ARTnewsletter Archive

Randolph College Art Sale Sparks Storm of Protest

On Oct. 1 the board of trustees at Randolph College, Lynchburg, Va., authorized the sale of four paintings from the school’s Maier Museum of Art collection of 3,500 works. Randolph expects the pieces to bring as much as $45 million when they are auctioned at Christie’s New York next month.

NEW YORK—On Oct. 1 the board of trustees at Randolph College, Lynchburg, Va., authorized the sale of four paintings from the school’s Maier Museum of Art collection of 3,500 works. Randolph expects the pieces to bring as much as $45 million when they are auctioned at Christie’s New York next month.

Among the paintings to be sold: George Bellows’ Men of the Docks, 1912 (estimate: $25/35 million); Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom, circa 1840-45 (estimate: $4/6 million); Ernest Martin Hennings’ Through the Arroyo (estimate: $1/1.5 million); and Rufino Tamayo’s Troubador, 1945 (estimate: $2/3 million). The board said that a portion of the proceeds will be used to endow the directorship of the Maier museum.

News of the sale set off a storm of protest from current and former college employees, alumni and the surrounding community. One day after the college announced the decision to sell the works, museum director Karol Lawson resigned in protest, after more than eight years in her position.

“There was no way I could continue,” Lawson told ARTnewsletter. “To support this decision to sell art in this manner to pay for the general operating costs of the school is completely antithetical to every tenet of the museum profession.”

A statement from Randolph emailed to ARTnewsletter said, “We understand and appreciate [Lawson’s] strong feelings, but the Board of Trustees has determined this course of action to be in the best interest of the College.”

Lawson was the third college employee to resign this year over the school’s handling of the art collection. Last April the director of the school’s museum studies program, Laura Katzman, resigned, and in August the museum’s associate director Ellen Agnew followed suit.

Cloak-and-Dagger Overtones

Lawson describes how, on Monday, Oct. 1, several college officials, including president John Klein, showed up unannounced shortly before 5 p.m. and told her the four artworks would be removed. She says that phone and computer services to the museum were temporarily cut off while the works were being relocated.

Lawson further reports that Klein asked her to close the museum for the next two days so that she could rehang the galleries. Lawson says she submitted a letter of resignation at 9 a.m. on Oct. 2, effective at noon the same day. “I couldn’t support participating in what sounded to me like a cover-up and whitewashing,” she explains.

The local police department, which was called to the museum to provide security, has drawn fire for bluffing onlookers with a false bomb scare to clear out the museum.

According to an Oct. 3 press release from the Lynchburg Police Department, Randolph College administrators contacted the police for assistance with removal of several works from the museum: “Due to the value of the artwork, administrators requested the items be moved as discreetly as possible. . . . In an effort to quickly clear the area as requested . . . the officers employed a ruse in which they told persons in the area that there had been a bomb threat.”

Calling the “spur-of-the-moment decision” a “mistake” and “inappropriate,” police chief Charles Bennett apologized for the incident.

Lawson says that over the past two years, she and several other professors proposed numerous options for leveraging the Maier art collection to the board. She notes that the school had been in talks with both the University of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts about possible partnering arrangements.

Lawson says she and other staff members were never made aware that the school had ceased talking to either Virginia institution. “I can’t speak to why they made their choice and why they chose to do what they did,” on Oct. 1, Lawson noted.

Katzman, a 12-year veteran of Randolph, is now an associate professor of art history at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va. In a letter to Lynchburg’s News & Advance, she stated that she is “outraged and deeply saddened by the acts carried out Monday by College officials,” adding that those actions are “reprehensible—shameful and unethical.”

Katzman further told ARTnewsletter that she and other museum officials had worked hard to educate the school’s board about American Association of Museums (AAM) guidelines under which proceeds from sales of works should be directed toward future acquisitions. “They are wildly violating those guidelines, given that the proceeds from the sale are not going to build the collection,” Katzman says.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), New York and Washington, D.C., which represents approximately 180 museum leaders in North America, weighed in on the matter on Oct. 3, saying it “condemns Randolph College’s sale of paintings.”

In a statement the AAMD said, “The prohibition against the sale of collection objects for general operating purposes is a fundamental covenant between museums and donors. It is a promise that exists across generations, to prevent the financial challenges of a given time—no matter how pressing or valid they may be—from depriving future beneficiaries of such gifts.”

According to an Oct. 4 statement from the College Art Association, New York, the sale of the Maier museum’s collection “contravenes the Professional Practices for Art Museums policy outlines of the American Association of Museums and the American Association of Museum Directors. Most colleges and universities adhere to a transparent process for financial exigency where all stake-holders are consulted in advance of decisions.”

Earlier, on Aug. 21, Randolph filed a legal action with the Circuit Court of the City of Lynchburg concerning the interpretation of the trust created under the will of Louise Jordan Smith, the school’s first art professor. Some of the college’s 3,500 pieces of art were purchased under a bequest by Smith, who had instructed that the fund be used to form a permanent art collection for the college.

Randolph is sole beneficiary of the trust. In order to share any of those pieces with a partner or to sell them, the college would need a court to determine that the transaction is acceptable under the terms of Smith’s will or, alternatively, that the court would permit a change in those terms.

Randolph spokeswoman Brenda Edson told ARTnewsletter via email, “The works [chosen for sale] were either purchased by or gifted to the college, with no restrictions on sale.” Edson says the works to be auctioned have not been guaranteed.

Queried about the swift timing of the sale—just a month after the board’s decision had been announced—Edson says, “The timing of the sale and the specific auctions were based on a recommendation from the auction house.”