What happens when cultural history comes up against modern museum practices?
In Tacoma’s case – a controversy.
In December, Tacoma Art Museum sold 100-year-old Chinese robes and jade at auction, one step in the museum’s ongoing efforts to refine its focus on the Northwest. The appraised value of the collection – described as “tourist keepsakes” – was less than $70,000.
One-third of the collection was put up for sale at the San Francisco auction house Bonhams.
It netted the museum nearly $230,000.
For TAM officials, working to raise $2.5 million for collection acquisition, the sale was a pleasant surprise.
“It’s good news,” museum director Stephanie Stebich said. “The market goes up and down.”
Plus, Stebich said, the Qing dynasty textiles and robes say nothing about the history of Northwest art, the focus the museum adopted two years ago.
Deaccessioning – the process of selling, giving away or destroying items a museum no longer wants to keep in a collection – is a common practice with official guidelines. Selling items that don’t support a museum’s focus is a routine part of this, Stebich noted.
But the family of the donors – Chinese Americans who’d given their collection in the 1970s to help TAM grow – said the process has been inaccurate, deceptive and culturally disrespectful – an echo of Tacoma’s expulsion of local Chinese residents in 1885.
“It’s their (TAM’s) prerogative to sell,” said Al Young, whose parents donated the collection. “It just isn’t the right thing to do. It’s the Tacoma Method all over again.”
His sister, Connie Young Yu, also said she feels betrayed.
“It’s an insult to the donors, the descendants, to Asian culture,” said Yu of San Francisco. “My parents did this so that Asian art would be appreciated. It should stay in the Northwest.”
The disagreement comes as the remaining two-thirds of the collection is slated to be auctioned March 12.
“We understand there are things that were very dear to them,” TAM’s board president Kathy McGoldrick said of the family. “I’m very sorry they’re having this emotional upset, but we’re an art museum. We display art of the Northwest.”
A letter sent to TAM last week from nearly 50 community members, including philanthropist George F. Russell Jr. and retired legislator Dennis Flannigan, asks the museum to withdraw the remaining collection from auction and keep it in the Northwest to promote cultural understanding and healing: “(We the undersigned) request the Tacoma Art Museum trustees ... to engage in collaboration with interested citizens on the future of the Young family collection so as to meet (those) goals,” the letter says.
The problem is thorny and might have implications for future donations to the museum, as well as deeper intercultural relations.
“This is a process that will make (future) donors think twice about donating,” said Sue Lee, director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, which collects historic Chinese artifacts. “They’ll be more cautious. And that’s to the public’s loss.”
A GIFT TO TACOMA
The Young collection, donated by the late Col. John and Mary Young, was given to Tacoma Art Museum in 1976, long before the museum had a dedicated building, let alone a Northwest focus.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents (one of whom was imprisoned for being an illegal immigrant), the Youngs married and became successful business people: John as a Stanford graduate, restaurateur and Army Reserve colonel, and Mary as an importer of Chinese antiques and art.
In their travels around the world, they collected artifacts that had left China during upheavals in the 20th century. The couple also founded their own cultural museum in mainland China.
They brought up their children, Janey, Al and Connie, in San Francisco. Through Janey’s Stanford roommate, now Nancy Baskin Blieden, they forged a strong friendship with Tacoma’s Baskin family and visited often.
In the mid-’70s, Pearlie and Lester Baskin – keen art collectors – were among TAM supporters eager to bolster the museum at its new location in the Bank of Washington building on Pacific Avenue.
The Youngs decided to help, too, and donated their collection of Qing dynasty jade jewelry and half of their Imperial robes to TAM; they gave the other half to Stanford.
“It really helped the museum get on its feet,” said Young, a retired teacher and race car driver who lives in Seattle and serves on the board of the Museum of History and Industry.
His sister, Yu, is an author, board president of the Hakone Foundation and director emeritus of the Chinese Historical Society of America. “This is a legacy of the museum. They should be proud of it,” she said.
Richly embroidered, the silk jackets, robes and skirts represent the work of as many as 20 workers apiece and were made for wealthy courtiers at the turn of the 19th century and early 20th century. The jade items varied from shades of green to white and yellow, many exquisitely carved.
