City to admonish UC Berkeley over artwork blunder

The Sargent Johnson panel, originally designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind, which was sold in error by UC Berkeley. Photo courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

Three years ago UC Berkeley inadvertently sold a major work of art by one of Berkeley’s most noted artists for a mere $150 plus taxes. The piece, a 22-ft long carving by Sargent Johnson, arguably California’s most famous African American artist, is valued at over $1 million and eventually found a home at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Details of the whole painful saga were chronicled by Carol Pogash in the New York Times in February.

Now, three of Berkeley’s city councilmembers are expressing their disappointment with the university and calling for some accountability. Not least, they want to ensure that a companion piece to Sargent’s carving, which was originally designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley, now the Clark Kerr campus, is kept safe and sound in Berkeley.

A recommendation being introduced by Susan Wengraf at tonight’s Council meeting requests that a letter be sent to the university urging it to take action in four areas: it should make efforts to re-acquire the Sargent Johnson piece and restore it to public view; it should protect the companion piece from damage and loss; it should inventory all federally funded artwork on the UC Berkeley campus and make that list available to the public; and, finally, it should establish procedures so that the devastating loss of public artwork like Sargent Johnson’s cannot happen again.

“It’s not so much a censuring as a way to open doors through the City Council so that the city can work with the university to implement these requests,” says Harvey Smith, a retired teacher who, as a Cal graduate, says he is upset at how irresponsibly the university acted.

Johnson’s artwork was commissioned under the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and therefore technically belongs to the American people. Smith is president of the National New Deal Preservation Society and involved with Living New Deal, a UC Berkeley Department of Geography initiative which is building a national digital New Deal database.

Smith became aware of the misguided Johnson sale when the original buyer, Greg Favors, an art and furniture dealer who stumbled across the work in a Cal overstock and surplus storage facility, consulted an aquaintance of his regarding its value.

Financial constraints

“We were astonished to learn he was able to purchase it,” he says. At first, the university assured Smith they were trying to get the artwork back, but, he says, it became clear after a couple of years that this wasn’t going to happen. “If they really wanted to get it back they would have,” he says. Recently, UC Berkeley’s Risk Manager, Andrew Goldblatt, told the Daily Cal that, given the financial constraints facing the university, it could not afford the repurchase price.

Councilmembers Darryl Moore and Max Anderson have signed their names to Wengraf’s proposed letter of concern to Cal. Wengraf says the whole episode is “kind of tragic.” “It’s a great loss to the campus community and an even larger one to Berkeley,” she says. “We want to bring this to the public’s attention.”

Meanwhile, Smith says he has the perfect solution for Sargent’s companion panel to the one that, he concedes, has probably been lost to Berkeley for good. “It should be given a place of honor in UC Berkeley’s only New Deal building,” he says.

Appropriately, UC Berkeley’s only New Deal building happens to be an old printing plant on Oxford and Center streets — the future home of the UC Berkeley-owned Berkeley Museum of Art.

Palpable possibilities: Berkeley Art Museum’s home awaits [01.25.12]
New Berkeley Art Museum mixes old with eye-catching new [09.16.11]

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  • Charles_Siegel

    ““It’s not so much a censoring as a way to open doors”

    I think he probably said “censuring.”

  • You’re right of course. Thanks for spotting the typo. I’ve fixed it now.

  • EricPanzer

    Goodness gracious that panel is gorgeous! How could anyone in their right mind have believed it to be worth a mere $150? Beyond being a grave oversight, parting with such a priceless piece for such a paltry sum seems an insult to beauty.

  • Bruce Love

    You’re looking at a post-restoration photo of the work.  Even so… it’s a pretty stunning error.

  • tenjen

    Think I’m going to hop over to the UC surplus store and see what I can pick up for a song…

  • Completeley Serious

    “City to admonish UC Berkeley”  Pretty sure that will work.

  • Guest

    I thought the generous pay scale for our UC employees attracted the “best and the brightest.”  How to account for this bungling incompetence?

  • Completeley Serious

     I think we can only expect them to recognize and rescue ceiling frescoes, seeing as they seem to spend a lot of time on their backs.

  • The Sharkey

    What on earth is the point of this? The UC clearly already knows that they made a huge mistake and has said as much.

    Does this City Council just want to embarrass themselves?

  • Bill

    Right about that Mr Sharkey.  At least it’s at the Huntington and not in some private collection!

  • Jenaceae

    maybe payback for kicking out the deaf school?

  • BradleyLong

    OK I’m the guy that cleared the title for the sale of this piece….  what a bunch of idots Harvey Smith and the City Council members are. Did they even understand what happened? The piece was about to thrown away and now it is in a museum where the world can enjoy it. We gave UC Berkeley every chance to buy it back for a fraction of its value. Maybe the City Councilmembers would forego their pay for a couple decades if they feel it it that important for it to stay in Berkeley where no one gave a damn about it anyway. Even now the other piece sits locked in a conference room on a wall where no one can see it. How much Kool aid did these people drink in the 60’s? I am very proud of my part in giving the world a great piece of art to enjoy. If anyone in the media wants the real should call me.  Brad Kansas Long

  • Bradley Long

    forgive the typo i’m on fire right now and typing on a phone, I meant to say IDIOTS

  • Tadol

    How can you be reached?

  • Bradley Long
  • DE05

    Admonishment but no accountability.  Blame but no consequences.   When there is actual discipline of the employees responsibly for this fiasco, then I’ll take note…but, I’m dreaming because this is U.C.

  • Susanives

    Berkeley has lost a treasure. The Sargent Johnson artwork, created under the Federal Arts Program during the Great Depression, belonged to all of us. The City Council is right to be concerned. The fact is a major university in possession of internationally recognized works of art appears not to fully know what it has, and clearly lacks protocols to ensure the preservation of the artwork in its care.  It’s a lesson learned the hard way.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The companion piece would go very well in the old UC Printing building, where it could be seen by the public.

  • Bill

    A wonderful idea.

  • preservationist

    So what will the City Council do with their Romare Breadon collage that graces the wall of Old City Hall if they abandon the building?  Sell it? Or let it molder away?

  • preservationist

    oops  the name is Bearden. Sorry 

  • batard

    At UCB?  Fat chance.
    Based on my own experience dealing with RSSP, facilities, S&R and several other departments, accountability is nonexistent and consequences unheard of.  It seems to be endemic to the organizational culture;  people who don’t answer their phones, return calls, meet their commitments, etc. 

    Speaking as a campus outsider who’s had recent occasion to interface with the university for a few reasons, its a shockingly bad culture.