Several masterpieces from the late CBS founder William Paley’s art collection worth at least $70 million will be auctioned off to fund MoMA’s digital expansion.
A foundation named after the late CBS founder William Paley confirmed on Tuesday that it had tapped Sotheby’s to auction off 29 of Paley’s 81 art pieces lent to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The art collection amounts to at least $70 million, and sales from the auction will be used to help fund MoMA’s digital expansion.
Some of Paley’s paintings and sculptures loaned to MoMA include works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Auguste Rodin. According to Paley’s namesake foundation, most of the proceeds from this fall’s $70 million auction have been earmarked for MoMA’s digital expansion—launching its streaming channel and purchasing more digital and traditional art. A portion of the proceeds would go toward other philanthropic causes that Paley supported.
Extending MoMA’s Influence Online
Paley, who died in 1990, designed this arrangement between his foundation and MoMa so the latter would have a say on how his art collection could be shown or sold. Such a move highlights the remarkable lengths museums and their biggest donors undertake to extend museums’ online influence, with cultural institutions still recovering from a significant decline in visitors due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry, the museum usually receives three million visitors yearly. However, the last fiscal year’s attendance topped out at 1.65 million. And while Lowry is hopeful that foot traffic will return to its pre-pandemic numbers by 2024, he admits that online prospect is brighter.
In 2021, Lowry said MoMA’s online content on its website and YouTube channel, as well as through its social-media followings on Instagram and Weibo, drew in 35 million people. It was five million more than the 30 million visitors the same channels pulled in before the pandemic.
“We’re growing our digital audience, not losing any, so we realize we need to increase our capacity off-site and online,” Lowry said.
Lowry said that while MoMA currently posts virtual walk-throughs of its exhibits and creates video chats with its curators, there is still the desire to increase the output and possibly launch its art-related streaming channel. MoMA might even collaborate with a university to start offering degrees in art fields.
MoMA has partnered with Coursera, an online course provider, and since 2012, around 1.6 million people from 250 countries have taken art classes. Lowry believes MoMA can enroll far more online art students.
“We’re just beginning to dream,” he said.
MoMA’s Plans for the Auction Proceeds
Aside from expanding its digital footprint, MoMA might use some of the auction’s proceeds to buy more art, particularly digital art linked to NFTs, per Lowry. MoMA didn’t jump into last year’s NFT bandwagon, although it did contribute museum data to digital artist Refik Anadol’s NFT project last fall.
Anadol, a famous NFT artist, siphoned the meta-database of the museum’s collection into his artificial intelligence algorithm to create cloudy, colorful morphs that he later sold as NFTs. Although Lowry admits Anadol’s works were brilliant, he intimated that the museum didn’t purchase any of the NFT works then.
MoMA tried to adopt a wait-and-see approach to NFTs. Still, according to Lowry, the museum has a team monitoring the digital art landscape, looking for potential artists to collaborate with for massive artistic projects or possible purchases.
“We’re conscious of the fact that we lend an imprimatur when we acquire pieces,” he said, explaining why MoMA didn’t buy NFTs at the outset, “but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the domain.”
Meanwhile, Paley’s son, Bill Paley, who serves as the foundation’s vice president, said in an email Tuesday that decisions on where it needs to spend next, digitally, will ultimately be deferred to MoMA. “It’s open-ended,” he said.
MoMA was only eight years old when the elder Paley joined the museum’s board as a rising broadcasting executive in 1937. Back then, New York’s elite considered collecting modern art extremist. Still, Paley remained committed and eventually served as MoMA’s president, chairman, and chairman emeritus. The younger Paley added that his father was “always keen on learning about and adopting new technologies;” thus, the museum’s desire to expand its digital footprint came together nicely.
Per Lowry, none of the works the foundation consigned to Sotheby’s are currently on view in MoMA’s galleries. The auction excludes Paley’s best-known pieces at MoMA—“Boy Leading a Horse” by Picasso, 1905-06, and Henri Matisse’s iconic “Woman with a Veil” from 1927.
Nevertheless, the auction will include other valuable pieces, including Renoir’s 1905 still life of strawberries, an early Fauve view of André Derain’s hometown, and Henri Rousseau’s 1901-02 bouquet that Paley purchased in 1937, the same year he joined the museum’s board. The sale will also include sculptures from Rodin and Aristide Maillol, which, according to Sotheby’s, could score between $70 to $100 million.
Paley’s pieces were considered “off limits” to the art marketplace until now, according to Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for fine art. Lampley said Sotheby’s fought with other auction houses to win the consignment and guaranteed Paley’s foundation that it would reap a hefty, undisclosed sum from selling the works.
Lampley also said that marketing Paley’s pieces would be easy, considering their pedigree. “He’s the holy grail of provenance,” Lampley added.
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