A Questionable Gift of Sculpture to the Getty Museum

Karen Grigsby Bates reports on how the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles has handled a recent donation of 20th-century sculpture. The quality of the collection — 28 pieces donated by the late Hollywood producer Ray Stark and his wife — has been questioned by several art critics.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And now to a judgement call in the art world. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently announced a new gift, a collection of modern sculpture that some experts have valued at up to $75 million. But as DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, sometimes free art can cost a lot.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

It wasn't so unusual when the estate of Hollywood producer Ray Stark offered the Getty Museum a gift of some two dozen outdoor contemporary sculptures. Bequests like Stark's are the way museums are built, says Christopher Knight, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT (Los Angeles Times): Probably nine out of 10 works of art that you see in a museum collection were not bought by the museum; they were given by donors. Without donors, art museums in this country essentially wouldn't exist.

BATES: What was unusual, says Knight, was the set of conditions widely understood to be attached to the gift.

Mr. KNIGHT: The donor was requiring that no work from the collection should ever be sold, all work from the collection must be on permanent public view and was also requesting that the donor foundation have some kind of long-term representation at the museum, a staff person at the museum, to oversee the gifts.

BATES: Most art gifts to museums come with a string or two. Perhaps the donor wants the original frame to remain with the art, or for the art not to be sold to another institution. And we should say here that the Getty will not disclose terms of the bequest other than to confirm that the gift has been accepted. But several art insiders agree that these were the Stark bequest's general terms. The Stark's conditions make its gift of sculpture expensive, especially considering what art critic Knight calls `the uneven nature of the collection.'

The art will have to be installed, maintained and curated. The Getty can foot this bill. It is, after all, one of the richest museums in the United States. Less well-endowed institutions might have found such conditions too restrictive. Milton Esterow is the editor and publisher of ARTnews. He says by and large, bequests, even with strings that involve expenses, are a good thing for museums.

Mr. MILTON ESTEROW (ARTnews): Overwhelmingly, they come out ahead because so often, so very, very often, the gifts are incredibly valuable and enhance the museum and enhance the community in which the museum is located.

BATES: But there are times when museums should just pass on the offer, says Esterow, especially when acceptance of a gift evolves into a huge political problem. He cites the case of the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia. Barnes Foundation trustees have been grappling for years over whether they can break the terms of the collection's founder. Milton Esterow.

Mr. ESTEROW: In the case of Barnes, he would be called what we call today a nut case. But at the same time, Mr. Barnes--I did not know him personally--had an uncanny eye, an uncanny--one of the greatest eyes any collector could possibly have, and built this awesome collection. The problem with the Barnes collection is that it's not available to too many people.

BATES: A court decision earlier approved moving the Barnes collection, and last week the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court declined to hear appeals to block the move. Times art critic Christopher Knight says it might sound churlish for museum administrators to balk at ostensibly free art, but he cautions us to remember that the donor is also getting a gift.

Mr. KNIGHT: You also have to remember that there are tax benefits, there are estate tax benefits. So it's a very complicated issue.

BATES: And only time will tell who got the best end of the Getty bargain. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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