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Clyfford Still vs. The Clyfford Still Museum and The City of Denver

By David Colosi
Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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Something is rotten in the city of Denver.

On Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:30, the Denver City Council Business, Workforce, & Sustainability Committee1 assembled to consider “a bill for an ordinance approving a proposed agreement between the City and County of Denver and Sotheby’s, Inc., for the sale of four Clyfford Still works of art and to authorize officials of the City and County of Denver to take all action necessary to carry out the resultant transactions.” At least that is what it said on paper. What the council members were actually asked to approve that afternoon by the smooth talking city-appointed representatives of the Clyfford Still Museum amounts to no less than a breach of trust on an agreement (both personal and legal) made between the mayor of Denver in 2004, John Hickenlooper, and Patricia Still, now-deceased widow of the American painter Clyfford Still. What council members actually did approve that day could, and in fact should, lead to the declaring null and void of the gift of the coveted Clyfford Still collection and archive that Mayor Hickenlooper fought hard to win. The council members had the wool pulled over their eyes, and in their ignorance of what was happening were made unwilling parties in a scheme that will cast doubt on the integrity of the City of Denver and the Clyfford Still Museum for years to come, even before its doors open to the public in November 2011.

A video of the council meeting I will discuss throughout this essay is publically available online.2 The issue that came to the council members’ table that day appeared to be whether or not to approve a preference for a vendor bid by Sotheby’s over Christie’s auction houses for the sale of four Clyfford Still paintings. Councilmember Jeanne Faatz was astute to ask the question as to why the council was brought into this process and if they were going to have to compare bids and make a financial decision for a local institution that couldn’t handle this internally. Unfortunately, she was armed with the wrong question. She, like her fellow council members, was misled as to why the council was involved. The proper question that Councilmember Faatz and her colleagues did not know to ask because they were not duly informed as to the actual vote they were casting would have been this one:

Why is the Denver City Council being asked to approve of the sale of artworks – any sale, by any vendor – from the Clyfford Still bequest, and why does the museum need city council approval to move ahead with this? Sadly no one in the room asked this preliminary question, and the museum representatives entrusted with protecting the work and legacy of Clyfford and Patricia Still remained tight-lipped. The museum representatives I am referring to are specifically Dean Sobel, Director of the Clyfford Still Museum, Jan Brennan, Director of Cultural Programs, Arts and Venues Denver, and Chris Hunt, President of the Board of Trustees for the Clyfford Still Museum.

There are two reasons why the council members should have asked this question. The first reason can be discussed by looking in plain sight at the Press section of the Clyfford Still Museum’s website. One can find there a press release dated Monday, August 9, 2004 on the letterhead of then-Mayor John Hickenlooper containing the City and County of Denver seal that announces that the City of Denver had “been chosen to receive the much desired 2,000+ piece private collection of works by the late American artist Clyfford Still.” Describing the process with pride it reads, “Most of Still’s works have been locked away in storage for the past two decades, bound by the terms of his will in which he bequeathed his works to an American city that would create and maintain a museum devoted exclusively to his art. Since Still’s death in 1980, numerous cities have sought the collection by negotiating with his widow.” The release goes on to praise Mayor Hickenlooper’s tireless efforts in winning the trust of Patricia Still.

“Mrs. Patricia A. Still confirmed today that the City and County of Denver is to be the recipient of a gift of a collection of works of art by her late husband, Clyfford Still. Also, Mrs. Still noted with pleasure and gratitude that the City and County of Denver, through the auspices of Mayor Hickenlooper and with the anticipated cooperation of the City Council, had accepted the gift of the collection in the spirit and letter of the provisions of the will of her husband which created the gift.” (italics added)3

Clyfford Still, PH-351, 1940In fact many other cities were courting Mrs. Still at the time for the donation of this one-of-a-kind collection. It represents a whopping 94% of Clyfford Still’s entire artistic output, which astonishes considering that only 6% in the public and private domain was enough to define him as an iconic American painter. In the words of Dean Sobel during this meeting, there is no other collection as extensive and exclusive as this since the discovery of the tomb of King Tut. Denver had every right to be proud in 2004. But it was the diligence of its creator and his widow that kept this collection intact for all of these years, and now it is the responsibility of the City of Denver to offer it that same protection. Other American cities, like Baltimore, Washington DC, Boston, and Atlanta, had tried to win Mrs. Still’s trust and the collection, and only Denver, through the efforts of Mayor Hickenlooper, accomplished the task.

