THE GREENVILLE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART (GCMA) in Greenville, S.C., sold “Alma’s Flower Garden” (circa 1968) for $2.8 million to an anonymous buyer. The museum confirmed the sale to The Greenville News and USA Today Network last week. The museum’s board voted unanimously on Oct. 21, 2020, granting approval to deaccession one work of art, the painting by Alma Thomas (1891-1978). The sale was first reported by The Greenville News on March 30.

“About a month after the deaccession, an interested buyer’s representative called the GCMA and asked if the museum was interested in selling the Thomas painting,” Paula Angermeier, a museum spokesperson said in an email statement to the news outlets. “The agreed upon price was 2.8 million, exceeding Thomas’s auction record by $200,000. A stipulation of the sale was confidentiality. The buyer’s identity is not known to the GCMA.”

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Alma’s Flower Garden,” circa 1968 (oil on canvas). | via Greenville County Museum of Art public Facebook page

 

The transaction is noteworthy because Thomas was largely under-appreciated in her lifetime and is now arguably the earliest example of a highly regarded African American female artist working in abstraction. Opportunities to see her work are rare. She is represented in a selection of U.S. museums, where the public is able to experience her work when it is on view. If “Alma’s Flower Garden” has gone to a private collection, that means an important painting by a pivotal artist is no longer available to the public.

“Alma’s Flower Garden” is an oil on canvas painting featuring a spectrum of color in a geometric mosaic pattern, effectively creating an abstracted, bird’s eye view of a flower garden. The painting was on the checklist for “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” a forthcoming traveling exhibition scheduled to open in July at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.

In a statement released yesterday, the Greenville museum reiterated the details of the deaccession and the conditions of the anonymous sale and confirmed “Alma’s Flower Garden” was acquired for $135,000 in 2008. (Angermeier told The Greenville News that “Alma’s Flower Garden” was purchased by the Greenville County Museum Commission. It was not a gift or donation.)

The museum’s statement also said: The deaccession and subsequent sale were in keeping with the museum’s, the American Alliance of Museums’, and the American Association of Museum Director’s longtime policy of using funds from deaccessioned works only to support additional art purchases and were not related to the temporary AAMD guidelines.”

With the proceeds from the $2.8 million sale, GCMA made several new acquisitions and disclosed some of them in the statement. The list includes:

    MARY CASSATT, “Clarissa Turned left, with Her Hand to Her Ear,” circa 1893 (pastel on paper)

    BEAUFORD DELANEY, “untitled abstraction,” circa 1959 (oil on canvas)

    DAVID DRAKE, “poem jar,” 1840 (alkaline glazed stoneware)

    HUGHIE LEE-SMITH, “Counterpoise II,” 1989 (oil on canvas)

    JOHN WILSON, “Maquette of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 1982 (bronze)

    HALE WOODRUFF, “Untitled,” circa 1950 (oil on canvas)

    JAMIE WYETH, “Catching Pollen,” 2012 (enamel and oil on canvas)

In addition to the works by African American artists Delaney, Lee-Smith, Wilson, and Woodruff, GCMA purchased a new Thomas painting, “Untitled (Composition in Rainbow Colors)” (circa 1976, 22 1/2 x 21 3/4 inches), with the proceeds from the multi-million dollar sale. Angermeier told Culture Type the museum purchased this Thomas painting from Berry Campbell Gallery in New York for $600,000.

Christine Berry of Berry Campbell said GCMA is a longstanding client of the gallery. Berry Campbell participates in the annual Antiques, Fine Art & Design Weekend hosted each fall at the museum and recently facilitated its acquisition of “Untitled (Composition in Rainbow Colors).” In terms of provenance, Berry said the painting came from a private Washington, D.C., collection. Given the transaction was private, she said she was unable to confirm the purchase price.

BORN IN COLUMBUS, GA., Thomas spent her adult life in Washington, D.C. She made exuberant abstract works defined by her masterful use of color, pattern, and rhythm and was often inspired by the beauty surrounding her home—the rustling leaves on the trees in her yard and colorways in her flower beds.

Thomas was a history maker. She was the first student to earn a fine arts degree from the art department at Howard University (1924). After teaching for 35 years at Shaw Junior High, she retired in 1960, at age 68, and devoted herself full time to her art. A dozen year later, Thomas became the first Black female artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972.

A pioneer in post-World War II abstraction, Thomas has garnered increasing attention in recent years in terms of collector and scholarly interest, as well as museum acquisitions. In Nov. 13, 2019, “A Fantastic Sunset” (1970) by Thomas sold at Christie’s New York for $2,655,000 (fees included), an auction record for the artist.

GCMA is temporarily closed in order to complete several building projects funded through a bond issue approved in 2019 by the Greenville County Council. On its website, the museum said the “critical updates will ensure the protection of our community’s valuable art collection and enhance our visitor experience.”

In the meantime, works by a variety of critically recognized and lesser-known Black artists from the Greenville museum’s collection are well represented on its Facebook feed. GCMA kicked off Black History Month with a Feb. 2 post featuring the now-deaccessioned Thomas painting.



“EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL” is co-curated by Seth Feman, Chrysler’s deputy director for art and interpretation and curator of photography, and Jonathan F. Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum, Thomas’s hometown museum. The exhibition will examine the full spectrum of her creativity, from her painting practice to her interests in fashion, gardening, music, marionettes, theater, teaching, and community service. “Alma’s Flower Garden” was slated to anchor a section of the exhibition called The Garden.

As the curators were finalizing arrangements for the show, the sale of the painting came to light. Last November, the Greenville museum indicated it was unable to grant permission to use “Alma’s Flower Garden” for press. Then earlier this month, on March 8, GCMA notified the Chrysler Museum by email that the painting had been sold. “The GCMA did withdraw the loan of the painting from the traveling exhibition,” Angermeier confirmed to Culture Type.

“I was surprised to learn about the anonymous sale. Several weeks ago we received an email message indicating that the work could no longer be lent to the show because it had been sold, but I received no reply when I emailed and called to find out more. We had hoped that we could connect with the new owner and pursue a loan from them,” Feman said.

“The work is important—both in its unique style and in its subject matter. It had a key position in the exhibition in a section that highlights Thomas’s backyard garden and how she used it both as inspiration for her paintings and as site to establish community with other artists and people in her neighborhood.” CT

 

FIND MORE about the forthcoming “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” exhibition

 

READ MORE Earlier this month, Syracuse University held a symposium about museum deaccessioning in 2020. Here are some takeaways

 

BOOKSHELF
A comprehensive, fully illustrated exhibition catalog will accompany “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful.” Previously published volumes have documented and explored the work of Alma Thomas. “Alma Thomas Resurrection” documents an exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery in New York City. “Alma Thomas” was published to accompany the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem. “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” coincided with the traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” was published on the occasion of a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).

 

DISCLOSURE: Christine Berry, co-founder of Berry Campbell, is among the generous supporters who have made donations to Culture Type. Contributions do not influence or dictate editorial coverage and content.

 

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