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Art Appreciation

Institutional leaders need to approach the prospect of selling art-related assets with open communication and careful study.
University Business, May 2008

Picture this: Your college has been facing a cash-rich, cash-poor battle for decades, and the possibility of its doors closing seems imminent. To halt the cycle, the board of directors turns to what its members think may be the best option for dealing with these financial ails-approving the sale of art in your school's collection.

In real life, officials at Fisk University (Tenn.) made that decision, involving two paintings from its Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, to aid its fiscal struggle. Named for Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and husband of painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the 101-piece modern art collection came to the historically black college in 1949 as a gift from O'Keeffe, with the pieces from her late spouse's estate. Fisk was one of six institutions-and one of only two collegiate ones-to receive a share of his work. The university's portion includes sculpture, prints, and photographs by 29 acclaimed American and European artists such as Stieglitz, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The move to sell the art stirred up an over two-year legal tug of war with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., on the argument that O'Keeffe had requested the collection be kept together. In March, according to published reports, a judge ruled that Fisk broke the terms of O'Keeffe's donation by intending to sell the two paintings and because they weren't on display. One of these paintings is O'Keeffe's 1927 Radiator Building-Night, New York, and the other is Painting No. 3, a 1913 work by Marsden Hartley. The court's decision also banned the sale of the collection but indicated that the university should not lose possession for attempting to sell. An October deadline was set for Fisk officials to retrieve the artwork from storage (there because the Fisk gallery is in need of renovation, with funds from the intended sale to aid this) and put them on display. Fisk has since appealed the decision, claiming in part that the court's order to require continuous exhibiting of the works would result in collection deterioration.

Donors often give collections to higher ed institutions with the intention that these pieces will become permanent gallery fixtures, be available for public viewing, and encourage academic study. Fisk and other financially shaken colleges recently have turned to these art assets as a solution to their troubles, but the decision to sell them for this reason has engendered an ethical and legal debate.

Is it right to transform a rare masterpiece into a moneymaker? How important are the original donor's wishes in making these decisions? Does a decision to sell diminish the role art plays at the institution? These questions about institutional valuables are being debated well beyond the confines of Fisk University.

Both the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and the Association of Art Museum Directors, in their codes of ethics, cite the right for de-accession-that is, taking art out of a collection-to occur, as long as proceeds from the sale are reinvested in the museum's permanent collection, such as in the case of funding an acquisition.

When the money will go to fund other means such as supporting the parent institution's endowment, rather than enhancing the museum program, criticism can be sharp and quick. Some campus museum and gallery directors whose schools have dealt with the decision to sell have left their posts.

"Any sale of a work of art needs to be reinvested in the collection from which it came, period. And that has been violated in several instances in the last three or four years," states Lisa Tremper Hanover, ACUMG president and director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College (Pa.). "What does that say about the institution? It says they don't value a teaching tool, which most works of art on campuses are, in fact."

With many higher ed institutions being liberal arts oriented, and having art and art history components, Hanover adds that there are "very forward thinking" schools whose leaders see how the visual arts not only fit within an academic department but can support a wide range of study. If an institution is proactive with its collection, she adds, "I bet more donors will come forward. They will see that the institution is a good steward of these tangible assets."

Jessica Nicoll, director and chief curator at Smith College (Mass.) Museum of Art, facilitated a related discussion after the lecture "Selling Out: Are College Art Museums Resources or Piggy Banks?" held at Smith in March. Nicoll warns, "There's a real danger that the collection could be looked at as an asset that could be liquidated." Still, she acknowledges that there are times when the financial realities of an institution may leave no other course.

Higher ed officials may tend to view their campus cultural facilities as peripheral to their core mission, according to Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. Out of the some 3,000 AAM institutional members, there are 353 members with a college or university as a parent.

Under AAM guidelines, it's acceptable to de-accession a piece that doesn't fit with a collection's time period or movement-such as a Dutch painting with American Contemporary art-but the sale proceeds should go back into the collection. "Colleges and university museums and galleries are extremely important parts of the educational mission of these institutions, and for small colleges to have significant works of art in their collection is really a great feather in their cap," says Bell.

Fisk isn't the only institution facing criticism or opposition related to an art asset sale. In late 2006, trustees at Thomas Jefferson University (Pa.) voted to sell The Gross Clinic, a life-size oil-on-canvas portrait of surgeon Samuel D. Gross by 19th-century Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., as a joint acquisition, for $68 million. The painting depicts Gross performing surgery for observing Jefferson Medical College students; it was given by alumni in 1878.

'It's a responsibility for presidents to make sure that all of the assets that make up the institution are being deployed to support the college's mission.' -Richard P. Miller Jr., Hartwick College

In response, local groups fought to keep the painting, considered a piece of Philadelphia's cultural heritage, in the city with a fundraising drive to match against the sale offer. In January 2007, The Gross Clinic was co-purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Randolph College (Va.) has also been confronted with a court battle, over the auctioning of four oil-on-canvas paintings in its Maier Museum of Art. They are George Bellows' Men of the Docks, Edward Hicks' A Peaceable Kingdom, Ernest Hennings' Through the Arroyo, and Rufino Tamayo's Troubadour. A temporary injunction filed by a group of students, alumnae, art donors, and former employees who opposed the sale had delayed the paintings from being included in an auction at New York-based Christie's in November 2007, but the college gained the legal right to sell the paintings this February when the plaintiffs failed to post the $1 million bond required to keep the injunction. The paintings, now in a Christie's storage facility, are expected to raise at least $32 million, which would boost Randolph's $153 million endowment and lower its spending rate from the endowment. In March, the lawsuit was withdrawn.

