No Ordinary Princess

...anything but ordinary...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Philadelphia History vs. the Wal-Mart Empire

This is a painting entitled The Gross Clinic which was painted by Philadelphia's own Thomas Eakins in 1875. The painting has been the property of Thomas Jefferson University in downtown Philly since its purchase in 1878. It has been prominently displayed at the university since the alumni association bought it for $200. At some points, it has been displayed so it was visible from the street. It has never been permanently housed outside of Philadelphia since it was painted here.

There was a front-page headline in Saturday's Philadelphia Inquirer announcing the university's plans to sell the painting. Proceeds of the sale, a record $68 million dollars, are slated to be used toward Jefferson's ambitious $400 - $500 million dollar revamping. A noble goal. I glanced over the article but didn't really read it. As a helthcare professional in the Philadelphia area, I had some knowledge of the painting and felt sad at the possibility of its being removed from the city. I wasn't aware just how much the artwork's history was entwined with Philadelphia's.

It wasn't until Sunday that I read an entire article about the painting's expected sale. Here is what the Inquirer culture writer had to say about the sale that day. This time, I read the article through.

Stunned by sale, but not giving up

City and arts leaders are ready to try to match the $68 million price tag for Eakins' masterpiece.

By Stephan Salisbury
Inquirer Culture Writer

Shock bordering on anguish spread through Philadelphia's cultural, medical, philanthropic and political communities yesterday as news of the impending sale of Thomas Eakins' incomparable painting, The Gross Clinic, hit home across the region.

But in the midst of the immediate trauma, efforts are already stirring to save what many believe is the very heart of Philadelphia's cultural identity.

"Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic should never, never, never leave Philadelphia, where it was painted," said saddened artist Andrew Wyeth. "It is my favorite American painting."

"We have to give it our best shot," said Donald Caldwell, board chairman of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "It's going to take all of us in the community."

That sentiment echoed around town.

"People have a lot of feeling about this," said Dr. Geno Merli, a member of the executive committee of the Thomas Jefferson University Alumni Association. "There is shock... . But maybe the alumni will rise to the occasion and save the painting for Philadelphia."

The painting, which is widely seen as Eakins' masterpiece and an indelible part of the Philadelphia cultural landscape since its creation in 1875, will be sold by its owner, the university, to a partnership of a new museum being built by Wal-Mart heirs in Arkansas and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

To retain the painting here, local institutions and government agencies have been given 45 days to match the price tag of $68 million, a record for an Eakins and for a pre-World War II American painting.

The clock started ticking Friday, when the Jefferson board approved terms of the sale.

After Dec. 26, if no local match is made, the painting will be a part of Philadelphia's past, a memory haunting a depleted cultural landscape.

"I was heartsick at the news," said Stephanie Naidoff, the city's director of commerce. "I'm going to see if I can convene a meeting of stakeholders to see what the sentiment is and what might be done."

She declined further comment.

"It's such a startling piece of news," said David Haas, board chairman of the William Penn Foundation and former board chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

"I had no idea," Haas said, speaking as a private individual. "I was flabbergasted."

Painted when the artist was 31, The Gross Clinic was intended by Eakins to portray the extraordinary scientific and cultural achievements of Philadelphia. The eight-foot-high canvas depicts Dr. Samuel Gross, a renowned surgeon and educator at Jefferson, demonstrating the bloody removal of diseased bone from a patient's thigh. The dark amphitheater, packed with Jefferson students, including Eakins himself, the anguished figure of the patient's mother, the monumental figure of Gross, bloodied fingers clasping a scalpel and poised in mid-gesture - all combine to create an unforgettable image.

Although some 19th-century critics were shocked by the bloody portrayal, Jefferson alumni were so moved that they purchased the painting from the artist for $200 and donated it to the university in 1878.

The painting has been in Jefferson's possession ever since, occasionally traveling for exhibitions, most recently in the Eakins retrospective mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2002.

For many years, the painting hung in the college building on Walnut Street, between 10th and 11th Streets. (It is now located, with two Eakins portraits, in Jefferson's alumni hall on Locust Street between 10th and 11th Streets and is available for public viewing at no charge.)

"You could see the painting from the street when it was in the college building," said Julie S. Berkowitz, the university's art historian who retired in 2003. "All the old guard would come in to see it. It was part of their daily life because they would pass it every day."

"I'm extremely upset," she added. "First, that it's leaving Jefferson, and secondly, that it is leaving the Philadelphia area. I saw it every day for 12 years."

Kathleen A. Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, called The Gross Clinic "Eakins' greatest painting" and one that is inseparable from Philadelphia, the city where he was born, raised and died in 1916. His ashes are interred in Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia.

"It's not a generic painting that can be hung anywhere," Foster added. "It is all about his life, the life of the city, and the life of one of the city's greatest heroes, Dr. Gross. It is about the connections between the science, education and art of the place where it was made."

Brian Harrison, Jefferson's board chairman, said trustees formed a small committee three months ago to explore sale of the painting. Proceeds would be used to help fund the university's ambitious $400 million to $500 million plan to transform its Center City campus and educational programming.

Christie's auction house was brought in as an adviser and quickly recommended that the university pursue a private sale to "maximize the value," said Marc Porter, Christie's president.