For clarity, I will reiterate exactly how Mayor Hickenlooper and the City of Denver earned that trust and gift: he agreed to accept the gift on the condition that the city abide by the spirit and letter of the provisions of the will of her husband, and Mrs. Still appreciated this with pleasure and gratitude, and for this sole reason awarded this unique prize to the City of Denver. One can conclude that had the mayor and the City of Denver not accepted the spirit and letter of the provisions of the will of her husband that Denver would not have received the gift. Instead it would have gone to Baltimore, a city closer to the Stills’ home, or Washington DC or another “American City” worthy and willing to accept full – not selective – responsibility for the gift. In fact, in 2000, Diane Perry Vanderlip, then curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum, along with Denver Art Museum Director Lewis Sharp and representatives of then Denver mayor Wellington Webb, had a donation agreement in the works with Mrs. Still, but this fell through because Patricia “didn’t feel the language of the agreement ‘was wholehearted enough about the independence of the museum.’”4 Mrs. Still was very particular and very premeditated, as was her late-husband, of who would get the gift based on how they would respect it and the wishes of its benefactors. It wasn’t until 2004 that Mayor Hickenlooper won-over the trust of Patricia Still, apparently agreeing to all of her terms. Yet Mrs. Still remained cautious. And her exercise of caution can also be found in this very same 2004 press release.

But before I move to that, I should first introduce exactly what Mrs. Still referred to as “the spirit and letter of provisions of the will of her husband” so that we are all on the same page. This gesture on my part for clarity was not offered to the council members by Dean Sobel and Jan Brennan at this meeting, and, in fact, the only voices not called to the speaking table that day by committee chairman Brown were those of Clyfford and Patricia Still – no documents or verbal defenses or statements representing their position were introduced in this meeting. I came across the following document through the efforts of journalist Lee Rosenbaum who has been critical of these museum representatives from as early as March 2010. Upon request for documentation that spelled out what Mrs. Still referred to as the “spirit and letter” of her husband’s will, and also the spirit and letter of Patricia’s will and the terms of the agreement made between mayor Hickenlooper and Patricia Still, the museum’s press office sent Rosenbaum these excerpts, the first, from the will of Clyfford Still, and the second, from the will of Patricia Still.

In this mere excerpt of Clyfford Still’s will, “Item Fourth” only, Clyfford could not be clearer about the spirit and letter of his will.

“I give and bequeath all the remaining works of art executed by me in my collection to an American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”(italics, mine)5

No bones about that. It is 100% clear how Still wants this yet-to-be-named American city to handle his artwork. He wanted a permanent home for the works, the city should assure their physical survival, and – emphatically and more explicitly than all else – the city cannot, under no circumstances, sell any of the works. This is a legal document that Still prepared with his lawyer and his wife before his death. Clear as mud? Absolutely not.

When it comes to the question posed to the city council on this day in August 2011, of whether or not to authorize the sale by Sotheby’s auction house of four works from the Clyfford Still collection given to the City of Denver, the introduction of Sotheby’s (vs. Christie’s) elides this very specific stipulation. Piggy-backing on the approval of Sotheby’s as a vendor by the council is a tacit approval to renege on the trust that Clyfford and Patricia Still placed in the City of Denver and its council members via Mayor Hickenlooper. The gift was awarded to the City of Denver, not to the museum. The museum was established by the City of Denver only as the venue for the dissemination of the gift. The city, not the museum, has complete authoritative power over the decisions regarding its artworks. An approval of the choice of Sotheby’s over Christie’s is not what the Clyfford Still Museum representatives needed this day. They needed approval from the council to sell these works despite the explicit mandate expressed in this will. This is why, Councilmember Faatz, the city council is involved.

If one short excerpt isn’t enough, then here is reinforcement. The second half of the document, the will and gift agreement of Patricia Still and her lawyer, reiterates everything stated in her husband’s will. It reads:

“I direct, not by way of modification to the provisions of Item Fourth of the aforesaid Last Will and Testament of my said husband, Clyfford E. Still, but, only in addition thereto, that the aforesaid American City, selected as recipient of the above-described art works, shall have heretofore constructed and/or assigned and maintained permanent quarters (the “Quarters”), or shall have agreed to so act in a final and wholly binding manner, exclusively for the works of art of my said husband, Clyfford E. Still, and shall have assured physical survival of such works of art based upon an explicit written agreement that none of such works of art are ever to be sold, given, exchanged, loaned, circulated, and/or otherwise disposed of at any time, for any length of time and/or for any use and/or purpose, but, to the contrary, shall be retained at all times in the Quarters and permanently provided for such art works for the purposes of the exhibition, study, preservation, maintenance and storage of the same.”(italics added)6

Clyfford Still, PH-584, (1947Y No. 2), 1947Again, no uncertain terms. Clyfford Still’s wishes, the spirit and letter of his will, are seconded and reinforced in even stronger terms by Patricia Still. It is under these very specific terms that Patricia Still awarded this gift to the City of Denver. Had Mayor Hickenlooper not agreed to these terms, Mrs. Still would not have awarded the city with this gift. Period.

