Saturday, December 23

"Gross" donors in Philadelphia

On November 10th Thomas Jefferson University shocked Philadelphia by announcing their plans to sell a large painting to a Wal-Mart heir's planned museum in Bentonville, Ark. The school planned to use the $68 million in revenue for capital improvements its campus. A condition in the sale gave the local residents 45 days to match the sale price.

Sure enough... thousands of donors heard the call and stepped up to meet the incredible goal which will keep the painting in Philadelphia.

Stephan Salisbury describes Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic as a dramatic 8-by-61/2-foot painting that depicts Dr. Samuel Gross, an acclaimed Jefferson surgeon, conducting an operation before students in the school's amphitheater. It was purchased by alumni for $200 and given to the school in 1878.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts led a frantic six-week fund-raising campaign to buy the huge canvas from Thomas Jefferson University. On December 21st the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the campaign had only raised $30 million and appeared to be well short.

But then Hugh Long, chief executive officer for Wachovia's MidAtlantic Banking Group, stepped in with a "secret" backup financing deal that allowed the museums to sign an agreement of sale yesterday with Jefferson.

I guess you could see this as the people's attempt to fight back at a Wal-Mart heir's attempt to steal a piece of art which is widely viewed as "an embodiment of the city's intellectual and creative life." But when you look at this list of rich donors, it just seems like a waste of money to keep a painting in a city.

It's all about opportunity cost right? What else could $68 million have bought for the city of Philadelphia? The fundraising effort continues, but as I read the press release, Wachovia is agreeing to cover the difference between whatever is ultimately collected and the $68 million goal.

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