Saturday, March 26, 2005

"One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?"

Was Iris Chang "One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?"
On November 6 she spoke to Paula Kamen, whom she knew from university, and told her that she was struggling to deal with the magnitude of the misery she had uncovered, listened to and written about. She begged to be remembered as lively and confident. It was the last conversation they would have. Two days later, Chang was even more despondent than she had previously been. Her husband tried to calm her down but eventually fell asleep.

At some point in the night, Chang got into her white 1999 Oldsmobile, taking with her a six-round pistol that she had bought from an antique weapons dealer to defend herself from attackers. She drove to a country road, loaded the pistol with black powder and lead balls, aimed it at her head and fired. She was found a few hours later, along with a farewell note to her family.

Yet even in death Chang was not rid of the controversy. In recent memorial services across China, historians have blamed intense hostility from Japan for her death. The People’s Daily in Beijing hailed Chang as a “warrior full of justice” and a “dart thrown against the Japanese rightists”. In April the massacre museum in Nanjing will add a statue of Chang to its commemorative collection, in effect giving her the status of a massacre victim, with a finger pointed firmly across the Sea of Japan. The San Francisco Chronicle seemed to concur: “Many wonder if the gentle, sympathetic young woman was the massacre’s latest victim.”
How sad...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Call to Rid the Left of Postmodern Thinking

Barry Seidman at Philosophy Now has reviewed David Detmer’s book, Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy & the Politics of Truth. According to Seidman
Challenging Postmodernism is a philosophical treatise which examines the problems with postmodernism and its anti-humanistic implications, and tries to determine whether or not the intellectual Left is indeed guilty en masse of cultural relativism. It then explains how a progressive politic is indeed very much in step with Enlightenment humanism.
Further, Seidman's summary of Detmer's thesis is a concise deconstruction of postmodern "philosophy"
In the opening chapters, Detmer points out the faulty logic of postmodernism by reviewing the concept of self-referential inconsistencies, and the ‘Argument from Disagreement.’ The former occurs, in Detmer’s words, because when “relativism is judged, as seems only reasonable and fair, in the light of its own explicitly stated content, it seems to contradict itself.” That is, if truth is to be regarded as merely a construct of society, rather than reflecting how things really are, then the claim that truth is socially constructed, must itself be understood as a social construct rather than a reflection of how things really are.

‘The Argument from Disagreement’ has two premises. The first asserts that there is no consensus in some area of thinking, but rather controversy and disagreement. The second premise that if there really was a way things really are, we would not have so much controversy about it. Detmer offers several explanations for how misleading this kind of argument is. One is the fact that “frequently, not all parties to a dispute have access to the same evidence. (Therefore) people confuse relativity of justified belief with relativity of truth.” This leads Detmer to implement critical thinking, and inquire as to how we gain access to evidence in the first place (we being the general public, and not scientists and philosophers).

That access, in today’s world, is gained through the media.
It is here where Seidman and I diverge. In the "what it all means" portion of the review, Seidman applauds Detmer's use of Noam Chomsky as an "objective" news source. And while he does take the news media to task for trying to present arguments as being a choice of either/or or black/white/no-shades-of-gray and for trying to offer voices with the most entertainment value (John McCain or Joe Biden, anyone?), it is in making this last point that he betrays his leftward cant.
Also, Detmer points out that the press’s criteria for finding out who should provide the two sides to any argument, they often look for who will offer the best ‘entertainment value,’ for who is most popular, or for which opinion fits the political slant of their publication or production (as is well-known, many of these have shifted far to the Right since the merging of major mass media operations, mostly owned by the likes of Clear Channel, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney.)
Sure, the ownership may be conservative in their management style because it is sound business practice, but to imply that because media ownership is more conservative means that media content and news analysis has shifted "far to the Right" is a stretch. Finally, Seidman wraps up his review with a quote from Detmer
Quoting Chomsky for the purpose of emphasizing an ethical framework based on Enlightenment Humanism and of the virtues of truth, Detmer records, “Why don’t our leaders tell the truth? When they’re going to destroy Iraq, why don’t they announce: 'Look, we want to control the international oil system. We want to establish the principle that the world is ruled by force, because that’s the only thing that we’re good at. We want to prevent any independent nationalism. We’ve got nothing against Saddam Hussein. He’s a friend of ours. He’s tortured and gassed people. That was fine. But then he disobeyed orders. Therefore, he must be destroyed as a lesson to other people: Don’t disobey orders.'”
I'll let that stand on it's own as an indication from where Detmer and Seidman view politics, etc.