The sale of these works is in direct violation of this agreement, and it is so on several counts. Examining the language, the word “permanent” offers no flexibility for the sale of an artwork; “an explicit written agreement that none of such works of art are ever to be sold” – this is crystal clear; and that all of the works “shall be retained at all times” in the quarters requires then that none of them can enter another public or private collection. These stipulations include a barring against these four works traveling to Hong Kong and then London to promote a Sotheby’s sale – all trips that are scheduled – and finally to New York. No where in this document or in the short excerpt from Clyfford Still’s will is there any ambiguity or any room for interpretation, as to whether four works can be sold or leave the rest of the collection. In addition, in Clyfford’s will, he clearly states that the American city must “assure the physical survival” of all of the works. This survival is impossible to guarantee once these four works are bought and owned by either a public institution or a private collection. The Clyfford Still Museum and the City of Denver as caretakers of this work will no longer be able to assure the physical survival of these works and will therefore be incapable of abiding by the terms of the contract.

In these two excerpts of longer documents, prepared with lawyers, there are at least four reinforcements of this explicit stipulation by two separate individuals made several years apart, that none of the works may ever be sold. It makes one wonder how vigilant one needs to be to secure one’s Last Will and Testament. Well, I have an answer for that, too.

Another ploy these museum “professionals” used to hoodwink the council members and convince them to vote for something they did not know was on the table was to, prior to this ordinance meeting, (likely without the council’s knowledge, yet admittedly with the knowledge of the “support of the City and County of Denver through the City Attorney’s Office”)7 enter a challenge against the will of Patricia Still. They entered this challenge in the Circuit Court for Carroll County Maryland (case no.: C-10-57827) “in the matter of the Estate of Patricia Alice Still” – the county in which Mrs. Still’s will was signed into law. From this action they successfully wrested from that will a decision to “reform” the bequest of Patricia Still to allow for the sale of these four works. (An additional scandalous clause at the end makes further allowances for future “relief as the nature of its cause may require.”).8 Judge Thomas F. Stansfield signed this court order stating,

“[T]he court finds the restriction on sale, gifting, exchanging, etc., contained in the Last Will and Testament of Patricia Alice Still to be impracticable and that the terms of the said Last Will and Testament are hereby reformed to allow the City and County of Denver to sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of the following four works of art by Clyfford Still.”9

Consider for a minute what this means on a personal level. Imagine a judge reforming your Last Will and Testament, and telling your daughter or son that a portion of the inheritance that you allotted for her or his sole and exclusive use was “impracticable” and now a portion of that inheritance could be made available to, say, a short-term ex-lover with some legal savvy? Then imagine that to move ahead with this action, your executor’s approval is required to determine whether the ex-lover should get 20% or 10% of that inheritance. Which do they choose? Or consider the following fairy tale: a woman promises her dying sister and signs a legal document to the effect that promises she will care for her daughter according to the mother’s explicit wishes, the most emphatic of which states that the daughter can never be subjected to acts of prostitution in order to facilitate that care. Then, six years down the road, when the Aunt wants to bring the child up in a luxury mansion that she cannot afford unless she subjects the child to acts of prostitution, she solicits a court order that allows her to reform her sister’s legal agreement on the grounds that the prostitution restriction is impracticable. Finally, you are now given the exclusive approval powers for choosing one pimp over another to handle the girl’s profits. “Which pimp do you prefer?”

Though I am playing in hyperbole and mashing fairy tale with real-life tragedy to personalize the issue, it begs the question the council was asked to consider that day, “Sotheby’s or Christie’s?” But they were not even given a choice. They were asked for approval: “We as industry professionals have done the research, and it is our professional opinion that this pimp will handle the girl’s affairs better. Can we have your approval based on our professionalism?” The only proper response to this is, “Back up a second.”

Why, one can fairly ask, did the crafty triumvirate Dean Sobel, Jan Brennan, and Chris Hunt seek a court order to reform “the spirit and letter” of Patricia Still’s will when it was quite obvious that what they had in mind was unethical? The answer lies in the question: because they knew it was unethical, they needed to know if it was illegal, too. Well, they got their answer. But the court order does not make their actions any more ethical. Denver should not be as proud as they were the day Patricia Still selected them above all other cities to receive her generous gift. These individuals are gambling with the legacies of the Stills (the very legacies they had been entrusted to protect) and with that of the current governor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, and with the integrity of the Denver City Council. They have gotten away with it so far. And they did so by expanding their net of blame to include the Denver City Council who had final approval for them to carry out this breach of ethics.

