In a handsome room on the second floor of the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown, dozens of 19th century portraits and landscapes by major American and European artists in ornate frames line the walls in a salon-style installation.
The subjects of those portraits and figure paintings, most of which were purchased with a $25,000 bequest to the library from its benefactor, Mary Prendergast, seemed to stare down in judgment on a group of Jamestown residents who assembled in the room for a contentious meeting of the library’s board Sept. 17.
At that meeting, Prendergast Library Association Board President R. Thomas Rankin gave a Powerpoint presentation on the organization’s dire financial straits that ended with a conclusion the board had reached months ago: In order to ensure the future stability of the library, Rankin argued, it was necessary to part with much of its collection of art.
Another public meeting was set for 6 p.m. Oct. 8, but for all intents and purposes, it seemed, the decision had been made: The board signed a contract with Sotheby’s Auction House to handle any future sale of the 19th century paintings, he said, though the exact paintings to be sold have not yet been determined.
After Rankin’s presentation, Jamestown residents who opposed the planned sale had their say in front of the board for the first time.
“I’m not a person that knows anything about art. I had no interest in it. Ten years ago, I probably would have said, eh, go ahead and sell it,” said Jamestown resident Michael Baker. “Well, you know what? I married an art teacher, I now have a 17-month-old son and I realize things like this are very, very, very important: For him to be able to come here in the future and view this fine art that Mrs. Prendergast left to the library a very long time ago because she specifically wanted it in the hands of the citizens of Jamestown.”
Others from the loosely organized group Save Local Art also spoke up, urging the board to reconsider or delay its decision while the public, who only recently learned about the plan, put together some alternative ideas. There were also speakers who supported the board’s plan as a necessary evil.
But the entire display, in which board members fumbled through Robert’s Rules of Order, limited public comments from the few people who were able to attend to two minutes and came across as generally dismissive of the opposition’s concerns, sent up plenty of red flags about the proposed sale.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether such an important piece of Jamestown’s cultural patrimony should be largely sold off to underwrite the future stability of the library or maintained at considerable expense. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the issue is easily solved.
The library’s financial challenges, like those of so many nonprofit cultural organizations, are daunting. But the value of the artwork, which has been treasured by generations of Jamestown residents without the means to travel to museums in Erie or Buffalo, goes far beyond its auction estimate.
Reconciling these two stark realities in a responsible way would have required a robust and proactive public debate, in which every effort was made to ensure a diversity of voices had a chance to weigh in before a decision was made.
But the way in which this process has played out, contrary to claims of transparency by members of the library association’s board, has been mismanaged and misguided from the start.
Aside from holding its customary board meetings at 12:15 p.m. on Thursdays, when few citizens are likely to attend, and publishing its minutes in some dusty corner of the library’s website, this board took few if any proactive measures to ensure a healthy community debate in advance of its monumental decision.
Rankin, taking a pose that anyone purporting to represent the public’s best interest would do well to avoid, responded to my question about the board’s decision to sign an agreement with Sotheby’s without soliciting community input by blaming the public for not paying enough attention.
“That’s a fair question, and I’m going to give an answer that puts a little bit of burden on the public. We follow the open meetings law,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide things from anybody, but if you don’t come to our meetings, if you don’t contact us, I don’t think it’s us hiding things.”
Another board member, Joni Blackman, spelled out the board’s disdain for the members of the public who oppose the board’s decision even more clearly.
“By law we’re a private association,” she said. “I don’t want to point fingers or anything, but this is our collection as a board.”
That’s where they’re wrong. The Prendergast Library Association may be a private association, but it exists to serve the public. It also receives at least 36 percent of its annual budget from public sources, which obliges it to operate much as a purely public entity might.
Selling off most of an invaluable art collection that was gifted to the library with the stipulation that it be held in the public trust “forever” would seem to demand some community explanation and debate in the predecision phase. That it did not speaks to the hubris of the board majority, which needs to be reminded that it has a duty to the citizens it serves, even those citizens who happen to disagree with its fundraising strategies.
It is reminiscent of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s mishandling of its own controversial sales of valuable items in 2007, which were practically shipped off and on the Sotheby’s auction block before the community had a chance to say anything about it. In the end, the decision may have been the right one, but the process created ill will in the community that has yet to dissipate.
The potential sale of Jamestown’s most important art collection is not to be taken lightly, to be conducted cavalierly or to be executed with anything other than genuine, broad and systematic community input such processes demand.
But the ink on the contract is dry. Unless the community can come up with something radical, it seems the debate is too late.