JAMESTOWN – Contrary to what officials with the James Prendergast Library have said in recent weeks, there has been an effort to provide significant funding for the financially-strapped library as part of an effort to keep its classic Art Collection in the community.
In May, the Prendergast Library board announced it had reach an agreement with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, allowing it to move forward with an auction to sell individual pieces in the collection, valued at $1.17 million. Library officials have said that maintaining the art collection does not fall in line with the library’s current mission, and that by selling the collection, it would help to offset the financial challenges currently faced by the library.
Much of the art collection was purchased decades ago by money bequeathed to the library by founder Mary Prendergast upon her passing. Prendergast felt the community deserved to have access to high caliber artwork and it should be displayed in the library. In her will she left $25,000 for the library to purchase artwork, on the condition that it always be owned an maintained by the library. However, Due to the financial problems facing the library, the board had sought permission from Surrogate Court to nullify the terms of that bequethment, in order to allow for the artwork to be sold.
Since the library board first announced it was considering selling the collection, a group of concerned residents have come forward to oppose the idea, saying the artwork was intended to benefit the Jamestown community and that by selling the artwork the library board would be going against the wishes of the benefactor who provided the initial funding to purchase the artwork. The group even started a Facebook Page to keep the community updated on its efforts.
However, despite the appeal by the group who oppose the sale, Library Board President Tom Rankin has said that none of them have come forward to help find a solution for the financial problems facing the library.
“I would disagree with the idea that it controversial to sell the art collection,” Rankin told WRFA during a May 2017 interview. “There’s a vast majority in the community that supports the sale. There’s a vocal minority that opposes the sale, and we acknowledge that group, but I’ll also say that group doesn’t really help the library. We don’t see them helping with fundraising. We don’t see them supporting us. They say ‘Don’t sell the art’ and that’s that’s the only thing they say or do. The art collection is something the board firmly intends to sell at some point in the future and use the proceeds from that to fund our endowment.”
Rankin has also said that despite wanting to keep the artwork in the community, no one from the group had come forward to purchase it.
“No person, group or entity in Chautauqua County ever approached the library about buying the collection,” Rankin was quoted in a recent article in the Jamestown Post-Journal.
While that may be true, a person with local ties to the community had in fact made an offer to buy the collection.
WRFA reached out to Texas-based Philanthropist Jesse Marion late last month to get his reaction to the news that the library would be moving forward to auction its art collection, valued at $1.17 million. Marion and his wife Cathy, who’s a native of the Jamestown area and who’ve provided significant financial support to SUNY Fredonia, donated $60,000 to the library at the end of 2015 as a good-will gesture, in the hopes it could buy time for the board to come up with an alternative plan to auctioning the art collection.
In a response to WRFA, Jesse Marion confirms he did make a significant offer to help save the artwork while also addressing the library’s financial problems.
“In November 2016 we had board approval to purchase the art for a $1,170,000 (Sotheby’s estimate),” Marion stated. “We were in final stages of negotiating a purchase agreement when the library halted the effort due to the [New York Attorney General’s] ruling that the board could not sell the art. We have been on hold ever since.” (Jesse Marion’s full statement to WRFA can be found at the end of this article.)
Rankin acknowledges the Marion’s effort, though he offered a slightly different take on the matter.
“There was a possibility (of a deal) for 2017. The Marions had an option, but did not elect to enforce it,” Rankin said in the Post-Journal article.
The $1.17 million offer from the Marions to purchase the artwork has turned out to be a moot issue, because – according to Rankin – the Attorney General’s Office had opposed the selling of the artwork in Surrogate Court. It only lifted that opposition once the Prendergast Library agreed that it would only sell the collection through a reputable auction house, and not independently to a single individual or entity. This was apparently because the Attorney General’s office wants to ensure that, when the library sells the artwork, it will receive the full value.
WRFA has reached out the Attorney General’s office for verification of its initial opposition and of the conditions by which the opposition was lifted, but has so far not received a reply.
Marion said that he and his wife are very disappointed in the Attorney General Office’s ruling.
“It is truly unfortunate that the AG could not let the board proceed with our purchase. It will be very embarrassing if the sale proceeds are significantly less than our offer,” he said in his statement.
He also said that when he and his wife donated $60,000 in 2015, they did not know, nor were they informed, that the library was prevented from selling the artwork.
“We donated money to the library in order to buy time and find an alternative to selling the art through auction. At the time, we did not know the library did not have authority to sale the art and in fact was seeking court approval to do so,” Marion said.
And Marion also went to the defense of the group of people who are trying to save the art collection and keep it in tact, in Jamestown.
“Early on we met with and participated in the formation of an organization committed to keeping the art in Jamestown. This dedicated group was not only interested in preservation of the art but also the library. They are very respected in the community (maybe not by the library board),” Marion said, adding, “We feel they have been unfairly criticized by Mr. Rankin.”
The library board’s next scheduled meeting will be this Thursday, June 15, at 5:15 p.m. in the library’s fireplace room. It’s not known if they will take any action on moving forward with auctioning the sale of the art collection.
WRFA will also featuring several individuals who’ve been working to save the artwork during this week’s edition of Community Matters, which will be broadcast at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
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JESSE MARION’S FULL STATEMENT IN RESPONSE TO THE NY ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE PERMITTING THE AUCTION OF THE PRENDERGAST ART COLLECTION
We are very disappointed in the outcome of the ruling by the Attorney General on the Prendergast art collection. We donated money to the library in order to buy time and find an alternative to selling the art through auction. At the time, we did not know the library did not have authority to sell the art and in fact was seeking court approval to do so.
In November 2016 we had board approval to purchase the art for a $1,170,000 (Sotheby’s estimate). We were in final stages of negotiating a purchase agreement when the library halted the effort due to the Attorney General’s ruling that the board could not sale the art. We have been on hold ever since.
Early on we met with and participated in the formation of an organization committed to keeping the art in Jamestown. This dedicated group was not only interested in preservation of the art but also the library. They are very respected in the community (maybe not by the library board). We feel they have been unfairly criticized by Mr. Rankin.
It is truly unfortunate that the Attorney General could not let the board proceed with our purchase. It will be very embarrassing if the sale proceeds are significantly less than our offer.
Jamestown will again lose an important connection to its past and the citizens will have lost a treasure they will never replace.