Articles in The News Tribune and The Seattle Times at the time of the donation hailed the gift as “magnificent,” quoting then-TAM director Jon Kowalek as optimistic the gift would inspire other donors. In 1982, the jade was put on permanent display.
In the 1990s, some of the jade was sold without the family knowing. John Young had passed away by that time, and Mary faced debilitating depression until her death in 2003.
The collection was exhibited again in 1996, prompting art critic Matthew Kangas to celebrate that the museum was “taking its place as an important repository of Asian art” in the region.
Since that time, the robes and jade have been in storage as the museum transitioned through directors and into its present building, and embraced a new mission to be the country’s premier collection of Northwest art.
THE VALUE OF ART
The controversy over the Young collection stems from the way the December sale was handled and the price tag.
To get an idea of the collection’s worth, it was appraised in March 2011 by Sotheby’s auction house. Appraisers examined the collection – 16 Qing dynasty robes, several scroll paintings and silk purses, and 41 pieces of jade jewelry, along with other Asian items – 224 in all.
They valued the items between $53,000-$70,000 and refused to sell them.
Likewise, when the collection was sent to Bonhams, the estimates came in low – $1,000-$2,000 per item and $125,000-$175,000 overall.
When the gavel began to pound Dec. 10, many were surprised.
A yellow silk vest sold for $27,500. A red embroidered robe, Mary Young’s favorite, went for $15,000. And an apple-green jade belt buckle sold for $40,000 – many times the estimates. Buyers from China’s newly wealthy economy kept their paddles up and brought their cultural history back to their country.
The total from the 50 Young items sold reached $229,000, with 82 items remaining to be sold March 12.
Bonhams officials didn’t admit surprise at the amount, contending their specialists “are well versed in the subtleties of today’s uncertain market and estimate auction lots according to current market conditions.”
But for the Youngs’ children – especially Yu, who was outbid trying to buy back her mother’s favorite red robe – it was a shock.
During the previous year, Stebich met several times with Yu and Young, most recently in November.
Stebich and several board members briefed the family on how the sale would proceed and how the money would be used to buy works by Northwest Chinese American artists. Both parties said the meeting was agreeable. Yu wrote a friendly thank-you email.
However, Yu said she and her brother then discovered a page on the museum’s website – now changed – describing the objects, which included other Asian items donated by the Haley and Priem families in the 1960s and 1980s, as “mostly tourist keepsakes and mementos” and “not of museum quality.”
The museum recently changed the page to omit the wording. Stebich said it referred to the Haley gifts, but the phrase comes directly after the listing of the entire set.
Young also said that in meetings, Stebich described the collection as incomplete, not in good condition and worth about $30,000.
“I wouldn’t call anything a ‘keepsake’ that went for a quarter of a million dollars,” he recently said. “If bidders are willing to pay that much, we’re not talking about faded fabric here.”
Young also sees the description as puzzling considering TAM’s own history of exhibiting the collection. Parts of it were shown five times between 1977-1996. Also, one of the robes in the Stanford portion of the donation is on display in the exhibit “Border Crossings” at the university’s Cantor Arts Center.
“We’re proud to have it here on view,” Cantor director Connie Wolf said. “We value them in our collection because of our relationship with students studying in this area.”
Eva Laird-Smith curated TAM’s 1996 exhibition of the collection and now directs Hawaii’s State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. She remembers the Young collection as being in good condition and said items from the period would have appreciated in value through the decades.
“I’m not saying it’s all stellar,” she said of the collection. “Unevenness in collections happens, but it would be difficult to replace.”
“What was given to Stanford was definitely museum quality,” said Patrick Maveety, the original Asian art curator at Stanford.
However, “Museum quality and what collectors value are not necessarily the same thing,” board president McGoldrick countered.
THE DECISION TO SELL
Young and Yu said they also were bothered by the museum’s handling of the deaccession, calling it “incompetent and/or deceptive” in a letter to McGoldrick.
They said missteps included Stebich presenting them with an incomplete list of works to be sold – omitting the $40,000 jade buckle – and ignorance of how the robes were historically worn. Plus, a letter from McGoldrick with information concerning the sales was sent to Young but was addressed to his parents, who had been dead for years. Also, Judy Sourakli, curator at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery, was brought before the TAM board to advise on the collection, though the Seattle museum has no specialty in that area.
