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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 11.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Most valuable paintings
Putting a price on Madison's priceless art
Helen Frankenthaler's 'Pistaschio,' 1971. Chazen Museum of Art.
Helen Frankenthaler's 'Pistaschio,' 1971. Chazen Museum of Art.

In May 2004, Sotheby's auction house sold a painting by Pablo Picasso to a private collector for $104 million. In the same year, the entire budget for the National Endowment for the Arts was only $16 million more. Starving artists, eat your hearts out.

Our society is conflicted about the value of art. When we try to assign monetary value to visual art, these mixed feelings become glaringly evident. Weighing an artwork's cultural importance, fame, esthetic qualities, rarity and condition is a complicated and subjective business.

Some curators find the attempt at monetary appraisal simply impossible. 'You can't put a price on something that you would never sell,' says Jane Simon, curator of exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Most museums prefer to leave the financial assessment of their collections to appraisers and dealers, with auction results serving as the final criteria.

'Values change over time, because tastes change, the market changes,' says Maria Saffiotti Dale, curator of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts at the Chazen Museum of Art. 'One has to try to keep that information up-to-date, but it's a challenge.'

Despite this constant flux in values, truly great art possesses a lasting relevance. Some paintings manage to inspire our perpetual appreciation ' and Madison is home to several of these.

Asked to name MMoCA's most important paintings, Simon immediately mentions Frida Kahlo's 1938 work 'Still Life: Pitahayas.' Done in oil on aluminum, the painting incorporates Kahlo's classic themes of life and death, depicting a figurine of the Grim Reaper seated on the seed-filled flesh of a Mexican fruit.

'One of the reasons it is so valuable is that it is indicative of her worth in general,' notes Simon. 'Kahlo was known primarily as the wife of Diego Rivera until later in life, when she was lauded as a very important painter. And with that, all of her paintings increased in value.'

The current interest in Kahlo's life and work, combined with her modest output (there are fewer than 150 known paintings), makes this piece especially valuable. Works by Kahlo of a similar size and subject have recently sold at auction for upwards of $5 million.

Simon also mentions 'Mountain Sites,' a vibrant 1973 canvas by celebrated Chicago imagist Roger Brown. Brown's signature style, featuring theatrical lighting, pop culture references and quirky humor, is shown here to full effect.

'Roger Brown ' that's the guy I went to school with,' said a middle-aged man I overheard in MMoCA's Henry Street Gallery, nudging his wife in the ribs. 'I had a chance to buy one of his paintings back then for $325.'

The man sighed, shaking his head. Today, canvases by Brown regularly sell for tens of thousands.

(Both 'Still Life: Pitahayas' and 'Mountain Sites' are included in 'MMoCA Collects' ' ' the museum's online exhibition of key works from its permanent collection.)

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art uses a combination of community support, private donors and museum funds to purchase carefully selected, high-caliber paintings.

'We're not the Museum of Modern Art,' says Simon. 'We can't have an encyclopedic collection. Instead, we try to hone the areas that are well represented, such as printmaking and the Chicago Imagists. But it's not as if you choose one piece [to add to the collection] and then are done with it. It's expansive ' it goes on and on. These works will continue to hold the same resonance today as on the day that they were acquired.'

The UW's Wisconsin Union has a slightly different approach, buying works based on artistic potential.

'We tend to make our purchases on a contemporary level,' says Robin Schmoldt, art and film adviser and permanent collection manager of the Wisconsin Union. 'Most of our collection comes from student shows or Union exhibitions.'

As a result, the Union was among the first to purchase work by many young artists, including Bruce Nauman and Dale Chihuly, who were destined for art-world success.

The Wisconsin Union collection also includes prints by iconic artists Diego Rivera and Joan MirÃ, but these are not necessarily its most valuable pieces, as defined by the Union's mission: to cultivate interest in art among all students, faculty, staff and Union members by making art an integral part of their use of the Wisconsin Union.

Strong candidates for that distinction are the Paul Bunyan Murals, painted by Wisconsin artist James Watrous from 1933 to 1936 as a Depression-era federal aid project. When federal funding ran dry, Watrous completed the work without pay, finishing the 11 large panels and two inset maps that line one of the Memorial Union's first-floor rooms. To mix his tempera paints, Watrous used eggs straight from the Rathskeller, baffling cafeteria workers by ordering his eggs raw.

'This may be the most beloved piece in the collection,' says Schmoldt, gesturing to the walls' warm hues of rust and gold. 'This mural is a Union tradition, something people remember from when they were students here.'

Another standout in the Union collection is the 1960 painting 'Terrace Chairs' by alumnus Santos Zingale. It depicts the overlapping shapes and hues of the Union's trademark furniture.

'Zingale's painting of the iconic chairs is probably the signature piece in the collection,' Schmoldt says.

While a painting by Zingale might never reach the block at Sotheby's, this work has its own healthy niche market; Schmoldt notes that alumni frequently ask to purchase it.

'There's a lot of student involvement in our collection,' Schmoldt says, a point that is illustrated when she pauses to peel a few gummy stickers from the glass of one colorful print. 'For us, it's not the appreciable cash value as much as it is the cultural value of having an art collection. Bottom line: We want our art out for people to see it.'

While you are less likely to find stickers on the art-work within the Chazen Museum of Art's quiet galleries, the museum benefits from its connection to students.

'In a community like Madison, you can probably count the serious collectors on one hand,' says Russell Panczenko, the Chazen's director. 'However, there are thousands of alumni scattered all over the world who have a loyalty to the university, and with that sort of support, we can build a collection for the community that the community could never have in any other fashion.'

Donations from alumni and from community members have enabled the Chazen to assemble a collection replete with valuable pieces.

Curator Maria Saffiotti Dale is quick to mention Bernardo Strozzi's 'Christ's Charge to St. Peter,' a luminous canvas dating from the 1630s that has become the centerpiece of the Chazen's Baroque gallery. Combining detailed realism with the lush techniques of Italian colorists, the painting shows Strozzi at the height of his skills. Comparable canvases by Strozzi have sold for $1 million to $2 million at Sotheby's.

Saffiotti Dale also names French painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot's large 1865 work 'Orpheus Greeting the Dawn,' a lovely example of the decorative paintings that were installed as glorified wallpaper in the homes of aristocrats. This particular canvas once hung in the Parisian townhouse of Prince Demidoff; it later belonged to the distinguished Potter Palmer collection.

'In the current market, whether the object was in a famous collection also increases its value,' says Saffiotti Dale. 'There's a sort of psychological game, or identification, going on. In purchasing something that belonged to Louis XIV, or to the Kennedys, or to the artist him- or herself, the current buyer may say, 'I'm putting myself in line after these distinguished owners.' That's a lot of what collecting is about, to be perfectly honest!'

Even those works by Corot that do not have such a prestigious history are highly collectable. His canvases regularly sell at auction for hundreds of thousands.

Regarding the Chazen's modern paintings, Panczenko mentions Helen Frankenthaler's 1971 work 'Pistachio,' composed of swaths of warm color, and Hans Hoffman's 1957 'August Light.' The museum also has an impressive collection of 19th and early 20th century British watercolors.

'We haven't built a big collection, but we've only collected the best,' Panczenko says of the watercolors.

Using its considerable resources, the Chazen continues to seek artwork of all eras that will complement the museum's existing collection. These acquisitions are approved by a volunteer accessions committee made up of museum staff, UW faculty art experts, and members of the community.

While the Chazen functions as a world-class preserving and collecting agency, the museum staff places the highest value on its capacity for sharing art with the public.

'The direct experience of art is what it's all about,' Panczenko says. 'Looking at a work of art directly, experiencing it directly, is paramount to the whole educational and cultural experience of art.'

It's hard to put a price on that.

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