One could pretend to look at the case realistically, and observe that the museum has abided by many of the stipulations in the wills. After all, they are building an institution unlike no other dedicated to one artist only whose art, frankly, less than half of the country will understand or appreciate. They have earned most of the money themselves. So what’s the problem? Wouldn’t Clyfford Still have been happy enough with this arrangement? The short answer is, no. But I will let the daughters of Clyfford Still explain why I can say this with confidence.

Clyfford Still portrait by Hans NamuthMary Voelz Chandler of the Rocky Mountain News interviewed Diane Still Knox and Sandra Still Campbell and published the conversation on January 5, 2008. Campbell starts the story which Knox finishes of the time when fellow artist and art collector Alfonso Ossorio told Clyfford Still that he was going to send a painting that Still had loaned him to the Venice Biennial against Still’s wishes. Still had asked Ossorio for the painting back several times, and Ossorio ignored him. Knox, Patricia, and Clyfford took the train and a cab to Ossorio’s affluent home one day and Clyfford walked in and cut out the whole center of the painting. As Knox tells the story, “He folded it up and tucked it under his arm. Patty and I were by Ossorio at the front hall. Dad came in to leave. He said to Ossorio – who was unaware he had the knife in his hand – ‘Whenever I give you an order (about my work), you obey it.’ Ossorio turned sheet white.”10

One imagines what Still would have to say to Dean Sobel and to now Governor Hickenlooper, “Whenever I give you an order, you obey it.” He was a man of no-uncertain terms. He prided himself on his clarity, and he defended his principles even if it meant destroying his own work. Many more narratives like this one will certainly become familiar once these archives, shielded from public consumption for thirty years, become available. The archives will only provide us more proof that Still would have fought this disrespect shown to his art and legacy by this museum and city. He would have destroyed his own art, if need be, or even sold works to pay for the legal fees to keep up the fight. Sadly, and probably the deepest cut of all, is that the daughters of Clyfford Still have proven to be far more lax than their father (and their stepmother who continued the fight alone for twenty-four years after her husband’s death) in protecting his estate. As Councilmember Jeanne Robb proudly points out to her fellow council members, the daughters of Clyfford Still, who are also on the board of trustees at the museum, posed no objection to the challenge put to the Circuit Court in Maryland against their stepmother’s will. As many of us know, family is not always to best choice in defending our Last Will and Testaments. This is why we hire lawyers. And yet…

Clyfford Still was also a man to wax prophetic like a preacher pronouncing curses on those who don’t obey his wishes, “Let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life; - or for death, if it is misused.”11 This was a man who would not have taken a “reformation” of his and his wife’s wills without a fight. Sad to see that the people closest to him who know this better than anyone had not inherited his steadfast resolve.

Now that we are clear about the details of the spirit and letter of the wills of Patricia and Clyfford Still and about Still’s conviction to his principles, I would like to return to the original press release of August 9, 2004 and show how Patricia Still remained cautious in awarding this gift to the City of Denver. One can ask at this point, was Mayor Hickenlooper on the same page? Was he fully aware of what he was getting the city into? The bottom half of this press release clearly shows that he was. It should be noted also that the clauses that I am going to present appear in this press release only. After Patricia Still’s death in 2005, these clauses silently disappear from all subsequent press releases. From the moment Dean Sobel is appointed Museum Director and the letterhead switches from the mayor’s office to that of The Clyfford Still Museum these clauses vanish. Likewise, they are stricken from this council meeting of August 24, 2011, held behind the tight lips of Dean Sobel, Jan Brennan, Chris Hunt, and Erin Trapp in her capacity representing current mayor Michael B. Hancock’s office but also in her admitted involvement with this agreement through three Denver mayors’ offices.12

At the end of the press release dated August 9, 2004, below three asterisks, some of the stipulations of the Clyfford Still will and the gift agreement are appended. It reads, “The Will also places strict limitations on the sale and exchange of the works contained in the Collection upon receipt by the designated city.” Here the City of Denver is forthright in acknowledging these restrictions on sales, admitting them as if with pride as to how Mayor Hickenlooper distinguished himself against the competitive city suitors and earned Patricia’s trust. It goes on to say the following – in legalize, mind you, which is peculiar for a press release.