In summary, the review is valuable in that it provides a good synopsis of how to undercut your postmodern friends in a dinner party debate. It is also valuable in revealing that even poor reasoning leftists agree that postmodernism is bunk.

Friday, March 18, 2005

History's Most Misunderstood Concept

The Chronicle of Higher Ed asked four scholars to explain the most misunderstood concepts in their fields in "The Short List: Misunderstood Concepts." Robert J. Norrell, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville offered that it was the concept of objectivity:
The most misunderstood concept in history is objectivity. I entered the academic world in the aftermath of 1960s idealism with the faith that the truth would set me, and society, free. I thought, 'Let's study the past, identify the wrongs done, and correct them' -- an idea that presumed confidence in both human authority in the world and our ability to objectively establish what was wrong in society.

Objectivity as an ideal for historians, however, soon lost favor. In the 1970s, historians began a quest to include those who had been left out of our typical narratives: blacks, women, the working class. Influenced by the countercultural influences of the 60s, those practicing this 'new history' often dismissed old history as biased in favor of white, male elites in the West, and tended to celebrate those forgotten people without subjecting them to the same tough-minded criticism that they were applying to the old elites.

Postmodernist thought in the 80s continued to undermine historians' notions of objectivity, and for many younger historians, the pursuit of truth held about the same importance as looking for the Loch Ness monster. They presumed instead that all reality is constructed according to internal or group perspective, mainly by class, race, or gender. With reality so fractured by our limited perspectives, they felt, it is therefore impossible to determine an objective truth -- and is, in fact, misguided to even try.

The problem was that the academy's dismissal of objectivity set us against the larger public that likes to read history and think historically. The average nonacademic person believes that historical truth can be established, or at least approximated, and that the value of history is its ability to teach us actually what our experience has been. This divide between academic history and what the public understands about the past has resulted from the intellectuals' too-casual dismissal of the human capacity to seek truth, which has undermined our ability to shape understandings of the past outside the academy.
While I am by no means a strong believer in post-modernism as a historical "method," I do believe that the repercussions of post-modern thought have forced historians to look in new places for sources and to re-evaluate the old sources. As Norrell mentions though, the critical eye should properly be fixed on the new groups who benefitted from post-modern historical analysis. Thus, many disparate truths can be combined into a whole. It is obvious people have different perceptions of what happened. Usually it is a combination of many factors that best explains "the truth."

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Jaded Utopianist

In "The last of the utopian projects," Eric Hobsbawm asks
Did perestroika herald "the end of history"? The collapse of the experiment initiated by the October Revolution is certainly the end of a history. That experiment will not be repeated, although the hope it represented, at least initially, will remain a permanent part of human aspirations. And the enormous social injustice which gave communism its historic force in the last century is not diminishing in this one. But was it "the end of history" as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in 1989, in a phrase that he no doubt regrets?
The answer is, of course, "NO", it was not the end of History. And though many have misunderstood Fukuyama's main thesis, Hobsbawm clearly doesn't when, after a paragraph summarizing (yet again) the U.S. drive for world empire, he continues:
Even more questionable is the wider - almost quasi-Hegelian - sense of Fukuyama's phrase. It implies that history has an end, namely a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions. There is no historic justification for teleology, whether non-Marxist or Marxist, and certainly none for believing in unilinear and uniform worldwide development.

Both evolutionary science and the experiences of the 20th century have taught us that evolution has no direction that allows us concrete predictions about its future social, cultural and political consequences.

The belief that the US or the European Union, in their various forms, have achieved a mode of government which, however desirable, is destined to conquer the world, and is not subject to historic transformation and impermanence, is the last of the utopian projects so characteristic of the last century. What the 21st needs is both social hope and historical realism.
It is interesting that one who was so wedded to his own utopian ideal (Communism), now dispenses with the possibility that any other set of ideals can be approached. As for myself, I don't believe that any set of "utopian ideals" can ever be attained either, but Hobsbawm has the tone of one who, after seeing his own worldview dismantled, has resolved to dismantle that of others by essentially saying they are wasting their time in the effort. In short, Hobsbawm assumes that because he and his fellow Communists wrongly believed that their socio-political model would prove everlasting, proponents of other socio-political arrangements will "repeat history" and the results will be similar failure. While it's nice to see that he now believes in some degree of "historical realism," (basing it, it seems, on "evolutionary history", which is in and of itself an interesting theory) he misses the mark in trying to peg those who believe in "a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions" as being utopianists. According to my albeit amature understanding, once a society reaches Utopia, its citizenry believes that it can go on autopilot and that no tweaking needs to be done. As such, vigilance is lost. In the case of Communism, even when the ideals on which it was based were bastardized and undercut, the Communist idealist failed or wouldn't see the problem and sought to paper over the cracks in the system. With no means to fix the system, it became unworkable.

