In the summer of 2014, the Delaware Art Museum sold Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867) by the pre-Raphaelite English artist William Holman Hunt. It was gaveled at $4.25 million, a disappointment, as Christie’s low-end estimate had been $8.4 million.

The painting was theirs to dispose of, but within the museum community the decision has been scorned. No matter the financial need, it is regarded as unethical to sell works from an institution’s permanent collection to raise money or pay off debt, as the dam did. The museum was promptly sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors, an action that meant no other aamd member was to have professional dealings with the museum—no loans for exhibitions, no cooperative programs.

Timothy Rub, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the aamd’s president at the time, warned that when museums “begin to look at pieces of a collection as fungible resources that can be monetized, we are starting down a slippery slope.” Christine Anagnos, currently the executive director of the aamd, said that “there have been only two instances [of sanctions] in the last twenty years, the Delaware Art Museum being one of them.”

Having thus been cast into the cultural wilderness, the museum, as planned, sold three more works in the next year—a Homer, a Calder, and a Wyeth—before announcing in June 2015 that its financial crisis was over. There has been no public disclosure as to who now owns the four pieces.

June appears to be a significant month, for good or bad, for the Delaware Art Museum. Two months ago, in June 2019, the aamd quietly let the museum know it was suspending, though not yet lifting, the sanctions it had imposed in June 2014.

William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1867, Oil on canvas. Photo: Christie’s.

The Delaware Art Museum is a low-profile, classically designed Palladian building in Wilmington’s wealthy, tree-lined Rockford Park, where it opened in June 1938 as an homage to Wilmington artist Howard Pyle and his students. Its existence was made possible by the patronage of industrialist Samuel Bancroft Jr., who donated land for the museum and gave it the pre-Raphaelite works for which it is still known. The office of the current ceo and executive director Samuel D. Sweet, who was hired in June 2016, is located on the second floor of the 2005 addition, the debt-financed construction of which led to the institution’s financial crisis.

“The museum needed a turnaround,” said Sweet, who maintains he was not aware of the museum’s infamy until he was first approached by a search company. His background involves cultural establishments that have gone through both growth and crisis—the Signature Theatre in Arlington and, in Washington, D.C., Atlas Performing Arts, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he was chief operating officer in 2008–09 (the institution dissolved in 2014).

Sweet said the aamd sanctions came up during his interviews but were not the primary topic of discussion. “My charge was to make it a twenty-first-century business that would engage the community.” On several occasions during the interview, Sweet used the phrase “regain trust and confidence”—of the museum staff, its patrons, and the Wilmington community in general.

Sweet took over as director from Mike Miller, a former chief financial officer at DuPont Pharmaceuticals who had no museum experience prior to his work at the dam. Miller and the museum were thrown into crisis when what looked like a manageable renovation and expansion turned into a nightmare during the financial crisis of 2008. Tax-exempt bonds issued in 2003 and initially due in a lump sum in 2037 turned into a pay-us-now $20 million debt. The museum’s endowment suffered from poor market performance; plus, tightened banking laws caused it to violate performance covenants and default on loans.

In a letter to the museum’s constituencies dated March 26, 2014, Miller argued that the dam’s only options were to sell the treasured works or close the museum, explaining that his board was seeking $25 million from the sales, $5 million of which would be used to bolster its endowment. Upon hearing of the proposed sales, the aamd had talks with the museum, but maintained that sales would automatically trigger sanctions and disaccreditation—which happened two months later. As a result, multiple foundations also were reluctant to give grants to the wayward museum.

For the first two years after his hiring, Sweet set about rebuilding the dam’s community image while bolstering its financial structure. Local artists were more highly featured in the museum’s programs and collections, as were minorities and women. Current and potential donors were urged “to forget about mistakes that were made in the past,” Sweet said, explaining, “Some people did not understand the ethical questions.” Corporate and individual giving increased, including a $15 million cash donation from the board chairman Gerret Copeland and his wife, Tatiana (the couple had endorsed the art sale).

It wasn’t until the spring of 2019 that Sweet and his board reached out to the aamd. “I didn’t think we were ready earlier,” he said, wanting first to demonstrate the museum could operate financially and ethically over a period of time. “We told them that the board had made a serious mistake,” he explained, that impacted not only the museum but also the greater museum community. “What happened should not have happened.” The aamd gave a “good response,” Sweet said, “but they had their concerns.”

In June, the aamd board voted to suspend the dam’s five-year-old censure. “The aamd will evaluate the institution and its ongoing progress,” Anagnos explained, but she noted that no special conditions were set and no timeline given for totally lifting the sanctions. The decision was not publicly announced by either the aamd or the museum, although Sweet was quick to inform the museum community.

“I was happy,” Sweet said, smiling at his understatement. “The curators were very happy. They have been talking to other curators.” Are any joint exhibitions with other aamd museums already in the works? “Soon,” he said, cautiously, and gave a timeline of within “the next year,” then amended that to the next “couple of years.”

There is the temptation, as a postscript, to paint what happened as a “Tale of Two Museums,” each in financial crisis: Sweet’s current institution took an unethical path but survived, while his former museum, the Corcoran, chose death over dishonor. As the novelist George Saunders might put it, that once-proud cultural institution dwelt in the bardo over a four-year period that witnessed a slow diaspora of its 19,493 works of art. The National Gallery of Art had first choice and gobbled up 40 percent of the collection. Almost eleven thousand works went to the American University Museum. The Corcoran’s art school was absorbed into nearby George Washington University.

One Washington-area philanthropist, Wayne Reynolds, argued—unsuccessfully—before the court overseeing the Corcoran’s dissolution that some art works should be sold to keep the museum functioning. On August 16, 2016, The Washington Post’s Peggy McGlone wrote that the Corcoran’s 2014 court petition to dismantle itself had instead used the Delaware Art Museum as an example of a sad fate to be avoided. She concluded the article on an ironical note, quoting Sweet:

 “As one of my former Corcoran colleagues said about the two case studies, ‘The Corcoran is dead. Delaware lives.’ ”

Once a cultural institution reaches the brink of financial insolvency, there are only two outcomes—neither of which is pleasant. Magical rescues only happen at the movies.

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