A Valparaiso University plan to sell off artworks by Georgia O’Keeffe and others has led to strong opposition from some faculty members and students questioning the ethics of selling off prized and valuable parts of the university museum’s collection to pay for residence hall renovations.
Gretchen Buggeln, a professor of art history and the humanities who serves on the collections committee for the Brauer Museum of Art on the campus of the Indiana institution, said it’s “completely beyond the pale to use an arts collection as an ATM.”
Ashley Vernon, a junior studying digital media arts who has helped lead student opposition to the proposed sale of three paintings, called the plan “completely unethical.” She cited strong pushback from museum associations after the art-sale proposal became public.
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The proposed sale comes after the university released a strategic plan last year that made no mention of possibly selling museum artworks. The plan did list some revenue “opportunities,” such as the sale or development of “non-core” property by the university’s real estate holding company, however, and stated the university would work toward “creating state-of-the-art, suite-style rooms attractive to students considering Valparaiso University,” according to plan goals provided to Inside Higher Ed.
José Padilla, president of the independent Lutheran university since 2021, announced the planned sale of the artworks in a campuswide email sent Feb. 8. He said the move would support “our core mission of educating students and giving them an optimal residential life experience” by planning for a “first-year residential complex” with “amenities and features that prospective students value and expect.”
He explained, “We intend to pay for this initiative through a practice we will use for other parts of the strategic plan. We will consider assets and resources that are not core or critical to our educational mission and strategic plan, and reallocate them to support the plan. In this instance, we intend to pay for the much-needed dorm renovations by using the proceeds from the sale of select paintings from the campus art museum.”
Michael Fenton, a university spokesman, said in an email that the university has “no definitive timeline at this point” for exploring a possible art sale.
“Ideally, we would like to be able to begin dorm renovations this summer in order to have them ready for the 2024 incoming class,” he wrote.
Fenton said a final decision has not been made about selling the art and that the university is “still completing the due diligence process that customarily precedes—and is a condition of—any major transaction of this nature.”
After the university’s plan became widely known, four museum associations issued a joint statement denouncing the plan.
“College and university art museums have a long and rich history of collecting, curating, and educating in a financially and ethically responsible manner on par with the world’s most prestigious institutions,” the statement read in part. “That a campus museum exists within the larger ecosystem of its parent educational institution does not exempt a university from acting ethically, nor permit them to ignore issues of public trust and use the museum’s collections as disposable financial assets.”
The statement was signed by the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Curators.
More than 300 students signed a letter presented to the university’s Student Senate asking Padilla and other university leaders to meet with museum association leaders to find an alternative to the sale of the artworks, said Sophie Duray, a junior vocal performance major. Students have also created a slick website to petition Padilla not to sell the artworks.
“It’s not going to be seen as a show of strength if they go through with this sale. It’s going to be seen as desperate and hasty decision-making,” Vernon said.
Vernon disagreed that there is an urgent need for dorm renovations.
“As a person who’s lived in them, they’re nowhere near falling apart,” Vernon said, describing Valparaiso’s residence halls as “actually very comfortable, based on other dorms I’ve seen throughout my college years.”
Vernon said she’s worked at the museum and seen classes in multiple disciplines visit to engage with the art on display.
“The arts are such a huge part of our education. Many people understand that this isn’t right,” Vernon said.
This is not the first time the practice of selling a university museum’s artwork, often referred to as de-accessioning, has led to a dispute.
In addition to the sale of O’Keeffe’s “Rust Red Hills,” the other paintings to be sold are by Frederic E. Church and Childe Hassam. Each could potentially bring in millions if sold, particularly O’Keeffe’s piece, an abstract painting of a Southwestern landscape that has been described as highly sought after by other museums.
“If we lent out the painting to every museum that wanted to borrow it, we would never have it here at the Brauer Museum,” Gregg Hertzlieb, a former Brauer museum director and curator, said in a documentary that aired on Lakeshore PBS.
O’Keeffe holds the record for the highest price paid for painting by a woman, according to auctioneer Sotheby’s, with one of her pieces fetching $44.4 million in 2014.
But prices for artwork, even those by the same artist, vary widely. Padilla reportedly told the Northwest Indiana Times last month that art auctioneers have estimated that the O’Keeffe painting could be worth $7 million. The painting by Childe Hassam has an estimated value of $2 million, and the work by Frederic E. Church has a possible value of $1 million, Padilla said.
Padilla’s email to the campus stated that the university’s Board of Directors “granted me the authority to sell the paintings at its October 2022 meeting,” which led to questions from Buggeln and others about why the campus wasn’t informed of the plan sooner.
John Ruff, a senior research professor in the university’s English department, said he served on the museum’s collections committee.
“We were never consulted,” said Ruff, a vocal opponent of the plan who has criticized what he’s referred to as the secretive deliberations leading to it.
In a later statement provided to Inside Higher Ed, Padilla said the “decision to explore a potential sale of these three works was not made lightly” and that the university “will continue to pursue prudent and responsible solutions, with the goal to avoid any additional financial burden on the University or our students.”
Buggeln, also a member of the museum’s collections committee, said it’s “just baffling to me how this was done, working around having any conversations with anybody who had any knowledge of the museum and its collection and its character and its history.”
“This is kind of the opposite of transparency, I would say,” Buggeln said.
Fenton, the university spokesman, said, “The reallocation of University assets is not a matter of shared governance, therefore University followed the proper protocols for exploring such a matter.” He noted that “we are still in the due diligence phase and deemed it premature to share information before it was confirmed as definitive and accurate.”
“We are monitoring all input from the faculty, staff, and students closely as we continue to pursue our due diligence,” Fenton added.
The university’s Faculty Senate earlier this month approved a resolution calling for a halt to the sale, the Post-Tribune reported.
Ruff wrote an email to Padilla in January strongly urging him to reconsider the sale.
Ruff said he also informed Richard Brauer, the longtime Valparaiso faculty member and now-retired former director of the art museum named after him, of the planned sale of the artworks.
Brauer has reportedly said that he would like his name removed from the museum if the university goes through with the sale.
“It really does outrage me,” Brauer, 95, told The New York Times.
Valparaiso has seen undergraduate enrollment decline each year since fall 2016, according to a report on the university’s website. The university’s undergraduate enrollment has fallen to 2,355 this past fall from 3,299 in fall 2016, a drop of about 29 percent.
Moody’s Investors Service recently downgraded the university’s bond rating, the Post-Tribune reported, but Fenton, the university spokesman, said the rating downgrade has not influenced the proposed art sale.
“It is important to note that the University’s outlook was upgraded from negative to stable and the explanation from Moody’s specifically noted the importance of enrollment, which is exactly what the University is attempting to address with the proposed sale of the artwork and renovation of residence halls,” Fenton said in an email.