However, Hobsbawm's warning is worth heeding because it is true that no system that is perfect in theory is perfect in application, but his cynical assumptions don't undercut the "theory of liberty" on this point for two reasons. One is that liberal democracies don't assume they are perfect for everyone within the society and are forever being changed and modified to meet practical problems with pragmatic solutions that are often at odds with ideals previously espoused by that society. The second is related to the first. Liberal democracies are generally aware that they must always be on guard against threats to liberty from power (to borrow from Bernard Bailyn and his example of the radical Whig commonwealthmen). As such, vigilance is at the very core of the system. So long as citizens maintain this vigilance and make sure that they can continue to take action against encroaching power, liberal democracies will succeed.

The Relative Evils of Fascism and Communism

Slavoj Zizek begins an essay titled "The Two Totalitarianisms" with this observation:
A small note – not the stuff of headlines, obviously – appeared in the newspapers on 3 February. In response to a call for the prohibition of the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, a group of conservative members of the European Parliament, mostly from ex-Communist countries, demanded that the same apply to Communist symbols: not only the hammer and sickle, but even the red star. This proposal should not be dismissed lightly: it suggests a deep change in Europe’s ideological identity.

Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why?
Zizek explains what he believes are both the valid and flawed points of the argument and some of the comparisons he makes are worth pointing out.
Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes. But for the Nazis the guilt of the Jews was a fact of their biological constitution: there was no need to prove they were guilty, since they were guilty by virtue of being Jews.

In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included. . . . Consider the fact that, on Stalin’s birthday, prisoners would send him congratulatory telegrams from the darkest gulags: it isn’t possible to imagine a Jew in Auschwitz sending Hitler such a telegram. It is a tasteless distinction, but it supports the contention that under Stalin, the ruling ideology presupposed a space in which the leader and his subjects could meet as servants of Historical Reason. Under Stalin, all people were, theoretically, equal. . .

Nazism displaces class struggle onto racial struggle and in doing so obfuscates its true nature. What changes in the passage from Communism to Nazism is a matter of form, and it is in this that the Nazi ideological mystification resides: the political struggle is naturalised as racial conflict, the class antagonism inherent in the social structure reduced to the invasion of a foreign (Jewish) body which disturbs the harmony of the Aryan community. It is not, as Nolte claims, that there is in both cases the same formal antagonistic structure, but that the place of the enemy is filled by a different element (class, race). Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism. . .

[t]he irrationality of Nazism was ‘condensed’ in anti-semitism – in its belief in the Jewish plot – while the irrationality of Stalinism pervaded the entire social body. For that reason, Nazi police investigators looked for proofs and traces of active opposition to the regime, whereas Stalin’s investigators were happy to fabricate evidence, invent plots etc.
He also calls to task Communist thinkers who saw the flaw in Stalinism but did little to bring it in line with the "true" Communist ideals.
We should also admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism. It is, in this respect, a scandal that the Frankfurt School failed to produce a systematic and thorough analysis of the phenomenon. The exceptions are telling: Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), which suggested that the three great world-systems – New Deal capitalism, Fascism and Stalinism – tended towards the same bureaucratic, globally organised, ‘administered’ society; Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism (1958), his least passionate book, a strangely neutral analysis of Soviet ideology with no clear commitments; and, finally, in the 1980s, the attempts by some Habermasians who, reflecting on the emerging dissident phenomena, endeavoured to elaborate the notion of civil society as a site of resistance to the Communist regime – interesting, but not a global theory of the specificity of Stalinist totalitarianism. How could a school of Marxist thought that claimed to focus on the conditions of the failure of the emancipatory project abstain from analysing the nightmare of ‘actually existing socialism’? And was its focus on Fascism not a silent admission of the failure to confront the real trauma?

