Ars Gratia Artis?

Marilee Turscak

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The salesman knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a great deal too much for it.” In the case of some universities, the sale of original art pieces has become a means for colleges to earn income by selling items they perceive as unnecessary, expendable luxuries.

In 2008, Randolph College announced plans to sell a masterpiece 1912 American painting, “Men of the Docks” by George Bellows. Shortly afterward, NAS published “Art for Gold” and discussed the ethics of university art sales, noting that The College Art Association “sees a matter of deep principle whenever a college considers selling an artwork.”

On February 10, 2014, Randolph College finally sold its notorious painting and racked in a whopping $25.5 million for its endowment. In doing so, the college disregarded several policies of museum and art organizations, which state that museums (and colleges) should sell art only for the purpose of buying more art and not for financial gain.

In the eyes of the college, however, the sale provided a double-win. The National Gallery of Britain purchased the painting and promised not only to pay the full cost, but also to offer internship opportunities to Randolph students.

Nevertheless, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries was disappointed by Randolph’s decision and wrote that the “value of a Randolph education [had] been compromised by the college’s decision.”

Of course, controversies surrounding university art sales have existed for a long time. In 2009, for instance, curators were outraged when Brandeis University announced that it would sell its entire holdings, valued at more than $300 million. At the time, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz argued that the nation’s financial crisis left no alternative and that the university had chosen to “act responsibly with the best interests of [its] students and their futures foremost in mind.” (Later, the university dropped the plan after great uproar ensued.)

Despite the claims of university officials, there is much reason to believe that the colleges’ intentions are less altruistic than they appear and that sales of art collections undermine the value of institutions as stewards of high culture. Though many college presidents claim that art sales are a necessary way to provide funding, universities often disregard both their established contracts with art donors and their unarticulated duties as guardians of the arts.

In a 2011 statement, the Association of Art Museum Directors wrote:

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. Treating art as a fungible asset and using collections to pay for operating expenses will also significantly undermine future fund-raising 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?

Worse yet, if universities agree to contracts that forbid them from selling donated art, should an institution’s financial status determine whether it has a justification for ignoring its legal obligations?

In the case of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted the university permission to sell a 50% stake in its 101-piece collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum offered $30 million to the university in exchange for the ability to display the artwork two out of every four years. Though Georgia O’Keeffe had originally donated the artwork as a gift, the university risked closure and was therefore given permission to have a partial sale of the artwork.

The Tennessee attorney general, however, argued that the Court overruled O’Keeffe’s stipulations that the collection never be sold or broken up.

Now, university art sales are not uncommon, and Randolph and Fisk are just two of several institutions who have sold or donated artwork in order to keep themselves afloat.

As stewards of high culture, colleges clearly have some sort of responsibility to protect the art that they receive and treat it as more than a commodity. Nevertheless, if academies risk foreclosure, might these institutions have no other choice than to forego or modify their contracts?

Because donors of artwork are often deceased and unable to advocate for themselves, the ethics and etiquette of university art sales are complex. Yet without the express permission of the donor, there seems little justification for universities to sell that which they do not truly own.

Image: Head with Broken Pot by Georgia O'Keeffe

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