When Masterpieces Are Moneymakers

Fisk's settlement on sale of two valuable paintings reflects a trend in which institutions sell art to pay for other priorities.
February 16, 2007

A newly announced settlement that would allow Fisk University in Nashville to sell two paintings valued at $8.5 million each  unsettles some in the academic art world. The agreement between Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which sought to block the sale, neatly ties the loose ends of a legal debate while casting minimal judgment on the core, ethical issues at the dispute’s base. Is a university’s art an asset that should be traded to support college functions that have nothing to do with art? Should a donor’s wishes ever be second-guessed? If you’re the president of a college with severe financial struggles, is it sacrilegious or simply sensible to look at your museum’s prized O’Keeffe and see green?

Fisk, a historically black institution without a major endowment, has proposed to use the proceeds of the sale to replenish its endowment, establish three endowed chairs, help fund a new building and improve its art gallery. Under the terms of Thursday's agreement, it has pledged to spend 30 days seeking donations that would allow the paintings to remain on display. If the university is unsuccessful in raising sufficient funds, Fisk will sell O’Keeffe’s “ Radiator Building--Night, New York” to the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe for $7 million. The university will then be at liberty to sell Marsden Hartley’s “ Painting No. 3” – also part of the 101-item Arthur Stieglitz Collection bequeathed to the university in 1949 by O’Keeffe as a gift from her husband's estate – on the open market, as per the original plan for both pieces. “These paintings are both considered to be major works by these artists and seminal pieces in the development of 20th century American art. It is no exaggeration to say that if it sells these paintings, Fisk will lose the artistic heart of the Stieglitz Collection,” Tennessee’s attorney general, Robert E. Cooper Jr., wrote in a letter approving the proposed settlement.

“In weighing this loss, however, against the current and historic importance of Fisk University to Nashville and the nation, this office must conclude that the preservation of the collection is not worth the risk of financially crippling one of the preeminent historically black colleges and universities in the nation.”

Fisk’s case is especially high-profile, given the value of the works and the name recognition of O’Keeffe, but the university is not alone in making these types of trade-offs. Rockford College in Illinois sold two-thirds of its collection this fall to raise $1.1 million to pay down its debt, Hartwick College in New York recently decided against a sale only after learning the value of its artwork was too low to warrant it, and Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia caused quite the furor this fall when it announced a $68-million agreement to sell " The Gross Clinic," a Thomas Eakins painting with historical ties to the city, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. (Philanthropic groups ended up raising the funds to keep the painting in Philadelphia). The monies raised by Jefferson were to be used for educational and facility improvements.

Such sales have become increasingly common on the part of college leaders as the value of artwork entrusted to them continues to escalate, said David Butler, the executive director of the stand-alone Knoxville Museum of Art, in Tennessee. “It’s one reason I left university museums, because the museum’s agenda isn’t always the same as the parent institution’s,” Butler said.

“Say, 10 years ago, you might have had one or two paintings worth $500,000 or $2 million. Those same paintings may now be worth $10 or $20 million. If you’re a small college or university, you’re sitting on top of this hugely appreciated asset and what’s your obligation? Is it to the object or to the bigger organization? That’s kind of a rhetorical question, but I think that universities and colleges weren’t tempted before in the way they are now,” said Butler, the former director of Wichita State University’s museum, where he said the collection, particularly of outdoor sculptures, was strongly valued by the institution at large. But still....

“You always wonder, say you’re at a state university, the state’s having a really bad few years, they’re cutting, cutting, cutting, and here’s $30 or $40 million worth of art. Do you lay off the English professor or do you sell the art?”

The pure answer, from the museum director perspective, is that to sell art for any purpose other than to gain funds to strengthen the museum is to betray the ethical imperatives that curators abide by. Fisk’s pledge under the settlement that up to $560,000 from the proceeds of the sale would be returned to restore the university’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery offers little solace to Lisa Tremper Hanover, president of the Association of College and University Museums & Galleries and director of Ursinus College’s Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art. “The university president says, ‘Yes, certain parts of our proceeds are going to go back to the museum.’ Well, why would they sell those very premiere objects?” to improve the museum, Hanover asked. (Fisk’s president, Hazel R. O’Leary, did not return several requests for comment yesterday.)