It is here that one has to make a choice. The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat.
Zizek clearly believes Fascism, particularly Nazism, worse than Communism. To me, the whole debate is premised upon the kind of false either/or choice that only an academic would engage in. While his points of contrast are interesting, the very real result of life under both systems was tragic. While we can debate which was more evil, the bottom line is that both political systems resulted in evil acts done in their "name," regardless of the ideals that purportedly formed their foundation.

Rhode Island Historical Society: Selling A Desk IV

Having blogged, or more accurately, passed along, the debate regarding the Brown Family 9-shell desk, I am happy to pass along a piece regarding the historical importance of the desk, sans the debate. (Excerpted from here):
"It really is a one-of-a-kind piece," says Thomas S. Michie, former decorative arts curator at the RISD Museum and an authority on Colonial-era Rhode Island furniture. "Even in the rarefield world of Colonial furniture, the Joseph Brown desk is in a class by itself."

Michie, who recently moved to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says the desk's unique history makes it especially important. Long attributed to Newport's Townsend-Goddard workshop, the desk is now thought to be the work of Providence cabinetmaker John Carlile Jr.

"Until recently, Newport was considered the gold standard for Colonial furniture in Rhode Island," Michie says. "Now the pendulum seems to be swinging in the other direction. Now we know there were great cabinetmakers working in Providence and Newport."

Still, what difference does it make if the desk was made in Newport or Providence? A lot, say Michie and other experts.

For one thing, it proves that Providence had skilled craftsmen capable producing high-style Colonial furniture. Until recently, scholars had assumed that Newport, as Rhode Island's largest and wealthiest Colonial city, was the state's only source for such furniture.

The desk also has a number of unusual features -- notably a series of nine carved scallop shells on its drawers and cabinets.

"By themselves, scallop shells are nothing special," Michie explains. "What makes the Joseph Brown desk unique is the number of shells, and the fact that the shells are carved directly into the drawers and cabinets rather than being carved separately, then applied later."

While such details may seem obscure, they can also provide information about the past that might otherwise remain hidden. Michie, for example, speculates that the maker of the Joseph Brown desk may have been trying to beat Newport cabinetmakers at their own game.

"For Newport cabinemakers like the Townsends and Goddards, six shells was usually the maximum," he says. "To make a desk with nine scallop shells might have been a way of saying, 'Hey, whatever you can do, I can do better.' "

That, in turn, could shed light on the growing rivalry between Providence and Newport at the end of the Colonial period, according to Wendy A. Cooper, a curator at Delaware's Winterthur Museum.

"Before the Revolution, Newport was clearly the dominant city," Cooper says. "Yet by the end of the war, Providence had emerged as the real economic powerhouse. In that context, it makes sense that a prominent member of Providence's merchant class -- Joseph Brown -- would commission a desk from a Providence rather than a Newport workshop."

At the same time, Cooper notes that Joseph Brown's brothers -- John, Nicholas and Moses -- all owned Newport-made desk-and-bookcases. Indeed, it was the sale of one of those desks in 1987 that set the record for a piece of American furniture at auction: $12.1 million.

"There's still a lot we don't know," says Cooper.

The masterpiece

Interestingly, Michie and Cooper both give Newport cabinetmakers higher marks for style than their Providence counterparts.

"The best Newport pieces are incredibly refined," says Cooper. "There's a feeling for wood as a living, organic material that you don't find anywhere else, including Providence. In that sense, people like the Townsends and Goddards were more like artists than artisans."

Michie agrees, describing the Joseph Brown desk as "chunky" and "heavy" compared to similar Newport pieces.

Yet Michie and Cooper also say such stylistic considerations are beside the point in gauging the desk's historical value. In their view, the desk's connections to Brown, Carlile and Providence make it an invaluable part of the Historical Society's collection.

"It really is the masterpiece of Providence furniture-making," says Michie. "No matter what kind of financial problems the Historical Society is facing, I don't see how they can justify selling it. It violates everything they're supposed to stand for."

Cooper, who has worked as an adviser to the Historical Society, would say only that she is "saddened" by the society's decision to sell the Brown desk. But she did agree to talk about the desk's social and cultural background -- a subject with which she is well acquainted.

Indeed, it was a 1999 essay by Cooper and another scholar, Tara Gleason, that firmly placed the Brown desk in the context of Providence cabinetmaking clans such as the Rawsons and the Carliles.

