Looking to raise money for its operations, Randolph College in Virginia three years ago sold its signature painting, a 1912 piece by George Bellows called Men of the Docks, for more than $25 million to the National Gallery in London.
Retribution from the art community was swift.
The Association of Art Museum Directors called the decision “a violation of one of the most fundamental professional principles of the art museum field,” imposed sanctions against the college, and asked other museums “to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaboration on exhibitions and programs” with the college’s museum.
And they did.
The same kind of punishment could be levied at La Salle University in the wake of its announcement Tuesday that it plans to sell 46 pieces of art from its museum to help fund teaching and learning initiatives in its strategic plan. The proposal quickly drew scorn from several national museum advocacy groups, including a task force that formed nearly a decade ago to dissuade universities from pawning their art treasures. At the same time, some higher-education experts defended the decision as one of survival: In a time of unprecedented financial challenges, universities may have to choose their core mission over other priorities.
“I’m sure this was a tough decision,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, “but it is in the long-term interest of the university. La Salle is a university that has an art museum. That is very different from being a museum that has a university.”
The university estimates it will raise between $4.8 million and $7.3 million, much of it for masterpieces including Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Virgil Reading the Aeneid Before Augustus from 1865; Dame Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Walking Madonna; Dorothea Tanning’s Temptation of St. Anthony;Georges Rouault’s Le Dernier Romantique (The Last Romantic); and Albert Gleizes’ Man in the City (L’Homme Dans la Ville).
The Association of Art Museum Curators slammed the plan in a statement.
“This decision goes against fundamental best practices of museums, the very standards that have built and shaped the country’s tradition of establishing and preserving art collections for the public trust,” the group wrote.
Both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors followed with a statement, and the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections also informed La Salle of its opposition to the plan, said Lyndel King, director and chief curator of the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota and cochair of the task force.
“Our major role is making sure that institutions understand the implications and potential consequences of what they are proposing to do,” King said, noting that other museums could refuse to lend traveling exhibits to the museum and essentially isolate it from collaboration with its peers. “We also want to make sure that donors and others know that this is being considered. It’s a black mark on the university. If I were a donor, I would certainly think about making another donation to a university that did that.”
Often university trustees and administrators don’t understand how inflammatory it is to sell art for purposes other than improving its collection and museum, or that the museums are an integral part of a college’s teaching, she said.
The task force formed around 2009 when Brandeis University in Massachusetts, like many schools stung by the recession and a loss in its endowment, proposed to close its Rose Art Museum and sell off the art. The museum, opened in 1961, had a loyal following who complained. Legal action ensued, and the plans eventually were scrapped.
“I believe that the [museum] is here to stay, and I joined it,” said Luis Croquer, who was hired six months ago as museum director. “The university is committed to it.”
Controversy also erupted at Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville, when it proposed in 2005 selling pieces of its collection, donated by painter Georgia O’Keeffe, widow of Alfred Stieglitz, the New York photographer/artist. After a legal battle, a deal was struck for the university to share its collection with Crystal Bridges, a museum in Arkansas. The university received $30 million.
The New York Times reported in 2016 that former Fisk president Hazel O’Leary had quietly sold off two pieces before that deal was completed, one of them a 1920 painting by Florine Stettheimer called Asbury Park South, depicting a restricted beach in New Jersey and featuring mostly African Americans but also the white artist and some of her friends.
Raymond Wade, a spokesman for Fisk, declined to comment on the aftermath of the controversy, saying that the school’s administration had turned over several times since then.
Randolph College first proposed selling several pieces of art in 2007 to raise money for its endowment. Officials did not return calls or emails seeking comment on the backlash the school sustained, especially after selling Bellows’ piece to the National Gallery of London in 2014.
But the college’s president has acknowledged that the sanction by the art museum directors group had impact. The Tacoma Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, canceled plans to borrow Randolph’s O’Keeffe painting, according to an article in the News & Advance, a newspaper in Lynchburg, Va.
“What the AAMD did, it does affect our students,” Randolph’s president, Bradley Bateman, told the paper. “It hurts our students.”
But Bateman told the paper that the school also saw positive impacts, including an ongoing relationship with the National Gallery.
For La Salle, a 3,200-student Catholic university that has struggled with a projected deficit and layoffs in recent years, criticism isn’t just coming from the art community. Alumni from other fields also have sounded off on social media.
“Pretty soon it will be a trade school. Sad times,” Tierney Kelly, a 1998 graduate from Philadelphia, posted on Facebook.
Kelly, a film publicist who majored in English literature at La Salle, said she visited the museum frequently as a student. Her projects for a class on Shakespeare took place there.
“It was amazing to be able to conduct a class in a place like that,” she said.
Later, she worked in La Salle’s admissions office and touted the museum as a selling point.
“It was a gem for the university,” she said.
Christian Brother Daniel Burke, formerly La Salle’s president, started the museum in 1976. Burke died in 2015 but in a recorded interview on La Salle’s website he talks about the day he announced he would start an art collection. He said Leonard Rosenwald, a collector, advised him that it wasn’t a good time.
“Stuff is getting very expensive these days,” he said Rosenwald told him. The collector, he said, asked him how much he had to invest.
“I said I’ve got $3,000,” Burke recalled. “There was general laughter.”
But over time, Burke, through university funds and donations, built and expanded the collection. La Salle’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures span the Renaissance to the present, some of it on display in a series of period rooms at the museum, on the lower level of Olney Hall in the center of campus.
La Salle, in the Logan section of Philadelphia, intends to keep the museum open and replace works on display that are being sold with other pieces from its collection. But alumni worry that with the sale of such prominent pieces the museum won’t be the same.
Vinny Vella, a 2012 communications graduate who currently works as a reporter at the Hartford Courant, said the “paltry” amount La Salle stands to raise isn’t worth it.
“La Salle has certain assets that make it valuable to the students and one of those assets has always been its art museum,” said Vella, a former Daily News reporter. “If La Salle is willing to sell off parts of its art collection, what else is it willing to sell?”
Staff writer Stephan Salisbury contributed to this article.