Randolph's financial concern is tied to attempts to maintain its heritage as a single-sex college. Formerly Randolph-Macon Woman's College, it began offering more scholarships and a discounted tuition rate to maintain student enrollment. Randolph spokesperson Brenda Edson explains that officials had to spend more and more from the endowment to off set the lack of enrollment revenue. Officials have also had to cut budgets, staff, and entire academic departments. In December, Randolph's accrediting agency lifted a warning placed on the college in 2006, but the college must undergo a year of monitoring and will later face a full review.

Emphasizing that the college has to lower its spending rate now, Edson estimates that the school's endowment needs to be infused with almost $50 million. The institution became co-ed in fall 2007 to help increase enrollment, and board members conducted an institutional assets study as part of a strategic plan. At first, a committee made up partly of alumnae with art backgrounds brainstormed with the board to come up with alternative solutions to selling art. For six more months, the board tried to arrange a partnership, but to no avail. The decision was made last October to sell the paintings.

The Maier Museum houses Randolph's permanent collection, with more than 3,500 pieces, including paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs. The four paintings were chosen because they did not carry any restrictions and it was felt these were valuable enough that it would prevent having to add to the amount of artwork involved in the sale, Edson explains.

During this time, several updates were sent via e-mail and in print to the campus community and alumni. In January, a white paper of commonly asked questions was distributed. "You communicate the best you can and you try to be understanding of where your constituents are coming from," says Edson. "But as a board you have to do what's best for an institution. That's the most important thing, for a board, keeping the future of your institution."

Nicoll of Smith College acknowledges the financial pressures that shaped Randolph's decision, but as a director of an academic museum she believes it's "a sad moment" when a major painting like Bellows' Men of the Docks is put up for auction. "They would never have another like that available for their students."

Sometimes administrators determine a potential sale may not have enough merit to be pursued. Last year, officials at Hartwick College (N.Y.) decided not to go forward with de-accessioning part of the college's fine arts collection-after a Sotheby's appraisal the previous fall found the estimated amount was not as much as they had thought. Proceeds would have been placed in an endowment to support the museum's operations and programming.

Pieces being considered for sale included some from the Louis van Ess collection, named for the rector of the local St. James' Episcopal Church, housed in Hartwick's Yager Museum of Art and Culture. The collection includes more than 100 European pieces dating from the Italian Renaissance through the mid-19th century, and also American paintings from the early 20th century.

The Yager Museum, established in the 1960s, is also home to a collection of Native American archeological materials from the late Willard E. Yager, an amateur archeologist, writer, and collector, which was bequeathed to Hartwick following his death in 1929. Over the years, the museum began to receive more art donations, and the potential de-accession was to decide if some pieces weren't relevant to the college's mission.

A memo informed the campus community about a potential sale, and President Richard P. Miller Jr. met with those grieved about the possibility to hear the news. "For some of my colleagues, it was terribly difficult to even think that the college was considering it," Miller recalls. "As a person responsible for the institution, I found it a subject that needed to be addressed and laid to rest once and for all."

A museum advisory committee conducted a study and then made recommendations for improving museum operations, such as integrating museum activities with course curricula, encouraging more student involvement, and displaying the entire collection more frequently. "We have looked for ways to constrain the museum's budget, so now it breaks even within the institution," says Miller.

A gallery or museum director and a college or university president will naturally view the subject of selling institutional assets from their own perspectives.

"I think the bottom line is for small private institutions like ours to be pretty conscious of what our mission is and whether our assets are being deployed to meet the mission," explains Miller. "I felt that if there was significant value here, we needed to consider whether converting these works into an asset that generated income would be better for the institution in meeting its mission."

Bell of the American Association of Museums warns that IHEs have to consider the risks of what he calls the long-term effects of these sales, with colleges "losing a great art collection, which some of these smaller colleges are very lucky to have."

He also cautions about another possible consequence: skeptical donors. With donor intent, the decision to unload an art asset today could "make some donors stop and think, 'Do I want to give this painting or statue to a university or college museum?' "

Nicoll hopes that if administrators at Smith ever felt forced to consider selling the institution's major art holdings, they would manage that process very carefully, with concern about building "future trust among donors" to continue their support. When confronted with the decision to sell art, Nicoll says officials should be sure to involve their constituencies in a "very public conversation" about these challenges if there comes a point where it has to be understood and agreed that there may be no other choice.

But Miller argues that each case has to be looked at individually. "It's a responsibility for presidents to make sure that all of the assets that make up the institution are being deployed to support the college's mission," he says. "Any college president needs to make a decision based on his or her circumstance, what the right approach is."