"Almost from the beginning, people had noticed differences about the Joseph Brown desk," she says. "It had nine shells, not the usual three or six. The pediment was different. The moldings were different. The problem was that we didn't have a context for it."

Hand-scrawled inscription

Cooper says a major breakthrough came in 1982, when a scholar named Joseph K. Ott noticed a hand-scrawled inscription on a Colonial-era desk owned by a private collector. The inscription read: "Providence August 6 1785 John Carlile junr of said town Joyner."

"It was first time a specific piece of furniture had been connected to a specific furniture-maker working in Providence," Cooper says. "In retrospect, I think you could say that was the catalyst."

Since then, Cooper and other scholars have continued to gather information on Providence furniture and furniture-makers.

We now know, for example, that Carlile was part of a larger family of "joyners" or woodworkers who moved to Providence from Boston in the mid-1750s. We also know that the city had at least one other major furniture-making workshop -- this one headed by Grindal Rawson, another Massachuetts native who moved to Providence in 1752.

Scholars have also identified a number of features that distinguish high-style Colonial furniture from Providence.

For example, Providence furniture-makers typically carved shells and other decorative motifs directly into the body of their pieces, a process that gives them a bolder, more sculptural appearance. Details on Newport furniture, on ther other, were often carved separately, then applied as finishing touches to drawers and cabinets.

Another distinctive feature is the use of complex moldings, including an unusual arch-shaped foot that loops upward on the instep, then dips suddenly before resuming its upward climb. By contrast, Newport furniture-makers generally preferred simpler, more elegant moldings.

Brown may have helped

Codifying such features has allowed scholars to identify other examples of Providence-made furniture, including a nine-shell chest-on-chest (also attributed to John Carlile Jr.) in Winterthur's collection, and another chest in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Scholars have also uncovered a number of connections between Carlile and Joseph Brown.

Indeed, both Michie and Cooper point to similarities between the top, or pediment, of Brown's desk and the roof of his residence at 50 South Main St. as evidence that Brown may have helped Carlile design the desk.

"It's an intriguing idea," says Cooper. "We know that Brown had an interest in architecture and design. There's also speculation that he may have designed his own house. So why not the desk?"

Friday, March 11, 2005

Rhode Island Historical Society: Selling A Desk III

David Brussat, in "A deskful of hope and hypocrisy," extends the debate on the Brown 'shell desk and exposes the "hypocrisy" of some of those critical of the RIHS plan to sell the desk to fund their endowment.
Our memories are so short. Even recent history challenges recollection. Take the sale of a desk to save a house steeped in Rhode Island history. The sale was a case of "one icon saving the other."

Who said that?

Capt. Nicholas Brown said that in 1989, as he donated his desk to be put up at auction to finance repairs of the Nightingale-Brown House, built in 1791 and once the home of his late parents. Today, he opposes the sale of a similar desk to save another icon -- the Rhode Island Historical Society, founded in 1822, almost as old as its colonial-era desk.

This time, the planned sale of a desk has set off furor and umbrage unseen since . . . well, since last year, when the Providence Athenaeum sought to sell an original folio of Audubon bird engravings to solve its own financial problems.

Critics asserted that the Athenaeum had been secretive about its plans to sell the folio. So the Historical Society opened its decision-making to public view. But that won it few points with foes of the sale, and a barrage commenced in short order.

Almost every notable critic of the society's proposed sale has been involved, it seems to me, in decisions far more corrosive of Rhode Island's heritage than the society's proposal to sell its desk.

Edward Sanderson, director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, resigned from the society's board. But his agency has approved projects that would mar or even block views of the State House. It okayed a glass box on top of the Masonic Temple (a version of the hotel project that fell through) and the modernist GTECH headquarters now under construction, which will block the State House from some angles and, in my opinion, ruin Waterplace Park. Sanderson has no standing to object to the mere sale of a desk.

Roger Mandle, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote a letter to The Journal ("R.I. heritage sale," Feb. 23) asserting that the sale "grossly betrays the preservation of regional heritage." But RISD's planned modernist Chace Center, on North Main Street, would be a far worse betrayal -- tantamount to spraying graffiti on a canvas of the collective work of local architects going back more than two centuries. RISD's planned desecration of the city's first street leaves Mandle with no standing to criticize the mere sale of a desk.

Is it something in their drinking water?