“They are mining a division of their program and reducing its effectiveness, violating every standard of the museum field. If you’re going to sell those two paintings, I would venture the suggestion that they sell their entire collection,” Hanover added. “Of course they’re a tangible asset, as much as your bricks and mortar are tangible assets, but if you’re looking to cultural objects as a way to shore up your financial operation, then my opinion would be, divest yourself of all of it, because you're obviously not looking at these objects as part of your mission; you’re not following the interest of your donor.”

But several university leaders faced with tough decisions regarding the sale of artwork over the past year say things aren’t so simple. Rockford College in Illinois, which has had about a $10 million debt for the last decade and a nearly non-existent endowment, sold two-thirds of its collection, which included everything from Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso etchings to World War II prints to student artwork, in September. Before doing so, officials checked with faculty members to ensure that they weren’t selling works that were used in classroom instruction, and excluded items that reflected the college’s history or were saddled with donor restrictions, said John McNamara, vice president for college development at Rockford.  “We were looking at what avenues we had to rid ourselves of this debilitating debt, and I think that was probably a primary purpose. A strong secondary purpose was the trustees realized that the vast percentage of the art was not intrinsic to the college, nor the teaching and learning environment,” said McNamara, who estimated that about 90 percent of the works sold had not been displayed in years.

“People wondered how we could sell these objects, but the explanation goes directly to the point that ‘don't sell, and the college may not survive, and then the collection will be sold anyway,’” Robert McCauley, chair of the department of art and art history at Rockford, said via e-mail. “In our situation, we did not have proper storage and HVAC systems to ethically maintain the collection. Of course this is a bit of a rationalization, but the objects DO belong to a world out there; we're just stewards.”

Meanwhile, at Hartwick College in New York, President Richard P. Miller Jr. said leaders at the liberal arts institution decided in January not to proceed with a sale of art that would have raised funds for a restricted endowment for the campus art museum – and thereby free institutional funds currently used to support it – after determining that a sale would not raise the types of funds necessary to justify it. “The gallery loses money. And, resultantly, it requires a subsidy from the unrestricted resources of the college and comes at the expense of such activities that one might consider to be core -- the English department, the history department, the library. Our objective was to get the gallery’s budget balanced on its own resources," Miller said.

“We will accomplish that in other ways. At an institution like ours -- we are a liberal arts college -- the gallery mission is not central to the mission of the college.” The art history department uses it, he said, “but you can teach art history without a gallery. You can teach art history with a computer or a projector.” In fact, Miller said, a positive outcome of the deliberations was the establishment of a faculty committee that recommended ways to better enhance the connection of the gallery to the college, to make it more integral to the curriculum. “If it doesn’t play a core role in the mission of the college, the question is, why do you have it in the first place?” he asked.

But many museum directors dispute the idea that a college, particularly one with an art or art history program, can treat an art museum as external to a college’s mission. It’s like a library, said Stefan Sommer, vice president of the association of college museums and director of the Colorado Plateau Biodiversity Center at Northern Arizona University. “It’s like they’re selling their assets out from under them. They can no longer claim to have strong collections to help teach students,” said Sommer, who pointed out that university museums are particularly instrumental to the function of graduate-level programs.

Not only that, Sommer said, but such sales by institutions violate a public trust and, more practically, risk violating the trust of potential donors who want colleges to be stewards, not sellers, of their gifts.

Such sales represent an area of widespread concern in the museum world, added Joseph S. Mella, director of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and treasurer of the association of college museums. The theme of the association's annual conference this spring is, he said, "Credibility, Culpability and the Public Trust."

“In real life, the choice is often not between the good and the bad but between the bad and the worse,” said Saul Cohen, president of the board of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. He said Thursday he was pleased with the terms of the museum's settlement with Fisk, as it will allow the university to obtain the funds it needs to properly store and exhibit the remaining 99 items in the collection, while enabling the return of a treasured O’Keeffe to the Santa Fe museum.

“If it’s a question of an institution’s survival, if a college is going to go under and the only way it can raise money to stay alive is by selling some paintings, it seems to me the case is clear. What seems different to me is if the paintings were given to the college on the condition that they never be sold. But when the gift was given 50 years ago, you don’t know if a donor would say, ‘Of course you can sell them. I just wanted to help the college; I didn’t want to cause trouble,'” Cohen said.

“I think every case has to be looked at individually. There is no right or wrong answer.”



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