I have written a number of posts on the proposed sale of Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” in recent weeks, but the dispute is a fascinating one, because it cuts to the heart of the importance of the connection between art and its location. Do works of art or antiquities inherently belong in a given location?
Eakins, pictured here, is recognized as one of America’s greatest artists. He was known for bringing a stark realism to his work, which could often be unflattering to his subjects. The work has been sold for $68 million to heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune for the new Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Trustees of Thomas Jefferson University voluntarily agreed to delay the sale so community leaders in Philadelphia could come up with the funds to keep the work in the city. This is a voluntary version of the UK’s export restriction, which allow the UK government time to raise funds to keep a work at home before it is exported. Some have argued that as few as 500 visitors saw the work in Philadelphia last year. I wonder if debate surrounding the sale would be quite so adamant if the work was being sold to the Met, or the MFA in Boston, rather than what some may see as a new “Wal-Mart Museum”.
Efforts to prevent or delay the sale provides an interesting new way to think about export restrictions. Many nations use export restrictions to prevent the loss of important cultural works. The US is one of the few nations without such restrictions. Philadelphia’s mayor has nominated the work for historic status, which would effectively act as an export restriction at the municipal level. Export restrictions are a reality for the art and antiquities market, but they are quite controversial. They generally involve underdeveloped source nations (such as Peru, Guatemala, or Nigeria) and wealthy market nations (like Japan, the US, or the UK). At issue in the source nation debate are inherent concerns about the less developed world, cultural appropriation, and the continued exploitation of the underdeveloped world. If Philadelphia continues to prevent the sale, it would countervene the prevailing position of the US, which generally frowns on export restrictions.
The Eakins debate strips away those concerns, as Philadelphia is on roughly the same footing as Bentonville. This allows us to focus in on the core issue, which asks, do certain works belong in a certain context? Might context be secondary to the interests of the University, which plans to use the funds to expand its campus. Also, might there be a greater value in allowing more of the public to view the work? I think so, but one thing remains clear, I’m sure the painting has earned far more visitors in recent weeks because of the controversy.