An Indiana university revealed plans this week to sell three artworks worth more than $20 million from its museum’s collection, spurring vigorous opposition from members of the art world.
Valparaiso University, a school with around 3,000 students, announced in an email sent Wednesday that it planned to sell works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Edwin Church, and Childe Hassam from the university’s Brauer Museum of Art, according to the Valpo Post.
The O’Keeffe painting, an image of overlaid peaks titled Rust Red Hills (1930), was the second work the institution ever acquired. The university said it was worth about $15 million, making it the most valuable of the three pieces it could end up selling. Church’s Mountain Landscape was valued at $2 million and Hassam’s Silver Vale and the Golden Gate was valued at $3.5 million.
Per the Valpo Post, no sale has been formalized yet, although Christie’s and Sotheby’s representatives have reportedly stopped by the school to consider the pieces in question. The university said it would use the funds to support the building of a new residential complex for first-year students.
The news of the potential sale has ruffled feathers, partly because the works are historically significant—Rust Red Hills was exhibited at An American Place, the gallery of O’Keeffe’s partner, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz—and partly because sales of artworks by museums have proven contentious in recent years.
During the pandemic, the Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) loosened its regulations on guiding deaccessioning, as the practice is known. Institutions across the country made use of the new policy—and in some cases ran into trouble because of it. In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art had intended to sell $65 million in art, including a $40 million Warhol painting, at Sotheby’s before it received so much pushback that it bailed on auctioning the works at the last minute.
According to the AAMD, if artworks are sold by museums, the funds accrued must benefit the direct care of the collection. The AAMD and three other industry groups—the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Curators—said on Thursday that the plan by the Brauer Museum, which is not a member of the AAMD, did not accomplish this.
“College and university art museums have a long and rich history of collecting, curating, and educating in a financially and ethically responsible manner on par with the world’s most prestigious institutions,” the groups wrote in a joint statement. “That a campus museum exists within the larger ecosystem of its parent educational institution does not exempt a university from acting ethically, nor permit them to ignore issues of public trust and use the museum’s collections as disposable financial assets.”
Their statement came less than a day after the Brauer Museum’s namesake, Dick Brauer, told the Chicago Tribune that he’d remove his name from the institution if the sale came to pass. “Nobody would have guessed they were going to do something like this,” Brauer said.
A representative for the Brauer Museum did not respond to a request for comment.