Despite downturn, galleries still stable

While stocks tank, jobs disappear and “bailout” flashes across headlines, one can rest assured that the invaluable works at Yale’s art galleries are safe from any immediate danger.

As one of the top-ten withholding art institutions in the country, Yale is still buying and selling art at the normal rate, said Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art. While there may be concerns about spending elsewhere at the University, the academic value of Yale’s art galleries and their financial underpinnings leave the galleries secure for now.

“We just bought a very major object this last week, and we are lucky to have our assets still intact,” Meyers said, declining to elaborate on the purchase. “Because we invest long-term to protect our collection, it’s helping us ride through this problematic period.”

The art collection at Harvard has also avoided the repercussions of the stockmarket crash. On Oct. 17, the Harvard Art Museum received 31 artworks valued at $200 million and a cash gift of $45 million from Emily Rauh Pulitzer, most of which will go to expansion and renovation of the museum.

Until recently, the global art market too had been exempt from the financial turmoil: Sales and auction houses thrived. Just two weeks ago, legendary artist Damien Hirst shocked collectors with a $200.7 million Sotheby’s auction. Last Wednesday, Christie’s New York auction house brought in a haul of $29 million.

Susan Matheson, acting director of the Yale University Art Gallery, said it is difficult to gauge what the future holds but that, for now, the art market is still prospering.

“Unless the recession is long, deep and global, there may be enough interested buyers with the means available to sustain current values,” Matheson said. “The major art markets are significantly more global now, which has made a real difference in the range of buyers.”

But the art market is not fully out of harm’s way. The New York Times reported Friday that Christie’s instituted a new payment policy: Art will only be released when it is paid for in full. On Oct. 14, Sotheby’s took out a $250 million loan from Bank of America.

While financial woes may be slowly seeping into the art market, Yale remains outside global cycles. For University art collections, the art market’s assessment of the works’ values is only secondary to their primary function as long-term holders.

“We only buy things that we think are valuable from the moment we buy them,” Jock Reynolds, the director of the YUAG, said in an interview last week. “We don’t buy things with the notion of monetary value because we don’t plan to sell them.”

The directors of several art collections at Yale emphasized that the collections exist for the students.

“Yale does not buy art as a financial investment,” Meyers said. “We buy art as objects for study, pleasure and intellectual stimulation.”

In fact, it is against the American Association of Museum’s guidelines to sell assets for other reasons besides acquiring another work of art, she added. Such activity is carefully monitored to ensure that museums do not make transactions on a whim.

Yale itself has stringent guidelines for the purchase and sale of art. The YUAG’s proposals to buy and sell must be approved by the chief curator and the director, Matheson said.

“If the cost or estimated cost proceeds will be more than $10,000, the Collections Committee of the art gallery’s governing board must approve the acquisition or sale,” she explained.

The art assets and endowments are also stewarded by the Yale Investments Office and its director, David Swensen GRD ’80. The galleries are protected from fluctuating market circumstances by the sheer enormity of the endowment under his guidance.

Meyers praised Swensen — who declined to comment for this article — as “the wisest of investors.”

As a result, the cushion of Yale’s total endowment in art is great enough that the galleries do not need to worry about revenue.

“We don’t charge any admission. We are endowed well enough that we are free,” Reynolds said.

The YUAG has more than $100 million in acquisitions endowment, providing them with at least $5 million each year in money to spend, Reynolds said. He then speculated that the combined arts endowments of just the YUAG and the YCBA may be close to $1 billion.

But according to Meyers, the whole value is incalculable. When asked if the endowment were near the billion-dollar region, she laughed.

“It could even be greater,” Meyers said.

Translation: No need to worry about the galleries going bankrupt for now.

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