Thursday, April 21, 2005

Rhode Island Historical Society: Selling A Desk V

Perhaps the Brown desk won't have to be sold after all. (For earlier posts see: I, II, III, IV)
An anonymous donor has given the historical society $750,000, to postpone and potentially end much-criticized plans to sell a prized possession: a rare Colonial-era desk-and-bookcase once owned by Providence merchant Joseph Brown.

Since the historical society's board of directors voted in January to sell the mahogany museum piece to prevent a financial crisis, the society has been in turmoil.

Some board members walked away. Docents rose up. Curators looked down, calling the society tacky, and worse, unethical.

But, according to the historical society, in an announcement yesterday, much good has arisen from the desk debate, including a call from a person of means.

Bernard Fishman, executive director, said the gift, one of the largest in the society's 183 years, came from a "very generous" person. This person wishes to give the historical society a few months' "breathing room," -- time to attract other philanthropists, or time to come up with a plan to improve finances and possibly avoid selling the desk, he said. He, and Roger N. Begin, president of the society, yesterday called the donation an expression of faith in the Rhode Island Historical Society. . .He said, however, selling the desk is still on the table as an option. . .

Last fall, an internal review found that the historical society's endowment had dropped by nearly 30 percent in six years, from $6.5 million in 1998 to $4.5 million in 2004. The review also found that future operating costs could result in deficits of up to $700,000.

The society's leadership has said the past leadership lived beyond its means, and drained the endowment. . . .In January, the board voted 15-7 to auction off the desk. It was estimated that the desk could get $10 million at an auction, enough to create an endowment to preserve the society's collection.

Since then, descendants of the Brown and Goddard families protested, as did many in the cultural community. Four of the seven dissenting board members left, said Luther Spoehr, a lecturer in history and education at Brown University. Docents giving tours were "very unhappy" over the desk, he added.

Spoeher is a member of the historical society's board of directors, and voted to sell the desk. "You don't hang onto one artifact if it means the entire organization goes under," he said. "It's as simple as that." Of the $750,000 donation announced yesterday, Spoeher said: "I think it's good news. It buys us some time." He hopes another "financial angel" comes forward. . .

"All the anger and emotion that was spent over those Audubon prints and they weren't even created in Rhode Island," said Roos, of the Newport Restoration Foundation.

By contrast, he said, the Joseph Brown desk is not only made in Rhode Island, it is Rhode Island. "It says that we're innovators in design. . . that this tiny little state, yes, we're innovators, we're important," he said. It's all a lot to place on a desk. So the Rhode Island Historical Society sees to it that the piece is pampered. It's feather-dusted daily. Kept out of the sun. The room temperature is just so. The visitors stop by, Fishman said, more than ever these days.

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