PLAINFIELD, NJ - Monday night's Plainfield City Council meeting began with Mayor Adrian O. Mapp presenting proclamations to the Queen City Academy's Bimbola Olaleye (3-5 ) and Desirae Hemans (6-8) MLK essay contest winners.
Mapp then honored and acknowledged Anne Robinson, a past President, Plainfield Library Board of Trustees, for her work as she plans to leave Plainfield and move south.
Robinson then took the microphone, and said that she wanted to educate the City Council and the public about the artwork that was sold by the Plainfield Public Library, and the issues they faced along the way as the City of Plainfield considers the fate of the Albert Bierstadt paintings.
She stated that in January 2007, the library received a request from the Art Institute of Chicago to exhibit one of its paintings; this request necessitated an appraisal.
Both Robinson and at that time Library Director Joe Da Rold found standing water in the vault where the artwork was stored, and it was clear a new storage place was needed.
They also learned that there would be a huge increase in insurance premiums, and there would be a need for more security to hold multi-million dollar pieces of artwork in the library. The library was already spending $25K per year on hard coverage, and this increase would more than double. Plus, they spent $26K on a security surveillance system.
The library's insurer, AIG, informed the library they would also need three concentric rings of security. This would include locked doors/cabinets, and video cameras, but what would the third be? In museums, they have full-time guards, but the library couldn't afford that.
The artwork was too valuable to keep at the library, and they couldn't keep it in a water-soaked vault at the bank; they also couldn't afford the increase in the insurance premiums. They looked at storage facilities, and talked to other banks, but no one would take the pieces. And no museum would take them unless the pieces were given on permanent loan.
There had been lengthy discussions; what was the difference between giving the artwork to museums on permanent loan versus not having the paintings at all? No one sees them because the library can't afford to show them. What was the responsibility to the donor who gave the library the paintings? Could the library sell them, and if yes, how would it be done?
The library researched the donors, interviewed Sotheby's and Christie's, and deliberated at board meetings for months.
Finally, over a year later in June 2008, the library's representatives voted unanimously to sell a Winslow Homer oil painting, a marble bust of George Washington, a green marble sculpture of Grecian wrestlers, and a coin and currency collection given to the library in 1886.
The library hired a lawyer to represent them, and make sure they were doing everything by the book, resulting in an eight-page opinion letter in October 2008. The letter covered the wills of the man who gave the library the Winslow Homer, as well as the will of his mother, and all of the references from the board of trustee meetings regarding gifts.
The library entered into an advantageous agreement with Sotheby's that allowed both Winslow Homer paintings to be restored, and original copies to be made and put on display at the library for all to enjoy, at Sotheby's expense.
When the time came for the auction, several public figures criticized the library representatives, and they were investigated by the Attorney General.
Then, on December 2, 2008, Robinson learned that the City of Plainfield and the State of New Jersey would not stop the auction, and the sale proceeded the next morning.
Robinson notes that the history she shared was just about the selling; the more most important part was that whatever money was received from the sale of these assets would be protected and only used for projects that added permanent value to the library. It couldn't be squandered, or used for staff salary.
In July 2008, the Plainfield Public Library had created the Heritage Fund, which has helped pay for the Children's Room at the library, and fifteen new public-use computers. It led to the creation of a permanently searchable database of blueprints, and current plans include ADA-compliant bathrooms on the lower level.
The Morgan Stanley-managed fund started at $2.3 million with the sale of the artwork, and to date, $606K has been spent. The value of the fund is $2.4 million today.
Robinson believes she and her colleagues acted responsibly, and in the interest of the public.
She then brought her point to the City of Plainfield's challenge with the Bierstadt paintings. She posed the question of what the city would do if there were a fire and the paintings were destroyed. Being self-insured, the city would have no way to replace them. Robinson also noted that the city hardly has three concentric rings of security around the paintings.
She said, "wouldn't it be more responsible to put a reproduction on the wall?"
As the city considers the sale, she noted, officials must also consider the trust the public has placed in them. "This sale could give the city a rare opportunity to do something incredible."
She noted that the city would be under far more scrutiny from the public, but the principals are the same, and that five to ten years from now, many lives could be changed. She ended by asking if the paintings remain on the wall, how will city officials make Plainfield a better place consider current budget constraints.
Other topics included a vote on final passage of towing penalties for taxis not licensed in Plainfield.