More than six years after announcing plans to sell a masterpiece of American painting -- the 1912 work "Men of the Docks," by George Bellows -- Randolph College has done so, gaining $25.5 million for its endowment.
In selling the painting, the college disregarded the policies of several art and museum groups, which state that museums (including those run by colleges) should sell art only to buy more art, not to improve their finances. The significance of "Men of the Docks" is evident not only by the price, but by the purchaser, the National Gallery of Britain, for which the painting is the first major work by an American ever bought for the permanent collection.
Randolph officials portray the sale as a success for the college, giving its endowment a significant boost, and point as well to internship opportunities the National Gallery has agreed to create for Randolph students.
But arts associations fear that such sales only encourage others, and undermine the role of college museums in preserving art, and educating students about art. In some cases, as at Randolph, college administrators have proposed to sell art. Brandeis University administrators in 2009 proposed to sell off its noted collection of modern art -- and the university backed away from the plan after a huge uproar.
Sometimes the idea is pushed from outside (especially at public universities). In 2011, some legislators urged the University of Iowa to sell Jackson Pollock's "Mural," an 8-by-20-foot painting that is considered one of the masterpieces of abstract art and of modern American art. (The university resisted the push.)
At Randolph, the board approved plans in 2007 to sell four paintings from the college's art museum, fought off a lawsuit seeking to block the sale, and sold one prior to "Men of the Docks," which is by far the most valuable and artistically significant in the collection.
The initial move to sell came at a time that the college (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) was in the process of becoming coeducational by admitting men. Many alumnae opposed both the move to admit men and the idea of selling the art, which had been purchased by students at the college.
The Association of Academic Museums & Galleries wrote to Randolph to urge it not to sell. "Art and cultural collections -- in the public trust under the aegis of academic museums -- support the pedagogical program of the college's mission. Thus, the value of a Randolph College education has been compromised by this decision. Such an action is counter to the ethical and professional standards established by the museum field and sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the viability and integrity of all university collections," said the letter.
The Association of Art Museum Directors also came out against the sale, stating that it stood behind a 2011 statement on the issue.
"Supporting operations through the sale of works of art fundamentally undermines the core role of the arts in education and the integrity of an educational institution. Preserving public trust is critical to all nonprofit institutions," the letter said. "Treating art as a fungible asset and using collections to pay for operating expenses will also significantly undermine future fund-raising for operations. If a museum or university can meet its short term operating needs by selling art, why would a donor bother giving money when there are so many other nonprofits facing severe financial challenges? Selling art to support operations is not viable as a long-term financial strategy; it is the equivalent of spending down endowment principal."
And the College Art Association released this statement on Sunday expressing regret "that Randolph College has compromised the educational and cultural mission of the museum by treating its collection as a fungible asset rather than as a vital part of the institution’s artistic heritage, held in trust for its students and the community."
In an interview Saturday, Bradley W. Bateman, the president of Randolph (who is new to the college and wasn't involved in the decision), defended the sale.
He said flatly that Randolph may operate an art museum, but that the college "is a college, not a museum," and has no obligation to abide by the guidelines of organizations that focus on academic or non-academic museums and galleries.
"I have to say that the primary fiduciary responsibility of the college's Board of Trustees is to provide the highest quality liberal education available," he said. "The college has to be financially sustainable," he said.
The college's endowment is currently $136 million, so a $25 million boost will be considerable. "It will help us meet our financial objectives," he said.
While the college enrolled its largest first-year class in 25 years in the fall, Randolph has not seen enrollment surge as proponents said it would under coeducation. In fact, the 685 students enrolled this year are roughly the same number as enrolled as in 2006, when the board voted to admit men and predicted that enrollment could rise to 1,100. At the same time, this year's enrollment represents a real gain for the college, which saw many students -- who had been recruited to a women's college -- leave after coeducation was adopted. Bateman said that the college has a plan to reach an enrollment of 900 in four years.
Bateman also said that there had been "alarmism" in discussing the college's approach to art. He noted that the college maintains a museum with more than 1,000 works of art -- and plans to sell only four paintings, including two already sold. "We have no intention of selling more," he said. And the college continues to organize art exhibits and to buy art.
Asked if the logic of selling off the Bellows shouldn't concern those afraid that similar arguments could be made to sell the O'Keeffe or the Hopper, Bateman said that wasn't the case. "We know how much money we need and it can be done with these [already planned] sales," he said.