A faculty group at Valparaiso University in Indiana voted last week to halt a planned sale of three artworks from the university’s Brauer Museum of Art, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday.
The sale — of Rust Red Hills (1930) by Georgia O’Keeffe and other paintings by Frederic E. Church and Childe Hassam — was intended to help raise funds to revamp dormitories at the Midwestern Lutheran school and was quickly met with backlash on campus. The works have been estimated to be worth a collective $20.5 million.
The school’s Faculty Senate, a group of 22 full-time faculty from each of the school’s respective colleges, issued a resolution on a split vote 13-6 vote reached last week, calling for the sale to be stopped and the university to look for alternative sources of funding the renovations.
The staff group does not have official authority to halt the sale, however. As part of the resolution, the group called for the the museum to work with the school’s president on a deaccessioning policy plan.
The plan to sell the works was first put forward in October by University President Jose D. Padilla with the university’s board of directors. When Padilla took up his post as president in early 2021, Valparaiso was ailing in attendance and resources and its law school closed the year prior.
Moody’s Investor Services dropped the university’s bond rating last week, citing the school’s “large structural budget imbalance,” and a “failure to make progress towards stabilizing enrollment in fall 2023,” as factors. In its most recent report, Moody’s updated the school’s outlook from “negative to stable.”
Padilla’s plan has been met with pushback by the museum’s director, Joanthan Canning, and other advocates. The Association of Art Museum Directors sent a letter addressed to Canning, threatening to sanction the museum if the sale goes forward.
Though the Brauer Museum is not a member of the AAMD, the group can influence the museum’s ability to work with other institutions, threatening its credibility. “The impact of the sanctions comes (in part) by its effect on the rest of the field,” a representative for the AAMD told ARTnews.
A petition that’s drawn more than 1,900 signatures calling for the sale to be halted warned that sanctions by the organization could lead to the school suffering “potential collateral harm” and “monetarily and to our brand.”
The petition, endorsed by Canning, called for multiple alternatives to finance the renovation, proposed as part of the University’s five-year “Uplift Valpo” plan to boost student retention. A short-term loan or “intensive’ fundraising initiative, as well as leasing out artworks from its collection to other museums, were among the proposed solutions in the letter.
Using deaccession to fund capital campaigns, even by minor institutions, has long been considered controversial. Museum groups view these moves as potentially violating public trust standards around preserving artworks.
In an earlier letter from faculty dated in early February, 75 faculty signatories condemned the school’s “lack of shared governance” and Padila making the decision to announce the move without consulting the Brauer’s museum’s collection committee, which oversees its 400 artworks.
Richard Brauer, the American and religious art-focused museum’s namesake and former director, also condemned the decision.
The three works entered the collection more than six decades ago; the O’Keefe and Hassam acquisitions were funded as part of a gift from a private donor. Detractors of the deaccessioning plan argue the sale of the works would violate an “historical” endowment agreement.
“To monetize them is unethical and a grievous breach of faith with the university’s many donors,” the petition reads.
A representative for the school did not immediately respond to ARTnews‘s request for comment.