ARTnewsletter Archive

College Museums’ Sales of Art Raise Thorny Issues

Faced with financial difficulties and shrinking endowments, a number of colleges and universities in the U.S. are looking to their art collections as potential sources of much-needed cash to fund operations. Many institutions feel it is only logical to take advantage of the art market’s current strength by selling valuable pieces, especially if it means

NEW YORK—Faced with financial difficulties and shrinking endowments, a number of colleges and universities in the U.S. are looking to their art collections as potential sources of much-needed cash to fund operations. Many institutions feel it is only logical to take advantage of the art market’s current strength by selling valuable pieces, especially if it means raising capital and, in some extreme cases, remaining viable. While numerous colleges and universities are not held to the same strict standards regarding their collections as other major museums, they are finding, nonetheless, that deaccessioning important works can prove not only complicated but controversial.

Last year Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, Tenn., got caught up in a legal dispute over the decision by Fisk University to sell two paintings—Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Radiator Building, 1927, thought to be worth a combined $16/20 million (ANL, 2/14/06).

The paintings had been part of a 101-work gift from the Alfred Stieglitz estate, made by O’Keeffe in 1949. In selling them, Fisk was hoping to replenish its overall endowment, endow faculty chairs in business, science and mathematics, and provide funding for the construction of a new science building. However, a lawsuit filed by the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, Santa Fe, N.Mex., claimed the gift included provisions that the collection must be exhibited intact, and that no items could be loaned or sold.

Eventually the O’Keeffe foundation dropped its lawsuit against Fisk. As part of a settlement announced last month, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum will take possession of the O’Keeffe painting. Fisk will receive $7.5 million and permission to sell the Hartley painting on the open market. (The settlement is still subject to approval by the Tennessee attorney general.)

This month, Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College), Lynchburg, Va., moved by concerns about its long-term viability, is admitting male students for the first time in its 116-year history. In a report on its monetary status, the college further announced its intention “to realize a substantial financial inflow through the leveraging of a portion of its art collection.” The institution’s Maier Museum of Art houses a collection estimated to be worth $100 million, with works by George Bellows, William Merritt Chase, Edward Hopper and O’Keeffe.

News of possible sales was followed by a visit from Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton, who has been actively buying American artworks for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, now under construction in Bentonville, Ark. In early August, the Maier Museum’s associate director Ellen Agnew resigned in protest, calling the sale of the art “wrong” and a “temporary fix.”

Randolph filed a legal action with the Lynchburg circuit court on Aug. 21. The college wants the court to interpret, or expand, the terms of a trust created by the will of Louise Jordan Smith, the college’s first professor of art who died in 1928. Randolph says that in order to share or sell any of the artworks purchased with moneys from Smith’s bequest, it needs “a court determination that such a transaction is permissible under the terms of her will or that the court would permit a change in those terms.”

Randolph spokeswoman Brenda Edson told ARTnewsletter the college hopes to make a decision regarding disposition of the artworks within the next few months.

In almost every instance where a school has looked to sell art, pressing financial needs of the parent institution have influenced the decision. In a statement, Fisk University president Hazel R. O’Leary noted that “the sale of two pieces of the Stieglitz collection will relieve Fisk of its near-term cash crunch.” And Randolph acting president Virginia Worden reported that the school is “one step away from losing our accreditation.”

The actions of these and other colleges and universities have brought strong reactions from the art world, with claims that short-term financial moves are depriving students of long-term cultural benefits, and that “established art-collection governance requires the proceeds from any and all sales to be used exclusively for acquisitions,” according to Lisa Tremper Hanover, director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, Collegeville, Pa., and president of the 400-member Association of College and University Museums and Galleries.

That requirement is mandated by the American Association of Museums (AAM) for its accredited members, among them, 95 colleges and universities—most of which also belong to the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries. (Accreditation establishes an institution’s level of professional behavior, assures its long-term viability and creates opportunities for loans of objects from other accredited museums.)

The Fisk museum is not accredited by the AAM. Among the requirements for accreditation: employing a specific number of full-time, professional staff; remaining open to the public a certain number of hours per week; and hewing to ethical guidelines as well as periodic strategic reviews of the institutions’ organizational effectiveness, strengths and weaknesses.

AAM president Ford Bell points out that the deaccession-to-acquisitions rule protects the interests of donors, museum visitors and the integrity of the institution itself. “You don’t want objects sold to pay someone’s salary or to build a new building or to pay for heat and lights,” he told ARTnewsletter. “You need to maintain the art for the intention for which it was acquired, and if it is deaccessioned—and, don’t get me wrong, deaccessioning takes place all the time at museums—the money should go towards fulfilling that original intention.” He says “the idea that artwork is interchangeable with other assets” diminishes the prestige of the museum and “the community that it serves.”

A Problem Unique to Academe

College and university museums, however, face a situation not encountered by private and municipal museums, which form the bulk of the AAM membership: The objects in the collection are not owned by the college museum but by the parent college, whose trustees may decide to sell objects to bolster the financial stability of the school.

Fisk University attorney C. Michael Norton says that the institution’s “main job is to educate students, not to maintain art collections. The university could fail while complying with the AAM rule. We’d still have intact this fabulous art collection—but, if the university fails, what will happen to the art collection then?”

Last fall Illinois’ Rockford College sorted through its collection of 3,000 or so pieces, eventually selling about 2,000—including several woodblock prints by Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige, an etching by Francisco de Goya and a variety of ancient Egyptian and Roman antiquities—at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, Chicago, netting $1.1 million. At the time the school faced loan payments and vendor bills amounting to around $10 million.

The college then turned to its rare book collection, consigning works to Hindman this past spring that earned “over $100,000,” says John McNamara, director of college development at Rockford. The artwork and books sold “were not displayed publicly, and they were rarely used in the teaching environment,” he explains, adding that “those that were used by faculty were not sold.” McNamara says the college views donations of artwork and rare books “like a gift of stock or land. Our obligation is to remain viable.”

Rockford College’s troubles have been mirrored in the U.S. at many other small colleges and universities that lack sizable endowments and are primarily reliant on tuition to cover institutional expenses. Some state universities have closed down their museums of natural history in whole or in part, putting their collections into storage.

In a cost-cutting move in 2002, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to cut permanently a $500,000 annual allotment to the College of William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art, a subsidy that represented almost the entirety of the museum’s budget.

“That money was used for staff, programming and acquisitions,” said museum director Bonnie Kelm, who quit in protest on the heels of the state’s action. “The museum is an important part of the college and of Williamsburg as a whole. It filled, it fills, the community’s need for fine art.”

At the time a letter-writing campaign helped to extend the state’s contribution over a three-year period. However, in the long run the museum was saved by the coincidental death of a longtime museum donor whose bequest created an income-producing endowment.