introduced the recipient and speakers, Bill Griswold and Jane Turner, known to the world as Editor of the Grove Dictionary of Art and now Editor of Master Drawings.

Bill Griswold told those assembled how much such grants meant to the success of their publication. Each issue is expensive and donated funds make the difference between being able to publish and not. Jane Turner’s remarks revolved around the symbiotic relationship between art dealers and scholarship and how many of the dealers were scholars in their own right. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that one of the great scholars of French 18th century painting and drawing was the French Art Dealer, Jean Cailleux. When he published his articles at the end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s at the end of the Burlington Magazine he had to pay for them like advertisements). Jane Turner pointed out how this prejudice against the trade has largely changed, a point that was celebrated by this assembly of curators, collectors, scholars and the art dealers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Beginning

With this missive I begin, on a regular basis, to send a brief commentary on the art market, the art world, and on select works of art from our website.

There have been many noteworthy events recently and I thought I would comment on a couple of them.

The International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show took place from October 16 – 22 at the 67th Street Armory in New York. To start at the punch line, it seems to have been a success! A most pleasant surprise since, in 2008, it took place just as Lehman Brothers met its demise leaving no one in a mood to buy art. Meanwhile, collectors have found some equilibrium in their lives and in the economy and are again looking. As one dealer said to me, “it seems that people needed to start collecting again”.

Earlier in the year I heard from several good dealers that they had done a number of fairs that had gone well in the past and yet had made no sales at any of them. The tide has clearly begun to turn. What I personally found most gratifying was that the art dealers had brought quality pieces to put on view. There were virtually no show stoppers, but neither was there an effort to show just easily saleable cheap goods.

Another turn of the tide took place at the beginning of the year when the great director from the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, retired after over 30 years at the helm of this country’s most important art museum and the young Thomas P. Campbell became the new director. Tom is a similar age to Philippe when he became director and clearly will be looking in new directions. Tom coming from a decorative arts background with his profound expertise in textiles and particularly tapestries and Philippe who was always a paintings person will have a different take on the art world.
I am sure there will be no revolutionary changes but slowly but surely we will see his own imprint on our great institution.

On October 19 the Frick Museum gave a gala dinner in honor of Philippe de Montebello. There have been many dinners given in his honor over the last 10 months, but this was certainly one of the most significant (so much so that several curators and the new director from the Metropolitan attended). During his tenure at the Metropolitan, Philippe became a most articulate and insightful speaker and I envy his students at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University who will be able to hear him on a regular basis. What struck me most about his speech was the fact that he mentioned that two years have passed since he had made his decision to leave the Met, the first being a transition year and by the following year when he left he was on to new projects.
He is not resting on his many and well deserved laurels, but instead has become a teacher and adviser passing on his invaluable experience to others.

This blog is a work in progress.
Suggestions for future commentary are gladly accepted at (stiebel.ltd@stiebel.com).