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.

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