Picture this: Your college has been facing a cash-rich, cash-poor battle for decades, and the possibility of its doors dosing seems imminent. To halt the cycle, the board of directors turns to what its members think may be the best option for dealing with these financial ails--approving the sale of art in your school's collection.
In real life, officials at Fisk University (Tenn.) made that decision, involving two paintings from its Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, to aid its fiscal struggle. Named for Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and husband of painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the 101-piece modern art collection came to the historically black college in 1949 as a gift from O'Keeffe, with the pieces from her late spouse's estate. Fisk was one of six institutions--and one of only two collegiate ones--to receive a share of his work. The university's portion includes sculpture, prints, and photographs by 29 acclaimed American and European artists such as Stieglitz, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The move to sell the art stirred up an over two-year legal tug of war with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., on the argument that O'Keeffe had requested the collection be kept together. In March, according to published reports, a judge ruled that Fisk broke the terms of O'Keeffe's donation by intending to sell the two paintings and because they weren't on display. One of these paintings is O'Keeffe's 1927 Radiator Building--Night, New York, and the other is Painting No. 3, a 1913 work by Marsden Hartley. The court's decision also banned the sale of the collection but indicated that the university should not lose possession for attempting to sell. An October deadline was set for Fisk officials to retrieve the artwork from storage (there because the Fisk gallery is in need of renovation, with funds from the intended sale to aid this) and put them on display. Fisk has since appealed the decision, claiming in part that the court's order to require continuous exhibiting of the works would result in collection deterioration.
Donors often give collections to higher ed institutions with the intention that these pieces will become permanent gallery fixtures, be available for public viewing, and encourage academic study. Fisk and other financially shaken colleges recently have turned to these art assets as a solution to their troubles, but the decision to sell them for this reason has engendered an ethical and legal debate.
Is it right to transform a rare masterpiece into a moneymaker? How important are the original donor's wishes in making these decisions? Does a decision to sell diminish the role art plays at the institution? These questions about institutional valuables are being debated well beyond the confines of Fisk University.
The Price of Selling
Both the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and the Association of Art Museum Directors, in their codes of ethics, cite the right for de-accession--that is, taking art out of a collection--to occur, as long as proceeds from the sale are reinvested in the museum's permanent collection, such as in the case of funding an acquisition.
When the money will go to fund other means such as supporting the parent institution's endowment, rather than enhancing the museum program, criticism can be sharp and quick. Some campus museum and gallery directors whose schools have dealt with the decision to sell have left their posts.
Any sale of a work of art needs to be reinvested in the collection from which it came, period. And that has been violated in several instances in the last three or four years," states Lisa Tremper Hanover, ACUMG president and director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College (Pa.). "What does that say about the institution? It says they don't value a teaching tool, which most works of art on campuses are, in fact. …