The $18 million painting now at the center of controversy in Auburn was completed by Thomas Cole in 1839 and given to then-New York Gov. William Seward. That's important, because it underscores the fact that this remarkable piece of artwork indirectly belongs to the people of New York.
And by that measure, it's essential that this painting be on public display in New York state. And the place where it resided from 1841 until a couple of weeks ago, the Seward House on South Street in Auburn, seems to be the most fitting place for that display.
All that said, it was prudent of the Emerson Foundation and the Seward House board of directors to remove the painting from the house and place it in an undisclosed secure location. The Cole painting is such an extraordinarily important piece of American art history, that it requires extreme care in its handling. Its previous place on the wall of the drawing room at the Seward House, open to all the elements and the potential for damage or even theft, was not acceptable.
What's become clear, however, from the reaction of so many people in this community and in historic preservation circles, is that the decision to remove the painting with plans to sell it were misguided. This newspaper asked a simple question to its Facebook followers one day last week: "Do you think the Emerson Foundation should sell the "Portage Falls on the Genesee" painting, or do you think it should remain on display in the Seward House Museum?" More than 50 people had responded to the question, many of them within hours of it appearing, and the vast majority said it should stay at the museum.
"My heart and gut say it should stay," one reader posted. "(It) seems like the right thing to do, and more in keeping with the intentions of those who gave it. If it needs more security, get it more security."
And from the reaction we've witnessed the past couple of weeks, there would seem to be plenty of support for the museum to launch a capital campaign to raise money for the needed security upgrades to bring the painting back on display and also better protect the rest of the amazing collection.
The foundation and the museum, contrary to some opinions expressed, are faced with a remarkable dilemma. The painting could generate a tremendous return for both, and a lot of good could be done with the funds.
But we urge them to pause their plans and assess what's at the heart of the many expressions of oppositions they've been hearing. This painting is much more than an asset. It's fundamental to this city and this state's history. The thought of it hanging in the private gallery of a wealthy collector is, to be frank, revolting.
The painting is now safe. Now it's time to find a way to keep it that way while also letting it be appreciated by the public for many generations to come.