It’s not every day, or even every decade, that a major museum of American art opens for business. In big cities, it’s a once-or-twice-a-century kind of thing. This week, Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens in Bentonville Arkansas “to celebrate the American spirit.” Even though the place, built on the Wal-Mart fortune, is more than 1,200 miles away from Philadelphia, we can hear the hoopla. And it might have stung our ears, had things turned out a bit differently.
By coincidence, five years ago today was the start of the most recent Thomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic saga. What might have been the beginning of the end of Philadelphia’s stewardship of a painting long considered “the holy grail of American painting” started with an announcement that Thomas Jefferson University would sell the painting to Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for the record-breaking price of $68 million. “This is the most important sale of a 19th-century American painting ever,” boasted the president of Christie’s Americas, which crafted the deal. Washingtonians considered landing this picture inside the Beltway on Bentonville’s dime as a big win-win.
But Philadelphians saw the situation differently. And the agreement of sale contained a small clause that, as it turned out, became a potent loophole. If locals wanted the painting they had forty-five days to match the price. Raising $1,511,111 a day, day after day for a month and a half? Sounds impossible for these recessionary times, but in the flush holiday shopping season of 2006, 3,400 Philadelphians reached deeply into their pockets and, with significant help of major philanthropy, a humongous bank loan and at least one case of controversial deaccessioning, the Eakins was ours to keep. Alice Walton would just have to make do with less.
So when they cut the ribbon in Arkansas this Veterans Day, Dr. Gross (who Eakins depicted teaching the surgical technique he innovated to save lives and limbs of thousands of Civil War soldiers) will not be in attendance. So where is the painting this Veteran’s Day, this fifth year anniversary of its near departure?
Searching for Dr. Gross, we look to the Philadelphia Museum of Art website, and see one page that steers us to “Colket Gallery 151.” But he’s not there. Another PMA webpage tells us he’s “currently not on view.” Hmmm, really? Not on view? The Academy’s website doesn’t give us a location, either.
But visitors to the museum at Broad and Cherry will find the painting hanging in Frank Furness’ central rotunda, which as it happens, was completed about the same time Eakins was painting his masterpiece. After sixty eight million dollars and five years, you’d think we’d be more inclined to coordinate, communicate and, especially this week, to celebrate.
Could it be that we’ve begun to slip back into that old, familiar, Philadelphia complacency? Now that’s a scary thought.