For many, the art world can seem lofty or distant; the business of collecting, auctioning off and buying fine art is something often done behind the scenes. But within the last few months, a spotlight has been shined on the art industry, drawing national attention and controversy.
The Berkshire Museum, in an effort to pull out of financial troubles and to redirect its focus, proposed the sale of 40 pieces of fine art from their collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell. This idea of deaccessioning caused a stir, with many in the arts community opposing it and others feeling sympathetic to the Museum. It's become a legal issue, as the Rockwell children filed a lawsuit, but its also made people question whether or not the proposed sale will set a precedent for art museums across the country.
This controversy has been in the back of the mind of local art collectors and donors like Thomas Clark.
Clark, a resident of Saratoga County, has been collecting for almost 40 years, mostly focusing on pre-1940s American Impressionists. Since 2007, he has loaned and donated some of his pieces to The Hyde Collection and he’s promised to donate many other works in his will.
He is in the midst of negotiating the terms of his latest donation with the Hyde, making sure that both he and the Hyde have the same idea of what’s to come of the pieces once donated.
“Given, for example, what’s going on at the Berkshire Museum, I want to make sure the wording is careful,” Clark said, “Once you donate to the museum it’s theirs. That’s why the Berkshire Museum case is so illustrative.”
Ever since he began working with the Hyde in the 2000s, he’s known that he wanted to be able to share more of his collection with the fine art gallery, so that the greater Capital Region can learn something from the works and enjoy them.
“When you collect, you basically buy things because you enjoy them. If other people can see and enjoy [them], why not?” Clark said.
His expansive collection includes works by Arthur Clifton Goodwin, Jane Peterson, Allen Tucker, among others. Clark hopes that the Hyde will be able to exhibit them on a regular basis, which in museum terms, means something close to a three-year rotation.
"Donors want to have their art on display as often as possible and we share that vision," said Anne Saile, the interim director of The Hyde. "We certainly don't want a precious piece of art to go unseen," she added.
The main problem for most museums and galleries is space. Even the most expansive museum can only hold so many exhibitions at once, which is why Werner Feibes donation of artwork as well as funds was so important to the Hyde.
Feibes, a Schenectady resident and former architect and his late partner James Schmitt, have added immensely to the modern art within the Hyde’s collection over the past few years. But this year, Feibes gave an even bigger gift, donating the entire collection and the hefty sum of million dollars to create a new gallery and storage space, which opened up earlier this year. The Hyde currently has 55 of those pieces, the rest will be posthumously given.
“He [Schmitt] would say ‘It’s a great idea, but it’ll never happen in our lifetime.” Well, it happened,” Feibes said.
“We were always critical of the Hyde not having any art of our time,” Feibes said during an interview with the Gazette. The couple began collecting non-objective art in the 1950s, much of which remained in their home in Schenectady and what was once their apartment in New York City.
“It was never the idea that we would have a collection going in any one direction,” Feibes said.
Indeed, the works exhibited in their home range from an expansive kinetic George Rickey sculpture to abstracts by Ellsworth Kelly. It’s an impressive array and each comes with a story, not just on how the piece was created but how it ended up in the collection.
Feibes, now in his late 80s, remembers just about every story and will gladly tell them, often revealing the humorous side of the art world, which he and Schmitt became privy to in their years of collecting.
“What’s in the house now, I want to stay until I die,” Feibes said. Two-thirds of his collection remains with him, although he often loans out pieces as he sees fit.
There’s no doubt that galleries and museums in New York City and across the country would have campaigned for and agreed to take some of the works donated by Schmitt and Feibes.
But Feibes said that he worried the art would simply go into storage after a few years and would rarely be seen. That’s where his agreement with the Hyde got specific. Feibes asked that the Hyde continue to exhibit new works to keep the Hyde modern.
“To Distribute and Multiply,” an exhibit of 40 pieces from the Feibes and Schmitt collection was on display for much of the year, although it’s not the last time visitors can catch a glimpse of the collection. Like Clark, Feibes asked that works from the collection always be on display in some way. After all, there’s no point to donating it if there’s no one viewing it, Feibes said.
It's a sentiment that Ann and Don Eberle, though it's not as much of a concern for the donors.
The Albany couple has been involved with the Albany Institute for History and Art for several decades and their involvement began with a mysterious painting. Years ago, a relative of Don’s passed away and gave him a nautical painting. There was some sort of inscription and a small hole in the work, and, as they weren’t trained in fine art appraisal, the couple wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
“In 1969, we took it to the Albany Institute,” Ann said. The director, Norman Rice, worked with them to assess it and have it restored. It turned out to be a valuable painting and one that the sparked an interest in nautical history for the Eberles. Ever since, they’ve been involved with the Institute, either volunteering or serving on the board.
But they realized that the Institute was missing something: fine art locally created.
So for their 60th wedding anniversary, they commissioned local artist Len Tantillo to create a work that would bring in local talent, highlight a bit of unique history and fit with the Institute’s legacy. Tantillo matched that description perfectly.
“He epitomizes history and art,” Ann said.
In 2015, the couple and Tantillo met with Tammis Groft, the Institute’s executive director, and Doug McCombs, the chief curator to discuss their idea to bring a piece of historical Hudson River navigation into the Institute.
Tantillo, who is known for his historically accurate paintings, used an old ship’s carving, a digitized map, and software that allowed him to recreate the moment that Governor George Clinton arrived in Albany in 1748.
The piece, aptly titled “The 1748 Arrival of Governor George Clinton,” went on exhibit in 2016. “They had a lovely exhibit on what Albany would have looked like,” Ann said.
The Eberle’s are more concerned with not how often the work is displayed, but just that the Institute has something that represents a local artist of their time and a work that epitomizes history and art.
The Berkshire Museum debate, which seems like it won’t be over anytime soon, is not exactly a concern for the Eberles, but for Clark and other donors across the country, it’s a concern and a lesson in clarification.
“I want to be certain that we have a mutual agreement.”
The Feibes and Schmitt Gallery, which is dedicated to contemporary art, will feature "Postwar and Contemporary Art" starting on December 21. The exhibition features artists like Josef Albers, Jean (Hans) Arp, Julio Le Parc, Max Ernst, Adolph Gottlieb, Man Ray, Rober Rauschenberg and others. For more information visit hydecollection.org.