“The Agreement between the City of Denver and Patricia Still provides that the Grantor agrees to donate the Collection to the City and County of Denver only if the City is able to meet the following requirements that are detailed in that Agreement: 1. The City must procure museum quarters for the Collection which meet the requirements of the Will and the Agreement; 2. The City must designate a City Agency to act as caretaker for the Collection; 3. The City must provide for governance of the museum and Collection through the appointment of a standing trustee committee and Collection curator; 4. The City must maintain, exhibit and handle the Collection in accordance requirements of the Will and Agreement; 5. The City must raise or otherwise designate funding sufficient to procure the museum and provide for a maintenance and operation ENDOWMENT.” (italics and emphasis added)13

Regarding these points, it is important to reiterate the binding agreement to act in accordance to the wills of both Clyfford and Patricia Still and also the Agreement of the gift, as stated in bullet points 1 and 4.

Clyfford Still, PH-89, (1949-A No.1), 1949Further, of particular note as pertains to the reason why the city council is being asked to approve of this ordinance, bullet point 5 specifically addresses the issue of an endowment. These stipulations place the responsibility of raising or designating funding sufficient to procure the museum and to provide a maintenance and operation endowment for the museum on the city. It is not the responsibility of the collection itself to generate the monies needed for an endowment. The reason that Dean Sobel and Jan Brennan are asking for approval for this sale is exactly to “Generate sufficient endowment funds for the Clyfford Still Museum to ensure its ability to operate independent of any funding from the City and County of Denver for the foreseeable future,” as is stated on the Bill/Resolution Request calling this city council to adjourn this day.14 Blatantly, Dean Sobel and Jan Brennan are asking for approval for this sale so that they can use the funds for purposes the gift agreement explicitly forbids. Next to the spirits and letters of the wills of both Clyfford and Patricia Still that explicitly require that none of the works will be sold, this portion of this press release – printed on the letterhead of the mayor’s office with the City and County of Denver’s seal – clearly says that funds for an operation endowment are by no means to come from the sale of works of art from within the gift. The Stills, their lawyers, the mayor, and the City of Denver are 100% clear that the funding for the museum – and specifically for the endowment of the museum – must be procured by means other than the sale of works from the collection. There is no grey area that suggests that works of art can be sold in the event of a bail-out due to overspending on an indulgent architectural plan, a poorly planned fundraising effort, or the downturn of the global economy.

Dean Sobel and Jan Brennan are picking and choosing from the wills of both Clyfford and Patricia Still those stipulations they want to adhere to and ignoring or getting court orders or council approval to nullify those that prove difficult or they don’t like. This is not what Clyfford Still had in mind. “Whenever I give you an order, you obey it.” To further demonstrate the flexibilities Jan Brennan is willing to take with Patricia and Clyfford’s explicit stipulations, she belittles the Still’s stipulations as “preferences”.15 Clearly for Still, these are orders and not preferences. Just as time (and the death of Patricia Still) has erased these directives and this legal language from all releases from the Clyfford Still Museum Press department after 2005, so too has time and distance allowed Jan Brennan to audaciously interpret these crystal clear orders as fluffy “preferences.”

To reiterate and add further to this point, a final paragraph in the press release says a bit more. Again, peculiar for a press release, the legalize of the language of these sections suggests that it appears by the demand of Patricia Still and her lawyers as a means to document the specific agreement that Mayor Hickenlooper and the City of Denver agreed to.

“Under the terms of the Agreement, the City will have ten (10) years from the date of execution of the Agreement to identify funding adequate to meet its obligations. If the City fails to do so, the Agreement may be declared null and void and the City will have no continuing financial obligation with respect to the Collection.”16

Again, by no uncertain terms, it is the responsibility of the city and its offices to procure funding, including endowment, for this museum. It is not the responsibility of the artwork to contribute to that funding.

This agreement was made in 2004. Ten years from that point would be 2014. From this council meeting and the projected auction of works by Sotheby’s in November of 2011, the city and the museum still have three years with which to procure sufficient funding for the building operations and endowment by means other than selling work, which should not be an option in the first place. Certainly the museum has not exhausted all other possibilities for procuring funding with three years remaining. Posing the argument that selling the works is a last resort before losing the gift does not hold up. Possibly if this council meeting were in August of 2014, the issue might be more pressing. Dean Sobel, Jan Brennan, and Chris Hunt are simply manipulating the terms of the agreement to make their fundraising jobs easier. Their actions are egregious, and their tightlipped silence of these details and their elision of these stipulations from the literature presented to the city council clearly shows that these appointed officials have failed in their capacity to live up to the terms of the agreement and to respect both the work and legacies of Clyfford and Patricia Still. At the same time, they are tarnishing the legacy of now Governor Hickenlooper and bringing down the integrity of the Denver City Council with them.

Something indeed is rotten in Denver.

