More than 50 cultural historians have signed an open letter denouncing the Newark Museum of Art’s plan to sell 17 works from its collection at auction.

When the museum first announced its artwork deactivation plan in March, few details were disclosed about which pieces would appear at Sotheby’s. However, it has since emerged that several works by American artists – including a painting by landscape artist Thomas Cole – are up for sale. This work will come to the block on May 19th.

In the letter to museum director Linda Harrison, deactivation was described as a “senseless monetization” of art. The authors urged them to “stop the self-minimization and monetization of Newark’s art” because it “causes irreparable damage” to the museum. Signatories include professors from Harvard and Yale, a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and former Newark associates such as William L. Coleman, the current director of collections and exhibitions for the Olana Partnership in Hudson, New York.

On the subject of matching items

Works by Sotheby’s include paintings by Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Eakins. Opponents have paid particular attention to Cole’s 1846 painting The Arch of Nero, which depicts a rundown Roman arch amid lush landscape. It is estimated at $ 500,000 to $ 700,000.

The letter described the Cole painting as “an urgent and important address for American republicanism,” using Nero’s ruinous rule over the Roman Republic as a metaphor for political corruption. “The painting urges Americans to be careful not to dilute and possibly dissolve their Republican experiment.”

“Newark’s great The Arch of Nero was one of the earliest paintings to deal with these subjects,” the letter continues. “It should be a centerpiece of a great museum’s American galleries.”

In a statement, Harrison said the decision to sell the works of Cole, Moran and Eakins was “carefully and thoughtfully considered” and defended the deactivation as a necessary means of funding the maintenance of the entire collection. “Deactivation is a routine and necessary part of any museum’s work and is especially important to the Newark Museum of Art, which currently has approximately 130,000 holdings,” she said.

Harrison said the sale does not violate the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and AAMD’s opt-out policies. Last year, the AAMD, which represents 240 North American museums, temporarily relaxed its restrictions on deactivation policies to help institutions offset losses from the pandemic. Since then, several museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, have sparked controversy over plans to sell works from their collection. In October last year, amid protests, the BMA put its plan to deactivate three paintings by Clyfford Still, Andy Warhol and Brice Marden on hold.

Like many institutions around the world, the Newark Museum was closed for most of the past year. If sales continue, millions of dollars could be generated for the museum.