Frank Mauran III, ringleader of opposition to the Athenaeum's Audubon sale, sought to demolish a row of historic triple-deckers he owned at Benefit and Bowen streets. And he a former president of the Providence Preservation Society! Mauran has no standing to criticize the mere sale of a book.

Some will deny that these architectural disruptions are comparable to selling a desk. Indeed, they are far worse. They erode civic history and beauty that, unlike even the most rare and valuable desk in a house museum, the public enjoys every day. The desk may be sold but it won't be demolished.

Not all of the opponents of the desk sale have committed sins against architecture. Hardly. The very same Captain Brown was the director of Preserve Rhode Island when it tried, not long ago, to auction off original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He now objects to the sale of a desk. What cheek!

But wait, there's more!

In January, the Goddard and Brown families -- including three who signed a letter by Captain Brown criticizing the society -- auctioned off furniture that included a 1760s tea table, which fetched $8.4 million. Other items among those sold had been on public display at the Nightingale-Brown House. Yes, it was theirs to sell, but now it's no less gone from Rhode Island. They have no standing to criticize the society for planning to sell a desk donated unconditionally in 1944.

This catalogue of hypocrisy does not prove the rightness or wrongness of any decision to sell off historical treasures. Rather, it suggests that some mysterious factor beyond regret at the potential loss of a desk must explain all the hyperventilating.

Doubtless, well-heeled and well-connected readers are already composing deft ripostes to this column. Save your energy. Spend your money instead.

A consortium drawn exclusively from the personages and institutions named in this column could buy the desk. They could display it in the RISD Museum's excellent furniture collection -- where it really belongs -- or elsewhere in Rhode Island.

Or perhaps they could get money from the defunct, or at least hibernating, Heritage Harbor Museum project and use it to bail out the Historical Society (and, for that matter, other cultural nonprofits whose donor pools were for years drained by Heritage Harbor). That way, the society wouldn't have to sell the desk to ensure its own survival.

The Rhode Island Historical Society doesn't want to sell the desk. But to keep it in Rhode Island, leadership must come from those who have not stepped up to the plate, except to criticize. I don't think they've got it in them. Please prove me wrong.
Meanwhile, Robert E. Cusack, a member of the Rhode Island State Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and a financial assets manager, explains that there is a way to both sell historical treasures to private interests to raise money and for the general public to still have access to those items.
This loss of important historical resources, many of which are unique to Rhode Island, diminishes all of us, both those with a keen appreciation of these things and those who have yet to learn about them. Of course, the financial problems of the institutions that prompt the sales have not happened overnight, and the stresses and strains the financial pressures have produced have caused rancor and clashes of personalities that make it all the more difficult to attract the major gifts that would solve the budget shortfalls. Moreover, prospective donors wonder if their gifts would truly solve the financial problems once and for all, or would they be asked again for help in a few years' time?

But what if there were another way to solve the financial problems and yet keep the treasures? What if an organization could sell the "priceless" object but still have it to exhibit? What if Audubon's The Birds of America and the nine-shell Joseph Brown desk could stay in Rhode Island?

A new entity, itself a nonprofit, could be formed to raise funds, buy the assets, and lend them back to the organizations to display. This entity would advise a trust established at the Rhode Island Foundation, for example, which would invest the funds raised, and distribute annual income at the rate of, say, 4.5 percent, to the institution, to supplement its budget.

As the principal value of the invested assets grew, so would the dollar amount of the annual distributions. Thus, the institution would have the effect of an increase in endowment, with a prudent level of withdrawals available, but would not control the principal -- or the art object, either, for that matter.

The new entity, under no pressure of programs or salaries to fund, would simply pay a rising "allowance" to the old entities. If for any reason the old entities got in financial trouble again, then at least the most important assets would be safe.

And why would donors want to help? I believe they always did, but found many reasons to think twice. They now would not have to choose sides in the battles among board factions. They now could know that a prudent steward of the capital raised would be there to safeguard both the investments and the collection. In fact, if it made financial sense to temporarily lend an item to a museum in another part of the country for a fee, that could be another source of income.

By the way, over 80,000 people in 2002 paid admission to see four of the Audubon birds prints at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The folio at the Providence Athenaeum has 435 prints in (rare) loose-leaf form to display, and valuable collections today travel routinely, with the help of professionals.

Although the Athenaeum purchased the Audubon folio, most of the treasures in the hands of Rhode Island institutions were donated by owners confident that the objects would be kept safe, made available to the public, and retained indefinitely. To put it mildly, recent developments will have a chilling effect on potential future donations of valuable and historically significant objects. Objects that might have been given to local nonprofits may simply be sold to faraway high bidders and lost to Rhode Island forever.

