The Sargent Johnson panel, originally designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind, which was sold in error by UC Berkeley. Photo courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

Three years ago UC Berkeley inadvertently sold a major work of art by one of Berkeley’s most noted artists for a mere $150 plus taxes. The piece, a 22-ft long carving by Sargent Johnson, arguably California’s most famous African American artist, is valued at over $1 million and eventually found a home at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Details of the whole painful saga were chronicled by Carol Pogash in the New York Times in February.

Now, three of Berkeley’s city councilmembers are expressing their disappointment with the university and calling for some accountability. Not least, they want to ensure that a companion piece to Sargent’s carving, which was originally designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley, now the Clark Kerr campus, is kept safe and sound in Berkeley.

A recommendation being introduced by Susan Wengraf at tonight’s Council meeting requests that a letter be sent to the university urging it to take action in four areas: it should make efforts to re-acquire the Sargent Johnson piece and restore it to public view; it should protect the companion piece from damage and loss; it should inventory all federally funded artwork on the UC Berkeley campus and make that list available to the public; and, finally, it should establish procedures so that the devastating loss of public artwork like Sargent Johnson’s cannot happen again.

“It’s not so much a censuring as a way to open doors through the City Council so that the city can work with the university to implement these requests,” says Harvey Smith, a retired teacher who, as a Cal graduate, says he is upset at how irresponsibly the university acted.

Johnson’s artwork was commissioned under the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and therefore technically belongs to the American people. Smith is president of the National New Deal Preservation Society and involved with Living New Deal, a UC Berkeley Department of Geography initiative which is building a national digital New Deal database.

Smith became aware of the misguided Johnson sale when the original buyer, Greg Favors, an art and furniture dealer who stumbled across the work in a Cal overstock and surplus storage facility, consulted an aquaintance of his regarding its value.

Financial constraints

“We were astonished to learn he was able to purchase it,” he says. At first, the university assured Smith they were trying to get the artwork back, but, he says, it became clear after a couple of years that this wasn’t going to happen. “If they really wanted to get it back they would have,” he says. Recently, UC Berkeley’s Risk Manager, Andrew Goldblatt, told the Daily Cal that, given the financial constraints facing the university, it could not afford the repurchase price.

Councilmembers Darryl Moore and Max Anderson have signed their names to Wengraf’s proposed letter of concern to Cal. Wengraf says the whole episode is “kind of tragic.” “It’s a great loss to the campus community and an even larger one to Berkeley,” she says. “We want to bring this to the public’s attention.”

Meanwhile, Smith says he has the perfect solution for Sargent’s companion panel to the one that, he concedes, has probably been lost to Berkeley for good. “It should be given a place of honor in UC Berkeley’s only New Deal building,” he says.

Appropriately, UC Berkeley’s only New Deal building happens to be an old printing plant on Oxford and Center streets — the future home of the UC Berkeley-owned Berkeley Museum of Art.

Palpable possibilities: Berkeley Art Museum’s home awaits [01.25.12]
New Berkeley Art Museum mixes old with eye-catching new [09.16.11]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...