Pa. attorney general reviewing La Salle plan to sell museum art

Students at La Salle University stand near the Lawrence Building and stage a January protest against the school’s plan to sell 46 pieces of art to help fund its strategic plan. Displeasure has grown among students and faculty since then and another demonstration is scheduled for Tuesday. MICHAEL BRYANT/ Staff Photographer

The state Attorney General’s Office is examining La Salle University’s planned sale of artworks, removed without warning from the collection of the university art museum at the beginning of the year, and shipped off to Christie’s in New York for auction, now scheduled for April 18-19.

Joe Grace, spokesman for Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, said Thursday that “the office of attorney general is reviewing the sale.”

Grace declined to be more specific, but his statement indicates that the attorney general’s office of charitable trusts and organizations is taking a look at the circumstances around the planned sales. One area of concern could be whether the university is violating the intents of any donors or funders by selling the 46 works of art deaccessioned by the museum and consigned to Christie’s.

Camera icon La Salle University
Unknown French Artist, (Late 18th Century, French); Myrrha Fleeing After Being Discovered in Her Father’s (King Cinyras’s ) Bed; Oil on canvas; Purchased with Endowment Funds; Collection of La Salle University Art Museum. This work is now at Christie’s awaiting auction.

Grace declined to comment on the reasons for the attorney general’s involvement, but his broader statement is the first acknowledgement that the La Salle sale is under state legal review.

At the same time, La Salle, which is currently on spring break, remains in a state of agitation over the proposed sale. Students are planning a Tuesday demonstration, their second, to protest what many consider a crippling blow to the museum, which has been used by many faculty and students, and has been an important resource for area public schools.

A La Salle spokeswoman reached by phone Friday did not provide by press time the administration’s response to questions regarding the review by the Attorney General’s Office or the process by which the works of art were selected for sale.

Formal letters of protest from faculty members in the philosophy, art history, and religion departments have been sent to the president of the university, Colleen M. Hanycz, and members of the board of trustees, who made the decision to sell what are generally seen as the museum’s very best artworks.

Letters of protest have also come from scores of alumni and prominent educators, and the sale has attracted the attention of national figures. Noam Chomsky, famed linguist and public intellectual, decried the La Salle sale – and others like it — as “very unwelcome developments, if not insidious.” Chomsky went on to say, in an email to Alex Palma, a La Salle graduate, that the sales of art by museums amount to an “assault on the population and on decent values.”

Camera icon Ed Hille / Staff Photographer
LaSalle University president Colleen Hanycz greets juniors Marissa Beaver, center, and Emily Paynter, right, after announcing a tuition cut in 2016. Ed Hille / Staff Photographer

In a March 15 response to a petition opposing the sale signed by more than 300 La Salle alumni, Hanycz and Stephen T. Zarrilli, head of Safeguard Scientifics and chair of the university’s board of trustees, said the decision to sell was final and irreversible.

“The decision by the university’s board of trustees … to deaccession these artworks was made after many months of careful study and a thorough review of alternative options,” Hanycz and Zarrilli wrote. “We are confident this decision is the right one for La Salle and its students, and as such, the trustees’ decision will not be reversed.”

Over winter break, in late December and early January, the university administration removed 46 paintings identified by Christie’s as most valuable for auction sale, including works by Dame Elisabeth Frink, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Dorothea Tanning, Georges Rouault, and a number of Renaissance works. (The museum has a collection of about 7,000 works; the vast majority are prints and works on paper.)

At the time, the university said it hoped that funds from the sales – possibly as much as $7.3 million – will support strategic and learning initiatives.

No members of the university art faculty were consulted, however, in apparent contravention of the school’s policy for museum sales, according to a fact sheet distributed by faculty opponents to the sales and to interviews with faculty members who wished to remain anonymous.

The La Salle collections policy spells out criteria for deaccessioning – sales, in museum parlance – and  specifically calls for funds realized from such sales “be directed toward new acquisitions and artwork conservation.”

According to several members of the faculty, many of whom would speak only anonymously for fear of university retaliation, the deaccession funds would primarily go to defray capital costs for a makeover of the university library, including the creation of a new coffee bar, gym facility, and possibly a bookstore. University administrators have also started talking about deferred maintenance – but not for the art museum.

At a student forum in January, Hanycz said that no money would be used to repair the museum or upgrade its climate systems – whose poor condition she cited as a factor in the university’s decision to sell the apparently endangered art.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT/ Staff Photographer
La Salle University students walk to class in January through a group of students protesting the university’s plan to sell 46 pieces of art from the La Salle University Art Museum. The sale is still alive and now scheduled by Christie’s auction house for April 18 and 19. MICHAEL BRYANT/ Staff Photographer

On March 6, the Faculty Senate sent a scathing letter on the matter to Hanycz, the president, and Zarrilli, the board chair, saying that the issue has fostered “a serious breach of trust” at La Salle, setting the administration at odds with faculty and students.

“Instead of having the university’s strategic plan generate its own momentum, the administration is opting for a quick fix by plundering the Art Museum,” the letter says. “It has also come to light that La Salle may be in violation of its own established policies regarding the circumstances under which accessioned works of art can be sold, the process for identifying items to be sold, and the purpose for which the monies raised can be applied. The decision has fostered so much ill will – with students, with faculty, with alumni, with members of the art community. There now exists a deep and palpable sense within the La Salle community that there has been a serious breach of trust, respect and collegiality towards faculty and staff by this unilateral decision that ignored major stakeholders in our institution.”

The sale has been called a violation of museum ethical codes by several national museum associations. The American Association of Museums (of which La Salle is an unaccredited member) holds that museums should not sell the art or artifacts unless the funds raised are used to acquire more art or to conserve art or artifacts on hand.

La Salle plans to do neither. The Faculty Senate letter notes that the university “has placed our colleagues in Art in a very precarious position of working for an institution censured by their professional organizations.”

In an interview, philosophy professor Cornelia Tsakiridou emphasized the importance of the art museum collection as a whole to the liberal arts and Catholic traditions of La Salle.

“The collection is not like a heap of rocks,” she said. “It was an organic being, very carefully collected. Removing the works, those which are most important, is like removing a vital organ from a body. The integrity of the collection is badly damaged by this.”