Or, body and soul both could be satisfied. He could sell four or five drawings and keep one or two. That is probably what I would do. But suppose he had stumbled on a lost van Gogh painting or even a Monet? Could anyone who struggles every month to keep ahead of bills, insurance premiums and the mortgage afford to keep an object worth millions of dollars?
That is the dilemma facing the Everhart Museum here, which owns a painting by Henri Matisse that is worth, by one estimate, about 12 times the institution's annual operating budget of $350,000. The museum is going broke and faces the bleak prospect of closing in a few months unless it can convert the Matisse to ready cash.
On Nov. 10, the museum tried to sell the painting - which it received as a gift 30 years ago - at auction so it could cover its operating deficit. In 1991, Sotheby's auction house had appraised it at $4 million to $4.25 million. The museum decided it wouldn't take less than $2.3 million, but the highest bid was only $1.6 million, and so the painting was not sold.
Museums sell paintings all the time, but this sale attracted a lot of attention because of two unusual circumstances. The Matisse, a small still life called Pink Shrimp, is far and away the most important object in the whole museum, as well as the most valuable.
That it was a Matisse only made the museum appear inexcusably crass. Who would expect to find a quality picture by one of the masters of modern art in a tiny provincial museum? The Everhart was lucky to have such a painting, opponents of the sale contended. How could the museum think of selling the crown jewel of its collection?
The Everhart's avowed intention to use the sale money to shore up its budget further irritated the professional museum establishment, particularly the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations.
These organizations regard selling from the collection to pay operating expenses as unethical, and rightly so. Selling a painting or sculpture that is not considered a key holding in order to buy something else that strengthens the collection is generally acceptable, although even this practice can be controversial, which is why museums usually try to sell things quietly.
Because the 1907 will of Dr. Isaiah F. Everhart established the museum as a charitable trust, the trustees had to ask Lackawanna County Orphans Court for permission to sell the Matisse. Judge Frank P. Eagen granted it last fall, but he still has not decided whether the museum should be allowed to use the money to balance its checkbook.
A second hearing on this part of the museum's request is scheduled for Thursday, and Judge Eagen has 30 days after that to render a decision. But if he rules for the museum, opponents of the sale are likely to appeal, and the issue may not be resolved for months.
Last fall, when the sale of Pink Shrimp became a public controversy, the painting was hanging in a Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both Sotheby's and the museum expected that inclusion in the show would enhance its value; in retrospect, it seems that the museum's "must- sell" position and the fact that the ethical issue had not been resolved had the opposite effect.
The Modern's show ended two weeks ago and the picture is on its way back to Scranton. But, ironically, it may never be seen at the Everhart again because museum officials don't intend to put it back on the wall.
In fact, it hasn't been on view since the fall of 1991, when the museum learned how valuable it was. Director Kevin O'Brien and curator of art Barbara Rothermel wrapped it up and stuck it in a secret storage place, where it stayed until it traveled to the Modern.
Pink Shrimp isn't a major Matisse; it's a modest kitchen still life, painted in Normandy in 1920 and tonally a bit darker than his usual palette. It would certainly light up the gallery next to the museum shop where it used to hang, but the effect will have to be imagined. As museum spokesman Ken Medd explained, "Our ability to protect and insure it is the issue."
The Everhart is a tiny, financially strapped institution that desperately needs to rehabilitate its galleries, which it is trying to do on a shoestring budget; to deploy its limited but eclectic collections to best advantage, and to develop an audience while maintaining solvency. It is a problem that many small museums face, but it seems especially acute here.
From its beginning as a museum primarily dedicated to science and natural history, the Everhart has evolved into the cultural equivalent of a one-room schoolhouse.
Its holdings range improbably from the Matisse still life on one hand to a room full of stuffed birds on the other; from an herbarium that catalogues the flora of northeastern Pennsylvania to pre-Columbian textiles, Anasazi pottery and a Roman mosaic.
The current special exhibition, which runs through Feb. 28, features antique motorcycles. (It's actually a splendid show, if you like motorcycles.) The museum also has done holograms, brass rubbings and two exhibitions of animated dinosaur models. The first of these, in 1992, drew 103,000 visitors and put the museum $121,000 in the black.
"If it hadn't been for that show, the museum would already be closed," Medd observed.
The art collection is predominantly American, as one might expect in a regional museum. Its strengths are 18th- and 19th-century painting, folk art and the largest public collection of decorative glassware made by the Christian Dorflinger mill of nearby White Mills, Pa.
By contrast, the museum owns fewer than 10 European paintings, and, according to Rothermel, the authenticity of several is questionable. One of the European works, by the expressionist Chaim Soutine, came with the Matisse in 1962 from the Adele Levy Foundation of New York. None is on view now.
Selling the Matisse and/or the Soutine to acquire more American art would be consistent with standard museum practice. That isn't what the Everhart had in mind, although, according to Medd, a compromise solution has been proposed.
Proceeds from the Matisse sale would be used to establish an endowment. Income would be applied to operating expenses until the museum was financially stable, then it would be used to buy art. It would be a sensible and practical way to resolve the problem.
The Everhart's predicament is aggravated by its inordinate dependence on public subsidies that lately have proved undependable. For the fiscal year that ended last June 30, for example, it was supposed to get $155,000, or about 44 percent of its budget, from the city; 10 percent from the state, and 4 percent from Lackawanna County.
The cash-strapped city delivered only $105,000, Medd said, then the mayor
cut this year's appropriation to $80,000. The city council subsequently promised $100,000, but the first monthly installment arrived only on Jan. 20.
With city funds uncertain, the trustees asked the county for a $200,000 loan to forestall closing in the spring, which Medd insists is a real possibility, not an idle threat. The county says it will cover any shortfall in the city appropriation up to $60,000.
The Everhart's difficulties are compounded by an archaic and peculiar system of governance - its six trustees all serve ex officio. Everhart's will specified that the board should consist of the judges of the county's Court of Common Pleas and the city's director of public works.
Five of the court's six judges, excepting Judge Eagen, sit on the current board, which meets monthly. Judges are prohibited by law from soliciting money
from the public. One major responsibility of a modern museum board is fund- raising; could anything be more anomalous than a board that not only doesn't ask for money but can't?
Medd said that the trustees are considering changes in the board's makeup to include more participation by citizens who could be active fund-raisers, something the museum has never had. "They're proceeding cautiously, though,
because they don't want to break the terms of the trust," he said.
I wish the Everhart could keep Pink Shrimp because the critics of the sale are right: In this place, it creates a special experience. But if the museum can't afford to insure the painting and doesn't intend to hang it, it might as well sell it. Better to sacrifice one Matisse (and if that goes, can the Soutine be far behind?) and spruce up the stuffed birds than let the building go dark.