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26 June, 2013
Modern Art Grows Old
It's not often you hear about museums giving away art work. Under most circumstances they'd sooner part with the roof. But that's the situation facing the Museum of Modern Art, known affectionately as MOMA. The problem revolves around the name. As an institution begins to get a little long in the tooth it becomes anything but modern. The museum, founded in the 1920s, is near the three-quarter century mark and some of its collection is much older than that, which in anybody's book challenges the definition of "modern art." The oldest pieces in its collection are well over one hundred years old. The problem is that among these "oldest pieces" are those by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and George Seurat, and they are some of the most valuable works in the collection.

Ordinarily, even a museum of "modern" art could simply let the conflict between its name and the age of its best work rest quietly in the back of their patrons' minds. But in this case, one particular patron, though she's been dead for fifty years, will not let the matter rest. Her name was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a co-founder of the museum, and a major name in art even without the added fact she was the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. When Mrs. Rockefeller bequeathed four works to the museum in her 1948 will, she stipulated that the two van Goghs and two Seurats were to be given new homes after fifty years, based on the logical assumption they would no longer be appropriate to the collection of a museum whose whole reason for being was to promote that art which is "modern."

It's a windfall for the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York, which gets the van Goghs, one, a drawing which dates from 1888 (Street at Stes-Maries), and another, a gouache painting dating from 1889 and Vincent's stay in the mental hospital at St. Remy (Hospital Corridor at St.-Remy). The Art Institute of Chicago will house the two Seurat drawings next to the painting for which they were done, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The van Gogh works are valued at a cool forty million. The Seurats, a mere 1.4 million. But before you shed tears for MOMA, they will continue to exhibit their three other van Goghs including, perhaps his most famous, The Starry Night and its companion piece, The Olive Grove both painted in 1889. I guess the term "modern" doesn't mean what it did fifty years ago. Whatever the case, for MOMA, parting with four of her most beloved, is anything but sweet sorrow.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 November 1998

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