Enron Debacle Hits Art World Hard

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Feb. 6, 2002 at 6:01 PM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The collapse of the Enron Corporation empire has hit the art world hard, especially the Texas and New York museums the company supported and the contemporary artists and dealers it patronized in forming its corporate art collection.

Since Enron is in bankruptcy proceedings and reportedly selling its assets to stay alive, the sale of its collection is expected, and several auction houses are reported to be vying for the job of bringing Enron art to the block. This would include its most recent acquisitions -- sculptures by Donald Judd, Claes Oldenberg, and Martin Puryear valued in six figures each.

Enron's art purchases, which began only a few years ago were mostly to beautify its corporate headquarters in downtown Houston, recently expanded by a second building. They were in the charge of Lee Fastow, wife of Enron's chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow, who is under investigation for possible criminal activities in the management of the firm's finances.

Lee Fastow relied on the advice of two volunteer advisers, Barry Walker, a curator at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and Ned Rifkin, former director of the De Menil Foundation, a Texas arts philanthropy, and now director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

She made most of her purchases in New York, both from dealers and at auctions, and had a reputation for preferring contemporary art, the more avant-garde the better. She reportedly was backed up in her choices by Kenneth Lay, Enron's founder and chairman until his recent resignation.

Only one of the New York dealers from whom she made purchases, Sandra Gering, was willing to talk but would not identify the artists whose works she had sold to Enron.

"She likes the newer, edgier works," said Gering in an interview. "She likes to take risks."

Mrs. Fastow also was involved in planning site-specific artworks that were to be part of Enron's new building, a 40-story tower designed by Cesar Pelli. These included a light installation by Olafur Eliasson on a walkway connecting the new building to Enron's old 50-story headquarters and a video installation by Bill Viola for one of the new building's trading floors.

Whether or not these installations will ever be completed remains to be seen. The same applies to Enron's donations to Texas charities, including art institutions, totaling $12 million in 2001. It had made a significant contribution to the Houston Museum's recent capital fund-raising campaign and had sponsored exhibitions there devoted to Star Wars, Russian jewelry, and Chinese antiquities.

"They were one of the most generous of givers, even for operating funds that are the hardest kind of funds to find," said Peter Marzio, director of the museum. "Until now, they were the ideal, corporate patron. The only hope is that their commitment will be picked up by a company that has their same sense of community responsibility."

Another museum that will miss Enron's patronage is New York's ever-expanding Guggenheim Museum, whose most ambitious project, a satellite museum designed by Frank Gehry at the East River end of Wall Street, is in jeopardy because of financial problems facing the city and museum patrons in the wake of the Sept. 11 Twin Tower bombing.

Enron had agreed to underwrite the Gehry architectural retrospective that opened at the Guggenheim last spring but was not able to fulfill its pledge when it began to collapse, losing its investors fortunes as the value of Enron stock shares crumbled. The ripple effect may eventually affect giving to other museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has one major contributor who reportedly lost $2 billion in the Enron mess.

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