A new entity protected from financial pressure could not only save treasures currently endangered, but also provide peace of mind to future donors -- encouraging gifts that future generations would be able to view and appreciate.
Thus, it's not really an either/or situation.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Rhode Island Historical Society: Selling A Desk II

As mentioned earlier, the Rhode Island Historical Society, cash-strapped from poor endowment management and bad decisions, has decided to auction off a rare desk, estimated to be worth $10-12 million. Now, members of the family who originally donated the desk are protesting the potential sale. From the Providence Journal story:
In a Feb. 16 letter to society president Roger Begin, members of the Brown and Goddard families say the sale would violate the "intent of the gift" that brought the desk to the Historical Society in 1944. Prior to 1944, the desk belonged to Brown & Ives, a Providence company that traces its roots to the days of the desk's original owner: 18th-century merchant Joseph Brown.

The letter, which was released to The Journal this week, also questions whether the society's financial problems are as acute as its officials maintain.

Last fall, an internal review found that the 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, which is posted on the society's Web site (, also found that future operating costs could result in deficits of up to $700,000 a year.

But Nicholas Brown, a former director of Baltimore's National Aquarium and one of the Brown family members to sign the letter, said the review exaggerated the extent of the society's financial crisis.

"If you look closely at the report, it's clear the deficit numbers don't reflect the society's current situation," Brown said. "What they've done is take a bunch of programs and other initiatives that they want to implement after they sell the desk and simply folded them into their financial projections for future years."

Brown said the society should explore other options -- including selling its longtime administrative headquarters, Aldrich House -- before selling the Joseph Brown desk. (In addition to Aldrich House, the Historical Society operates the John Brown House Museum and the RIHS Library in Providence, and the Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket.)

Rhode Island Historical Society / David Schultz

This mahogany desk and bookcase is expected to fetch up to $10 million in auction.

"The problem with selling the desk is that once you've sold it, it's gone," said Brown. "You can't get it back."

At the same time, Brown conceded that mounting a legal challenge to the sale would be difficult. He noted that the desk had been given to the Historical Society without specific directions for its future care or display.

"Basically, our position is that the sale violates the spirit and intent of the bequest," Brown said. "The question of whether there's a solid legal basis to challenge the sale is, at best, murky."

Contacted about the letter -- which was also signed by Angela Brown Fischer, William H.D. Goddard and Thomas P.I. Goddard -- the Historical Society yesterday released a statement saying that it is willing to discuss any "realistic ways to strengthen the society in ways that would make selling the Joseph Brown desk unnecessary."

However, the statement added that "no realistic alternative to selling the desk has yet appeared."

The statement also detailed steps the society has already taken to ease its financial problems, including eliminating one-fifth of its paid staff and reducing hours at its Hope Street library.

The statement concluded with a stark choice: "The sale of the desk will allow the society to properly care for its vast collections, which represent all Rhode Islanders, for generations to come. The alternative is a desk locked away in a closed and shuttered house, dark to the public and lost to the community."

Meanwhile, representatives of some of the state's leading arts and cultural organizations have signed their names to another letter condemning the Historical Society's actions.

The letter begins: "We are writing today to express our sorrow and indignation at the proposed sale of the Joseph Brown desk by the Rhode Island Historical Society."

Written by Pieter Roos, executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, the letter goes on to say: "This action by the Historical Society is nothing short of the sale of Rhode Island's birthright, and as both museum professionals and residents of this state, we are deeply angered by this major breach of ethics."

So far, the letter has attracted more than 25 signatures, including those of Trudy Coxe, executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County; Christine Callahan, executive director of the Newport Art Museum; and Lora Urbanelli, interim director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

"Basically, it's a way for those of us in the museum world to express our feelings about what the Historical Society is doing," said Roos, an expert in Colonial-era furniture. "In the museum field, you're supposed to take care of the objects that have been entrusted to you. You're not supposed to get rid of them, especially to cover expenses."

Other letter signers echoed Roos' remarks.

"I have the greatest respect for the Historical Society and its leadership," said Coxe. "But in this case, I think they need to consider the long-term impact of their decision. Who's going to donate the Joseph Brown desks of tomorrow if there's a chance they'll be sold?"

