Artists Protest Over Planned Eakins Sale

The Associated Press
Sunday, November 19, 2006; 7:55 PM

PHILADELPHIA -- Several dozen local artists dismayed by a university's decision to sell Thomas Eakins' masterpiece "The Gross Clinic" joined Sunday the fight to keep the painting in its hometown.

Thomas Jefferson University announced Nov. 11 the planned sale of the painting for $68 million to a partnership of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The university set a Dec. 26 deadline for a counteroffer.

Demonstrators gathered outside the university, and organizer and painter Stanley Bielen compared the school's belated offer to let the community try to match the planned sale price to extortionist fundraising.

"That's a ransom note. Give us $68 million or you will never see this painting again," Bielen said. But he voiced hope that a coalition of city and arts leaders can stop the planned sale. He suggested protests continue weekly outside the school throughout the campaign.

Eakins was born in 1844 near Bielen's studio at the northern edge of Center City, although the lot is now vacant. "His house is gone. This is his great masterpiece. Let it stay here," Bielen told the sign-wielding demonstrators.

Mayor John F. Street has endorsed the effort, which is being led by Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Anne d'Harnoncourt and other civic leaders.

"The Gross Clinic," a graphic 1875 canvas that depicts surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross teaching Jefferson students the finer points of 19th century surgery, was designed to illustrate Philadelphia's groundbreaking scientific and artistic achievements.

A group of Jefferson alumni bought it in 1878 for $200, and it has remained in university hands ever since.

Jefferson officials have said they initiated the sale to raise funds for a planned campus expansion and to advance the school's clinical and educational mission. Walton wants the painting for an art museum scheduled to open in Arkansas in 2009.

© 2006 The Associated Press