Finally, if at all surprised by the information I have provided in this article, the esteemed council members will also be justified in asking this question: Wasn’t there an item on the Bill/Resolution request asking specifically, “Is there any controversy surrounding this ordinance, groups or individuals who may have concerns about it?” Why, yes, there was. And an answer was provided. But without the presentation of the details of the spirit and letter of the wills of Clyfford and Patricia Still and without these details which resulted in the award of this generous gift to the City of Denver, there would be no way for the council members to know how to interpret the evasiveness of the answer provided.

Here is the answer provided regarding the potential controversy surrounding this ordinance as it appears on the Bill/Resolution Request form BR11-0584, dated August 9, 2011:

“While there are critics of sales of works of art that are in a museum’s collection, there should be no objections to this sale of paintings authorized and directed by order of the Circuit Court for Carroll County, MD on March 24, 2011, with the support of the City and County of Denver through the City Attorney’s Office in order to create an endowment for the Clyfford Still Museum. In addition, the contemplated sale does not violate any of the guidelines established by either the American Association of Museums or the Association of Art Museum Directors.”17

Clyfford Still, PH-1033, 1976A tricky response indeed. If it is not already abundantly clear, let it be stated that I, as an individual, object, have concerns with, and am making evident this controversy. Add to my name those of Lee Rosenbaum, aka CultureGrrl, of Arts Journal, and Kyle MacMillan of The Denver Post who separately in articles published before this council meeting announced the controversy surrounding the museum’s handling of this matter: Kyle MacMillan in the Denver Post on November 12, 2010 and Lee Rosenbaum in Arts Journal on March 30, 2011, followed by another Denver Post article by Kyle MacMillan on May 03, 2011. Since this council meeting, several more articles have appeared by the same writers and possibly by others.

In the spirit of the clarity of Clyfford and Patricia Still, the controversy surrounding this ordinance is not about sales of works of art in a museum’s collection. The controversy in this specific case is about the blatant subversion of the terms of this particular agreement by this particular museum. The controversies referred to in this intentionally vague response to question six on the Bill/Resolution Request form suggest only a general controversy circulating around the microcosm of the art world regarding the legality and ethics of selling works that are already housed by a collection. By the standards set by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, once a museum acquires a gift from a donor there are legal issues in play that prevent them from selling those gifts in order to maintain their museum or fit their fiscal needs. These challenges were put in place to protect the rights of donors, so that they would feel safe and remain generous in donating to museums. Yet this is the very loophole through which the Clyfford Still Museum representatives squirmed through and wrested the court order from Maryland. The works of art, although exclusively bequeathed to the City and County of Denver since 2004, remain in a storage facility in Maryland to this day. The AAM and AAMD legal standards, by fine-tooth comb technicalities, do not apply until those works are in the hands of the grantee.18 (Presumably the works remain in Maryland in the event that the City of Denver does not meet its ten-year deadline). But bringing up these very general esoteric controversies in this specific case is again another smoke screen to blind the council from the true questions and controversies surrounding this very unique case.

These specific controversies, exposed publicly by both journalists MacMillan and Rosenbaum preceding this council meeting, involve the issues that I bring up again here: specifically the breach of trust and agreement made between the City of Denver through the efforts and auspices of Mayor Hickenlooper and Patricia Still, as well as the breach of contract stated in the explicit requirements laid down in the wills of both Clyfford and Patricia Still. This gift would not have been awarded to the City of Denver if Patricia Still had known that the museum would sell works of art as a bail-out to establish an endowment. All of her legal literature spells this out with heart-stopping clarity.

To return to Councilmember Faatz’s initial question and confusion: This is actually not an issue to be handled or decided by the city council. The Museum knew the job the City and County of Denver entrusted them to carry out according to the letter of the agreement, and they have proven that they failed to fulfill their end of the bargain. The city council does not need to fix this by approving an unethical bail-out. This is an internal problem that the museum should resolve on its own in the remaining three years.

But now just how and why exactly did Dean Sobel, Jan Brennan, and Chris Hunt craft their answer regarding this controversy? The first thing of note is the use of the phrase, “this ordinance”. Remember that “this ordinance” pertains specifically to the approval or not of Sotheby’s as a vendor to win the bid to broker this sale of works, (the decision as to which pimp should control the niece’s earnings). “This ordinance” slyly leaps over the primary nature of the ordinance, the one that the museum needs council approval for, namely, authorization to move ahead with the unethical – yet now legalized – sale of these works.

The court order appears in this answer without context. So the question, “Why did you seek a court order to authorize the sale of these works of art?” could not have been on the tip of the tongues of these council members unless they had followed the art press and read about the controversies surrounding this case. The court order is placed in a position to replace any questioning of controversy. In fact, its presence is used as a virtual trump card on all controversy, rendering all questions to the contrary mute. Yet rather than a trump card, this court order is the very card that reneges on the entire agreement made between the city and Mrs. Still.

