Donor seeks confirmation AAM still has his gifts

Grant Wood (2)RS

“In the Spring” by Grant Wood

Works by four notable artists valued at $50,000 total

Dr. Herbert Johnson, a retired physician whose family founded a well-known Chicago art gallery, says he presented works by Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Will Henry Stevens and Reginald Marsh to the museum during the mid-1990’s, but has become concerned for their welfare since he began following the various controversies about the museum’s operations and finances that have arisen over the past two years.

Johnson says his concerns have intensified since museum executive director Pam Myers turned aside his request to come to the museum and photograph his donated pieces.

On Feb. 12, Johnson sent Myers the following e-mail:

Dear Pam,

My wife’s facebook friends want to see the works that I donated to the museum. When can I come and take pictures of them?

This includes prints by G.Wood, R. Marsh andT.H.Benton. In addition there is an acrylic by W.H.Stevens.


Herbert Johnson

Johnson says he had received no response from Myers by Feb, 23, so he decided to call her. Myers returned his call, he says, but instead of honoring his request offered to send him a CD containing photographs of the artwork.

“Of course that’s not the same thing at all,” Johnson says. “Photographs on a CD could have been taken anywhere, anytime.” He says he intends to visit the museum in person and seek to photograph the donated pictures himself, as he originally requested.

The four pieces donated by Johnson are:

“Goin’ Home,” an original lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Benton, who is best known for his work associated with Indiana and Missouri subjects, is actually best known as a muralist. His best-known work is his mural “A Social History of Missouri” on the walls of the Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City.

Goin Home Benton small

“Goin’ Home” by Thomas Hart Benton

 “In the Spring,” an original lithograph by Grant Wood (1892 – 1942). Along with Benton, Wood is probably the best known of the Midwestern regional artists. He is perhaps most widely known for his much-imitated painting “American Gothic, depicting an elderly Midwestern farming couple.

“Merry-Go-Round,” original lithograph by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954). Marsh is described as an “American realist,” whose favorite subject matter was street scenes of New York. He was a member of the original art staff of The New Yorker.

“Untitled Mountain Landscape,” original acrylic painting by Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949). Stevens, another Midwesterner, did most of his early work in Indiana, though he later divided his time between Asheville and New Orleans, where he taught at Tulane University.

All four pieces are listed as part of the Asheville Art Museum’s permanent collection and were donated by Johnson between 1994 and 1997, and all except the Benton appear on the museum’s website, duly listed as gifts from Johnson.

Reginald Marsh small

“Merry-Go-Round” by Reginald Marsh

Johnson says his attention was first attracted by a remark by Myers, as quoted in local media, that the museum’s ambitious $24 million capital addition and capital improvements program was necessary in order to display more of the museum’s permanent collection. Myers indicated that so far the museum has only been able to display about three per cent of its total holdings – a statement which prompted former mayor Ken Michalove, who has become a dogged challenger of the museum’s plans and its methods of carrying them out, to ask, “Where’s the other ninety-seven per cent?”

Johnson says his concern deepened when he read that the museum had defaulted a total of three times on fundraising performance grant contracts totaling $1.5 million entered into with the Asheville Tourist Development Authority (TDA). But, he says, his attention was particularly drawn to Michalove’s mention of an unexplained item on the Museum’s 2012 Form 990 nonprofit tax return.

The art museum listed its 2013 investment income as $789,357, reduced by $768,701 from the previous year. Of this difference, Michalove says, $775,000 was listed on the 2012 Form 990 as “Gross amount of sales other than inventory.” In a Tribune story (“Is Art Museum Headed for Bankruptcy?”August 24, 2014) Michalove said he repeatedly asked what “sales” made up that figure but received no response from the museum. Without that item’s inclusion in its grand total, the museum’s investment income for 2013 would only have come to $34,357. Speculation, fed by a lack of information from the museum’s management, arose as to whether the museum was in fact quietly selling off some of its artwork to beef up its cash flow.

Johnson, a retired GP, was raised among artists and art collectors. His father founded R. S. Johnson Fine Art, a gallery still in operation on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. “He was known to come back from Europe with Picassos rolled up in his suitcase,” Johnson recalls.

The Asheville Art Museum was one of the original tenants of Pack Place, whose space it mostly controls now, following a hostile takeover by the city last year. Pack Place was dedicated in 1992 and Johnson began donating pieces from his collection to the art museum shortly thereafter.

John says his intent was to endow the people of Asheville, through the art museum, with some quality American art and only wants to be sure the pieces are “still available for local people to enjoy.”

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