Porter contacted the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the as-yet unbuilt Arkansas museum backed by the Wal-Mart heirs' Walton Family Foundation. Heiress Alice Walton, whose net worth is pegged at $18 billion by Forbes magazine, wanted to pursue the painting after seeing it in Philadelphia.

Walton, who is a member of the National Gallery's Trustees Council, was also behind the Crystal Bridges purchase of the New York Public Library's Kindred Spirits by Asher Durand last year. Acquisition of that painting for a record $35 million ignited considerable controversy in New York when Walton easily outbid a partnership of the Metropolitan Museum and National Gallery.

For The Gross Clinic, the National Gallery moved from being a Walton competitor to a collaborator. Officials refused to break down financing for the deal, although a National Gallery spokeswoman said her museum would participate financially in the purchase and would be a co-owner.

Porter, of Christie's, said that he wanted to avoid New York-style acrimony this time in Philadelphia and therefore suggested that a clause be added to the sale agreement granting local institutions 45 days to match the sale price. Crystal Bridges, he said, suggested bringing the National Gallery on board.

"That was really smart," said Caldwell, Pennsylvania Academy chairman. "It shows Jefferson isn't being cavalier. She [Alice Walton] got so much flak in New York, this will help her with the flak here.

"But 45 days is an extraordinarily short time when you're talking about $68 million."

Yet Anne d'Harnoncourt, director and chief executive officer of the Art Museum, said that cultural and civic leaders had started to explore possible options.

"I really, really hope that Philadelphia institutions and individuals can work together to keep it here," she said.

Want to See It?

What: The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins.

Where: The Eakins Gallery, Jefferson Alumni Hall, Thomas Jefferson University, 1020 Locust St., Center City. Request entry at information desk, main entrance.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; last visitors admitted at 3:45 p.m. Limit of 15 visitors at a time.

Admission: Free


Now I got pissed. It seems the purchase is being arranged by the Walton Family Foundation and Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, and the painting is slated to be moved to the proposed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. Apparently, Ms. Walton saw the painting when she was in Phihladelphia and wanted it for her museum. So, Philadelphia history be hanged, forget the fact that this piece of art was painted in the city and depicts a Philadelphia physician and medical professor, to hell with its as yet unbroken ties to Philadelphia, Ms. Walton with an estimated worth of $18 billion wants that painting in Arkansas.

In order to avoid the flak she received when she purchased another famous painting, Arthus Durand's Kindred Spirits from New York Public Library last year, this purchase allows local institutions 45 days...a month and a raise a matching bid in order to keep the painting hanging in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia also happens to be the location of the first hospital in the United States.

C'mon, Philly! We can do it! There's got to be some philanthropist out there with fairly deep pockets who's willing to see that this integral piece of Philadelphia's medical history does not wind up in the hands of the recipients of the wealth of the Evil Demon Wal-Mart. Let's keep this piece of Philly right here where it belongs!

tags: art / history / medical history / medicine / Philadelphia


Blogger Yvonne said...

Cher, can you please explain to me why Wal-Mart is an evil demon? I know it's a store that sells just about everything etc. But I was always under the impression that it was a popular, low cost place to shop. I know from your previous posts that they pay shit wages and that's it.

Love Yvonne

13/11/06 5:02 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

a) undercuts local businesses and puts them out of business.
b) is unscrupulous in their employment practices...low wages, part-time or temp jobs, very actively supresses union organization, has more employees on Medicaid (for low income people without health insurance) in Pennsylvania than any other employer (this is probably true in many other states as well).
c) buys and sells merchandise of cheap quality, probably (I'm not certain about this) manufactured in poor countries in sweatshop conditions. (Okay, lots of stores do this).
d) builds in other states with large, powerful construction unions by bringing in people from Arkansas and not paying prevailing union wages.
e) is becoming a giant octopus, sucking more and more away from local businesses and spreading like a virus.

I will not go there or buy anything from them, regardless how much cheaper it may be than at the store down the street. They are almost becoming a retailing monopoly and I will do nothing to support them.

To each his own. My best friend shops there all lthe time so we really just cancel each other out.


13/11/06 11:54 PM  
Blogger Yvonne said...

Ok now I understand. We do much the same thing here. We always go to a store called Chapman's. It has been here for forever and they only sell fruit and veg. But their prices and their quality are outstanding. I can never understand why people don't shop there, and are willing to pay double the price at the bigger stores. And they know us and are so friendly. I like going there.

We also go to Singo's Meats. They sell in bulk and are always a couple of dollars or more, cheaper per kilo than the big stores are.

I only go to big stores for things I cannot get elsewhere. And sometimes I will willingly pay more to give the money to a small business rather than a conglomerate? if that's the right word.

Justin does the same thing. There is a small family owned service station on his way home. The have loaves of bread for 99c and 2 litres of milk for $1.89. So he always gets the milk and bread from them and most of the time his fuel as well.

We could shop at Aldi and save ourselves a fortune, but after the way they treated and fired me. We refuse to give them even a cent of our money. Sorry it's such a long comment :)

15/11/06 12:32 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Yes, I really need to search out some good local produce places and butchers rather than going to the Acme or Shop Rite. I do love Target, though...and their prices are nearly on par with the evil demon Wal-Mart. Worth a little extra to shop with a clear conscience.

15/11/06 1:20 AM  
Blogger Unsane said...

Maybe it's evil because it's bland. At least that is my additional offering from a global distance.

23/3/07 12:50 AM  

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