How could the council members know the nature of the cause for the court order if they were not familiar with the art and much less the character of Clyfford Still? The video of the council meeting clearly shows that none of those present have an art background, with possibly the exception of Councilmember Jeanne Robb who “has some friends in the arts.” The first indication of their ignorance of the larger art world, (which is comparable to my ignorance of city politics – the subjects are fairly out of our fields of expertise), came from chairman Brown’s first order of business, which was to ask if anyone at the table was the owner of an artwork by “Clayton Still,” and if he or she was, he or she should recuse him or herself. Lucky for those owners of a work by “Clyfford Still” in the room, they could remain, Clyfford Still, PH-77, 1937yet sad indeed for those owners of artwork by “Clayton” Still who were asked to leave for no apparent reason. It is Councilmember Faatz again who asks if the museum representatives have any examples of Clyfford Still’s work so everyone present can know what it is they are talking about. From this point forward the group selects to project as backdrop some early representational works of Still’s depicting workers in a field, suggesting that the most famous abstract paintings might not appeal to everyone. I bring this up not to ridicule the lack of art knowledge of the council members – the representatives of the Clyfford Still Museum do that satisfactorily without my help – it is only to say that these council members did not have the knowledge base to be armed with the proper questions regarding Clyfford Still and his life, such as Still’s notorious behavior for controlling his art work and its reception, or the controversies surrounding museum deaccessions, or the regulations set forth by the AAM and AAMD. The council relied on the expertise of Dean Sobel, Jan Brennan, and Chris Hunt, and it was these very individuals who selected which bits of information the council needed to know. They manipulated the ignorance of the council members by withholding information that was pertinent to their making an informed decision about approving the sales of these art works. Therefore, in the one instance when the court order was mentioned during this meeting, these council members saw only the bottom line: “they have legal documentation to proceed,” but they had no idea what that legal documentation was overriding.

The final pertinent inclusion in this “no controversy” answer came by way of the museum representatives’ expressed reason for selling the works. The money, which will result from the sale of these works, will be used create an endowment for the museum. From the perspective of the council members, as individuals outside of the art world, this seems like a noble reason to sell the works and a noble use of the money earned as a result. It also appeals to them because of the prospect that the museum will solicit no money from the city or tax dollars from the citizens. When Jan Brennan flashed the $25,000,000 guaranteed minimum and mentions a hypothetical $150,000,000 in front of them, what was there to object to? Councilmember Ortega expressed relief that no city or taxpayer dollars would be spent. What was there to disapprove of? Well, there was the question of the unstated controversy, of the binding agreement that the City and County of Denver through Mayor Hickenlooper made with Patricia Still, that the gift was given only on condition that the agreement be adhered to, that “none of the works in the collection” would ever be sold and that the city could assure the survival and care of every single work included in the gift, and, finally that sole responsibility for procuring the funds necessary to not only build but also to endow the museum must come from the City and County of Denver. Very explicitly, it cannot come from the sale of works from the collection. Other than that, there was nothing to object to. Unfortunately, the entirety of that is objectionable and ultimately warrants council disapproval of this ordinance regardless of how much drool they spill over the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Clyfford Still portrait Albright KnoxThere is no ambiguity in the wills of both Clyfford and Patricia Still. There is no ambiguity in the Agreement made between Patricia Still and then- Mayor Hickenlooper. There is no ambiguity in the prideful press release of August 9, 2004. Why then is there so much ambiguity as to the nature of the necessity of a council approval for this ordinance? Why is there so much ambiguity in the stated “no controversy” answer on the Bill/Resolution Request form? Why is there tacit ambiguity in the decision to acquire a court order to reform the Last Will and Testament of Patricia Still? The reason for this ambiguity, dear council members and readers, is that the museum representatives appointed to execute this agreement to the letter do not want us to know that they are subverting that very responsibility they have been entrusted with. Even more heinously, they do not want the council members to know beforehand that once they get their approval, the council shares responsibility for allowing these shameful acts to proceed. I hope by now the council and anyone reading this: citizens of Denver, members of the art community, daughters and relatives of Clyfford and Patricia Still, that I have made the nature of the controversy crystal clear.

The question no one in Denver is asking is, “What would Clyfford do?”

“Let no man undervalue the implications of this work, or its power for life, – or for death if it is misused.”



Note: The paintings reproduced in this essay, with the exception of the last one, "Clyfford Still, 1937, PH-77" (depicting workers in the field) are the four paintings selected to be sold.

1 Individuals called to the table included: Charlie Brown, Committee Chair, District 6; Jeanne Robb, District 10; Robin Kniech, City Council At-Large; Christopher Herndon, District 11; Chris Nevitt, City Council President, District 7; Debbie Ortega, City Council At-Large; Jeanne Faatz, District 2; Peggy Lehmann, District 4; Shelley Smith, Council staff; Jan Brennan, Director of Cultural Programs, Arts and Venues Denver; Dean Sobel, Director Clyfford Still Museum; Chris Hunt, President of the Board of Trustees for the Clyfford Still Museum; Erin Trapp, representing the Office of Mayor Michael B. Hancock.

2 Denver City Council Legislative Services website: here Thanks to Lee Rosenbaum (aka CultureGrrl) for pointing out this video: Rosenbaum, Lee. “Clyfford Still Museum’s Sloppy Stewardship: Denver Post Article, City Council Video,” (ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, September 27, 2011): here

3“The Clyfford Still Art Collection Is Bequeathed To The City Of Denver,” Press Release from the Office of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, August 9, 2004. Click here for PDF file. This document is publically available through the Clyfford Still Museum’s Press Room link on their webpage.

4 Hochfield, Sylvia. “Revealing The Hidden Clyfford Still.” (Art News, January, 2009). Click here for PDF file. This document can also be found on the Clyfford Still Museum’s Press Room page on their website.

5 Excerpts from the will’s of Clyfford and Patricia Still. Click here for PDF file. My access to this document was the result of the work of journalist Lee Rosenbaum. Her original article can be found by following this link: here Rosenbaum, Lee. “Clyfford Still Museum Circumvents Donor Intent (Culturegrrl Circumnavigates Construction Site),” ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, March 30, 2011.

6 Ibid.

7“Bill/Resolution Request, Number BR11-0584,” Date 8/9/2011. Click here for PDF file. Publically available on the Denver City Council Legislative Services website: here

8“Court Order In The Matter Of The Estate Of Patricia Alice Still – Deceased – In The Circuit Court For Carroll County Maryland, Case No. C-10-57827.” Click here for PDF file. Same source and credit to Lee Rosenbaum: see footnote 5.

9 Ibid.

10 Chandler, Mary Voelz. “Still The Master.” (Rocky Mountain News, January 5, 2008). here This document can also be found on the Clyfford Still Museum’s Press Room page on their website.

11 See note 4.

12 See minute 50:26 of the video noted in footnote 2.

13 See note 3.

14 See note 7.

15 See minute 34:00 of the video noted in footnote 2.

16 See note 3.

17 See note 7.

18 See Lee Rosenbaum from note 5.


  • Allen, Emma. “A Castle For A Curmudgeon: Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum To Open In November, Faithful To His Persnickety Stipulations,” Art Info, May 4, 2011.
  • Chandler, Mary Voelz, “Still The Master,” The Rocky Mountain News, Art & Architecture, January, 5, 2008.
  • Hochfield, Sylvia. “Revealing The Hidden Clyfford Still,” ARTnews, January 2009.
  • MacMillan, Kyle. “Denver Museum’s Plan To Sell Four Clyfford Still Paintings Has Art World Watching,” The Denver Post, November 12, 2010.
  • ---. “Sale of 4 Entrusted Stills Messy Start For Museum,” The Denver Post, September 24, 2011.
  • Madoff, Steven Henry. “Unfurling The Hidden Work Of A Lifetime,” The New York Times, Arts & Leisure, Sunday, March 18, 2007.
  • Martinez, Vanessa. “Breaking Arts News: Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum Will Open November 18,” 5280, The Denver Magazine, May 3, 2011.
  • Meyer, Jeremy P. “Denver City Council To Vote On Sale Of Clyfford Still Paintings,” The Denver Post, August 29, 2011.
  • Rosenbaum, Lee. “Clyfford Still Museum Circumvents Donor Intent (Culturegrrl Circumnavigates Construction Site),” ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, March 30, 2011.
  • ---. “Still Chill: Sotheby’s To Help Clyfford Still Museum Monetize Four Of The Artist’s Works,” ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, August 19, 2011.
  • ---. “Details (And Text) Of Clyfford Still Sales Agreement Between Denver, Sotheby’s,” ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, August 31, 2011.
  • ---. “Donor Intent Violation: Sotheby’s To Auction Denver’s Four Clyfford Stills On Nov. 9,” ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, September 21, 2011.
  • ---. “Clyfford Still Museum’s Sloppy Stewardship: Denver Post Article, City Council Video,” ArtsJournal: CultureGrrl: Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Column, September 27, 2011.

I would like to offer special thanks to Lee Rosenbaum (aka CultureGrrl) whose research and journalism about this subject inspired me to write this article.



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