Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Price of a New Museum

Last weekend my mother and I went to the Neue Galerie, the museum of Austrian and German art along Central Park across Fifth Avenue from the Met.

It's in a corner building from 1914, built by the architects who designed the famous New York Public Library. It was built as a private home. In 1994, the art collector Serge Sabarsky bought it with Ronald Lauder (of Estée Lauder cosmetics fame; he is her son) to house the former's collection of Austrian and German art. Lauder was ambassador to Austria in 1986, appointed by Reagan. He ran for mayor of New York in 1989 and has been the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. The Neue Galerie opened in 2001 after a renovation.

The pride of the museum's collection is the painting above, Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an oil painting with gold and silver from 1907. The woman in the painting was the wife of an Austrian Jewish business man who made money in sugar.

The painting was fought over for years with the subject's niece on one side and the Austrian government, which claimed the painting and others by Klimt were willed to it, on the other. The family's claim was that their possessions were seized by the Nazis. The family sued the Austrian government in U.S. courts all the way to the Supreme Court. Eventually, the painting and four others by Klimt were theirs once again.

Last June, Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold to Ronald Lauder for the sum of $135 million dollars, the most over paid for a single painting.

It now hangs in the Neue Galerie, on the second floor, in a prominent place. It's a beautiful painting, but it was hard for me to focus on it -- I've seen posters of Klimt's more famous painting The Kiss hanging in girls' dorm rooms far too many times to be dazzled by any of Klimt's gilt and patchwork. It ceases to have any meaning for me.

It's worth pausing for moment to marvel at the price of the painting, though -- $135 million. To put that into perspective, no easy feat, consider the addition to Frank Gehry's first museum design, the Weisman Museum (1993) on the University of Minnesota campus. Gehry has the rare opportunity to design the expansion of his own building, something few architects ever live to do.

The addition will add 11,000 square feet to the museum's 47,000, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, an expansion of 25 percent. The museum cost $14.3 million to build, and the expansion is predicted to cost another $10 million. That's about one quarter of the cost of Ronald Lauder's Klimt painting.

It makes one wonder what it would cost to start a museum from nothing -- surely the price of construction is only a fraction of whst it costs to stock the damn thing. Alice L. Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress is doing just that. In 2005 she bought Asher B. Durand's famous American painting Kindred Spirits (1849) for about the price of the Weisman Museum's construction and expansion -- $35 million. She bought it from the New York Public Library to install in her planned Bentonville, Arkansas museum, which will be designed by Moshe Safdie (who recently completed the amazing Salt Lake City Library) and called The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Walton's collection already contains two famous portraits of George Washington, one (at right) by Gilbert Stuart (1797) and another by Charles Willson Peale (1780-82). The latter painting cost a mere $6.2 million.

Mrs. Walton could learn a lot from the painter Charles Willson Peale. He was also the founder of the oldest art museum and art school in America, what is now the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He started it with some other business leaders in 1805, decades after his own Peale Museum opened in 1786.

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