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John Wilmerding will step down as board chair of the National Gallery of Art later this year. A spokesperson for the National Gallery confirmed that Wilmerding will leave the post after the annual board of trustees’ meeting in September. Tyler Green broke the news over Twitter.
Wilmerding served as the National Gallery’s curator for American art and as senior curator from 1977 to 1983; he was deputy director from 1983 to 1988. His tenure saw acquisitions that added greater depth to the museum’s collection of 19th-century artworks, especially by Hudson River School artists. In 1991, for the museum’s 50th anniversary, Wilmerding donated a 1908 oil sketch by Thomas Easkins called The Chaperone to the collection.
For all that he gave to the museum, his work as a trustee has occasionally raised eyebrows. While a trustee for the National Gallery, Wilmerding simultaneously advised Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who set about building the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., where it shares a campus with the Walton Five and Dime Museum. Wilmerding’s double-dipping for Walton at times posed a severe conflict of interest for his duties at the National Gallery. When the New York Public Library decided to sell Asher Durand‘s Kindred Spirits (1849), Wilmerding served as an advisor to Walton, who eventually won the painting in a closed-bid sale for $35 million—to the great distress of New Yorkers, who saw a part of their civic identity shipped off to an institution that is a four-hour drive from Little Rock. The National Gallery, working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, assembled a joint $25 million offer to try to keep the painting on the East Coast.
Not only was Wilmerding a trustee of the National Gallery at the time, he was also a visiting curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Furthermore, Wilmerding also advised the New York Public Library on that sale. Triple-dipping or quadruple-dipping? He declined to answer questions about it at the time. (He was not immediately available for comment this time around.)
No doubt, Wilmerding gave more to the National Gallery than he appears to have prevented the National Gallery from acquiring. The Wilmerding collection includes works by Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer. My favorites are a drawing by Eastman Johnson and this splendid proto-modern still-life by John Frederick Peto.
In March, Wilmerding courted headlines for talking publicly about a National Gallery pact with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles that has failed to materialize. (The idea being that the National Gallery’s East Wing will close for three years, and, well, it wasn’t clear what MOCA was going to get out of the deal.) For a time, there was humming about a deal between the National Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but the talks came to nothing.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons