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Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College
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From the Director / Spring 2024

January 22, 2024

From the Director / Spring 2024

January 22, 2024

The American Alliance of Museums—an organization that represents the museum field, providing advocacy, resources, and connections—awarded the Allen Memorial Art Museum reaccreditation in November last year. This is the result of a multi-year process that involves a deep dive into a museum’s operations, policies, and strategic vision.

Gaining reaccreditation means that the Allen, which was first accredited in 1995, continues to meet national standards and best practices, and is a member of a community of institutions that hold themselves publicly accountable for excellence. Together, the museum’s dedicated staff and many of you, in our community—as part of the reaccreditation process—gave a great deal of thought to charting the Allen’s future through preparation of the new strategic plan we unveiled last year, as well as new mission, vision, and values statements. Our efforts during the next several years—whether through exhibitions, acquisitions, teaching and research, or public programs—will be focused on the goals and ideals elaborated in these, and we hope you will peruse them and join us in more closely connecting the museum, and its stellar collection, to our community.

Unfortunately, such close connections in mid-2024 will be challenged by the fact that the Allen will have to close for several months. In 2021, Oberlin College began work on the “Sustainable Infrastructure Program,” or SIP, which entails converting the campus heating system from steam to hot water, with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. The Allen had already undertaken this green heating and cooling approach as part of a major 2009–11 renovation that saw geothermal wells sunk in the museum’s north lawn and a complete updating of the museum’s heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and associated systems—a project that earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Now, the museum’s existing systems are slated to be hooked into the campus’s new system this summer. Regretfully, this will entail the closure of the museum as of May 27. We are grateful for the partnership of the Oberlin College Facilities Planning and Construction staff in this work, and look forward to welcoming you back in the autumn.

Finally, while often I’ve written about endeavors that have highlighted new acquisitions to the collection, I now want to let you know about a recent loss: the 1911 drawing Girl with Black Hair, by artist Egon Schiele. You may have seen articles in the press last autumn about this; here, I can offer some context to Oberlin College’s decision to hand the drawing over to those who have posited that it is rightfully theirs, relatives of Fritz Grünbaum, a celebrated performer, writer, and director. Tragically, Grünbaum and his wife Lilly (Elisabeth), both Jewish residents of Vienna, were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Allen purchased Girl with Black Hair in early 1958 from Galerie St. Etienne in New York City, run by Otto Kallir, a Jewish refugee who fled Austria in 1938, arriving in New York in 1939. He had acquired it from the gallery Gutekunst & Klipstein, in Bern, whose records indicate that it had been purchased in early 1956 from Mathilde Lukacs, Lilly Grünbaum’s sister, who fled Austria for Belgium in 1938. Exactly how Lukacs acquired it is not clear; the crucial facts as to how she came to possess it and other artworks she sold remain unknown, and died with her in 1979.

The Allen’s purchase was made pursuant to a decision by the museum’s Friends of Art group—our membership body, to which many of you reading this may belong—following a “purchase party,” an event at which donors vote on acquisitions. Charles Percy Parkhurst, the director of the Allen from 1949 to 1962, who authorized the drawing’s purchase, was a noted Monuments Man. He spent the latter part of World War II and the period immediately following the war locating and inventorying thousands of artworks that had been looted by the Nazis, and as Deputy Chief of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) in Germany he coordinated restitution efforts at the Munich Central Collecting Point. In total, the MFAA located and returned more than five million looted artworks and items to their legitimate owners. In November 1945 he signed the Wiesbaden manifesto, rejecting the plunder and removal of cultural items as spoils of war, and in 1948 for his efforts in returning looted art he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by the French government. It is inconceivable that Parkhurst would have purchased for the Allen any artwork that he believed might have been looted.

Several lawsuits, regarding other drawings that may have been in Grünbaum’s collection, have made their way through the courts. Some decisions have held that similar drawings were not looted by the Nazis, while others found for the Grünbaum heirs. While we believe it has not been definitively established that the drawing was looted from Grünbaum’s collection, the College has voluntarily turned it over, hoping that this will provide some measure of closure to the family. While this is certainly a loss to the collection, I want you to know that the Allen takes provenance issues very seriously. Our staff has devoted, and will continue to devote, great energy to researching the ownership history of collection works, and will always strive to ensure that any works entering the collection do so both legally and ethically.

Andria Derstine
John G. W. Cowles Director

01 / 02

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