Young said Stebich offered to ask other institutions to house the collection, such as the Henry, Seattle Asian Art Museum, the Wing Luke and the Asia Pacific Cultural Center.
In the end, only the Wing Luke was asked, but the matter came up in a casual conversation that didn’t detail the items and was never followed up on, director Beth Takekawa said.
Stebich said she didn’t formally approach any of the institutions because the TAM board intended to recommend selling the collection.
The museum also has withheld information about the collection and the sales, including documentation about the unannounced jade sale 20 years ago, the Sotheby’s report and deaccession board minutes.
The auction house did not respond to inquiries by The News Tribune.
As for TAM’s dealings with the family, Stebich pointed to the email sent by Yu after the November meeting that thanked the museum for how it was handling the sale and its promise to acknowledge the Young gift in future acquisitions.
“The family had a change of face,” Stebich said. “They only complained after the auction.”
“Tacoma went through a rigorous process in what to do with their works. Every museum is different,” said Wolf of Stanford University’s Cantor museum.
Is the Young collection of robes and jade part of the story of Northwest art?
Stebich says no.
“We are selling these items to build a collection that helps tell the story about the Chinese in the Northwest through art,” she said. “Help me understand how Chinese Imperial robes do that.”
The answer, many say, is cultural.
“It’s part of the background of the community,” said Wing Luke’s Takekawa. “A lot of us that are Asian might be born in this country, but we carry a lot of Asia within us.”
“If they’re really wanting to refine (the collection to Northwest art), it would be myopic not to include this,” Laird-Smith said.
“The Northwest evolved alongside the Chinese who arrived to build the railroad. Those people brought their own heritage, became a fragment of the culture.”
Richard Woo, a fourth-generation Chinese American living in Tacoma and a signatory to the group letter to TAM, has been following the controversy.
“The irony is that the sale puts the museum on the verge of symbolically driving the Chinese away again. It’s important to stop the sale and talk about how to keep the items in the community,” he said.
Baskin, now living in Michigan, made the same point.
“To just get rid of the collection based on very specific, subjective criteria would be repeating the trauma of exclusion and expulsion that the Chinese suffered in the Northwest,” she wrote in an open letter to the museum’s board.
SELL OR KEEP?
The Young collection was given to TAM to help bridge the rift caused by the Chinese expulsion of 1885 and to educate the community about Chinese culture, the family said.
“My parents did this so that Asian art would be appreciated,” Yu said. “They wanted to build up Tacoma Art Museum.”
Her brother added: “My mother wanted to represent Chinese culture in a positive light. There were no Chinese in Tacoma that we ever saw. That was another thing that encouraged her. It’s definitely part of the history of the area. We saw it as a triumph, that we (the Chinese people) were coming back.”
Young and Yu said TAM should either keep the remainder of the items – which include two more high-quality robes and most of the jade – or offer them to other institutions.
Others, including Maveety, agree.
“TAM should retain at least the best of the textiles for public relations reasons if for no other,” he said.
Takekawa and Patsy Surh O’Connell, board president of Tacoma’s Asia Pacific Cultural Center, said they’d be delighted to take and display the collection.
The group letter from local citizens, professionals, art patrons and members of the Chinese Reconciliation Committee echoes Baskin’s letter, saying the items should be kept here both to promote understanding and “to serve as a healing link to past trauma of the Chinese residents of Tacoma.”
If the museum will not withdraw the items from auction, they call for their public explanation at a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at Tacoma’s Asia Pacific Cultural Center.
Stebich said TAM cannot withdraw the rest of the collection from the March 12 auction because its contract with Bonhams would oblige them to pay 20 percent of the low estimate of each lot plus expenses.
She said any works that don’t sell might be offered as gifts to other institutions.
“But those are not going to be the most interesting pieces because the interesting pieces will already have been bid on,” Lee said.
The auction also represents another potential financial windfall for the museum.
“We have a $2.5 million goal in collection acquisition funds,” Stebich said. “So we want to be proactive, not just reactive to people’s gifts.”
Young takes the price tag another way.
“Now they know what it’s worth, what’s the problem in keeping it?” he asked. “They’re just beautiful works of art that will never be duplicated. And who knows what direction the next group of people will take the museum in?”Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568