"I think it's a tough letter, but I think it sends an important message," said RISD's Urbanelli. "We all want to support the Historical Society, but we think there are better ways to deal with its financial problems than selling off what is, in effect, its greatest treasure."

. . . Protests have grown in recent weeks, as the society moves closer to selling the desk and other objects. The items' combined value is estimated at $12 million. The most likely scenario is a public sale organized by a major auction house such as Christie's or Sotheby's.

For the most part, Roos and other critics say they have no objection to selling pieces with little or no connection to Rhode Island. What they can't abide, they say, is the sale of the Joseph Brown desk, a "nine-shell" mahogany desk and bookcase long attributed to Newport's famed Townsend-Goddard workshop, but now thought to be the work of Providence cabinetmaker John Carlile Jr.

In the eyes of Roos and other experts, the desk's Providence pedigree makes it even more valuable, since few examples of high-style Colonial furniture were produced in the city.

"Regardless of whatever monetary value you assign to it, its historical value is really incalculable," said Roos. "Its beauty, its rarity, its craftsmanship -- along with its intimate connection to Rhode Island and to Providence -- really make it one of a kind."
Many of the critics fault the RIHS for wanting more money than it really needs.
Four years ago, the society was operating with a $700,000 deficit. In the past few years, the organization cut $500,000 from its budget, but stills runs a $250,000 deficit. Its annual budget is now $1.7 million.

How did the society get here?

Many factors led to the group's financial situation, but the society's leaders say that the crisis centers around the endowment fund, which is the financial backbone of many nonprofit organizations. The society's endowment fell from $6.5 million to $4.6 million between 1998 and 2004 because of fluctuations in the stock market and heavy withdrawals in previous years.

Investment income from the endowment is used to support an institution, but the principal money and remaining interest income are supposed to be untouched.

A safe draw on an endowment fund is about 5 percent, said Bernard P. Fishman, who was hired in 2002 as executive director of the Historical Society. But from 1995 to 2002, the society drew 6.5 percent to 12.3 percent from the fund each year.

"It's contrary to sound practice," Fishman said.

The withdrawals infused the society's budget with between $320,000 and $804,000 annually, but eroded the endowment and masked the deficits that the society was running, society leaders said.

During that period, the society expanded programs and plunged into efforts to create the Heritage Harbor Museum -- a project that failed.

A former director of the Historical Society said the Heritage project distracted and drained the society.

"Rhode Island Historical Society didn't pay enough attention to its own fundraising needs," said Sanderson, who recently resigned from the board because of the proposed sale of the mahogany desk and bookcase.

The society's leadership believes the sale of the desk and other objects could fetch $12 million at auction. The money would be pumped into the endowment fund, and in turn, help pay for cataloging and preserving the society's massive collection.

But Sanderson believes that the society should raise the money through donations, not the sale of the desk.

"I think the society needs to make its case to the community for increased support," he said.

Fishman said there is no way they can raise $12 million from the community. The most the society has ever raised in a fundraising campaign is $1 million, he said.

Fishman said it is difficult for a financially unsound organization to raise money, and contributors are reluctant to donate to an endowment; they prefer giving to "bricks and mortar" projects where they can see the results.

Critics question whether the society really needs $12 million.

Sanderson, the Brown family, and Harrison Wright, another board member who quit over the sale of the desk, believe the society could survive with less.

The society predicts it will have deficits of $700,000 in upcoming years. But Wright said that scenario is based on a "strategic plan" that involves creating exhibition space for the society's collection. Wright and Sanderson said the proposed plans are good for the society, but not at the expense of the desk.

The society could survive with an additional $3.5 million, which would cover the $250,000 deficit, Wright said.

That is just treading water, said Donald Carleton, acting director of development at the society. "Treading water means no attention to collections care," he said. "It means only keeping the lights on."
The question is: is it worth selling a unique piece with intrinsic historical linkages to Rhode Island for the sake of preserving and expanding the mission of the Rhode Island Historical Society? How much more Rhode Island History can be preserved and shown if this one piece is "sacrificed"? There is no easy answer, but it would seem that losing one, extremely valuable piece to save many more is worth it. The hard part is being confident that the RIHS will spend the money wisely. They haven't shown such ability in the past. Nonetheless, the point is not to tread water, it is to extend and expand the reach of the RIHS. In the course of saving a vast quantity of Rhode Island's history, it would seem that one item is a small price to pay.