This story is a follow up to "ACQUISITION: Huntington Library Acquires Sargent Johnson Monumental Depression-era Sculpture" posted June 22, 2011.By Nathan Donato-Weinstein, Correspondent
UC Berkeley chided for accidental sale of artwork
|"It's all in the details" comes to mind when tracing the provenance of this Sargent Johnson masterwork. Photo via bltisnotjustasandwich.com|
UC Berkeley chided for accidental sale of artwork
March 29, 2012
UC Berkeley officials are on the receiving end of City Council and arts leaders' ire after the school mistakenly sold a significant piece of public art for the bargain-basement price of $150.
Valued in the six figures, the 1937 carved organ screen by noted Berkeley African-American artist Sargent Johnson sold for a total of $164.63, including tax, in 2009 from a university surplus warehouse after being mislabeled. Now some say they want assurances that the mistake worthy of "Antiques Roadshow" won't have a sequel, and they want the university to try to get the art back.
"The concern is that this could happen again," said Berkeley City Council member Susan Wengraf. "There's more publicly funded art that came out of that era. We want to make sure it's safe from sale or being surplused."
The council on March 20 approved a resolution "expressing concern" and asking the university for stricter protections of federally funded artwork on campus. In a letter addressed to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, council members also urged officials to try to reclaim the piece, now owned by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
"The Berkeley City Council sees the sale of the Sargent Johnson carving as a regrettable loss to the public, especially to the African-American community, and to Berkeley's artistic legacy," the resolution reads.
The university declined to comment on the resolution last week, but hasissued a statement expressing "regret" at the "terrible mistake."
"UC Berkeley did consider repurchasing the artwork, which our appraiser estimated at $215,000, but given the financial constraints facing the university we could not afford the repurchase price," Andrew Goldblatt, the campus' risk manager, said in the statement.
The 22-foot-long redwood relief, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, shows stylized nature images and was created to screen an organ at the California School for the Blind. The university eventually acquired the building and moved the piece to a warehouse during renovations in the 1980s.
But because it was mislabeled, the piece never made it back to the building, said Harvey Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association. Instead, it languished in a warehouse for years until being sold as surplus.
The buyer, furniture and art dealer Greg Favors, didn't know who the artist was at first, according to the New York Times, which disclosed the incident in February. The artwork's path eventually ended at the Huntington, which purchased it from a dealer for an undisclosed sum last year.
Adding to the complex tale, sales of WPA-funded art must be approved by the General Services Administration. But the federal agency decided not to object in this instance, the Huntington said in a news release announcing the acquisition, because the federal government doesn't own the building and the piece is considered "site-specific."
Today revered as a major African-American artist, Johnson lived on Park Street and created numerous pieces for the Federal Arts Program, an initiative of the WPA, in the 1930s and '40s. Several important works in the area, including a mural and relief at San Francisco's Maritime Museum and a frieze at the city's George Washington High School, are still viewable. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owns 12 Johnson sculptures.
"He's arguably the most famous African-American artist in California," said Smith, a Berkeley resident. "He worked here locally in Berkeley. He was part and parcel with this community."
The City Council letter asks officials to inventory all federally funded artwork on campus, protect the organ screen's companion piece from damage, set up safeguard procedures to prevent further losses and try reacquiring the artwork.
But repatriating the sculpture would be unlikely even if the campus were flush with cash, a Huntington official said last week.
"We're so happy to have it here," said Jessica Todd Smith, curator of American art. "So, no. This isn't a restitution case where things were done illegally."
Smith said the Huntington is spending "a lot of money" restoring the piece and will prominently display it at a new gallery for American art when it opens in 2014.
"I would love to have some temporary capacity, but 2014 is what we're shooting for," she said.
Arthur Monroe, an Oakland artist who knew Johnson before his death in 1967, said he'd prefer the piece be returned to Berkeley but suggested a long-term loan program could be another solution.
In the statement, Goldblatt said new procedures would be established to check anything resembling artwork before selling it as surplus.
Wengraf admits buying the piece back is a long shot, but argued the university needs to release a list of publicly funded art as a starting point.
"Procedures won't mean anything if you don't know what you have," she said.
Meanwhile, a companion piece created for the California School for the Blind is still housed on campus, Smith said.
"To look at the glass-half-full perspective, Berkeley still has a fantastic piece that's the mate to this one," she said, adding that some 500,000 visitors a year visit the Huntington.