While the art world’s most recent deaccessioning dispute continues to play out in court, another is emerging on a college campus in Philadelphia. On Wednesday, January 3, La Salle University announced that the school’s board of trustees had approved the deaccessioning of 46 works from the permanent collection of the University Art Museum and planned to sell them at Christie’s in the coming months. The works headed to the auction block include paintings by Thomas Eakins, Ingres, Hubert Robert, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Thomas Lawrence, Edouard Vuillard, Alex Katz, and Dorothea Tanning, sculptures by Elisabeth Frink, and drawings by Edgar Degas and Henri Matisse, among others.
Funds from the sales — which are scheduled to begin in March and continue through June — are intended to help cover the costs of La Salle’s five-year strategic plan. The school has been working at reducing its budget deficit — which reached $12 million in 2015 — and cutting down its debt (which totaled $144 million in 2016) for several years.
A spokesperson for Christie’s declined to comment on the pre-sale estimates of the works from the La Salle University Art Museum collection, but La Salle’s Chief Communications Officer, Jaine Lucas, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the sales are expected to net the school between $4.8 million and $7.3 million. Five works in particular — by Frink, Ingres, Tanning, Georges Rouault, and Albert Gleizes — were projected to account for the lion’s share of the revenue, between $2.3 million and $3.45 million, Lucas added.
“While we greatly respect and appreciate the perspective of the art community, we are first and foremost a University. Our Board of Trustees made the decision to deaccession a select group of artworks after careful and thoughtful consideration of all the University’s assets, and in service to our students,” Lucas told Hyperallergic. “We place great value in our art museum and our cultural heritage. The decision of which artworks would be sold was made by examining their pedagogical value with the target amount of $5 million we needed to raise.”
The University’s decision has been met with opposition in the art world, including from a former curator at La Salle’s Art Museum, Caroline P. Wistar, who retired a decade ago. “I feel as though the place has been raped,” Wistar told the Inquirer. “They’re selling all of the very best things — a Degas drawing, a Vuillard. This is major. I feel like they’ve killed the museum.”
The La Salle Art Museum, which was founded in 1976 and has over 5,000 works in its collection, is a non-accredited member of the American Association of Museums (AAM). However, La Salle’s decision to deaccession and sell works to fund a project not related to the operations of the Art Museum itself is a violation of the AAM code of ethics, which holds that the “disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission.”
“It’s one thing to use deaccessioning as a means for strengthening the collection by ‘trading up.’ … But it’s another to use the funds for something else entirely, and not necessarily a good thing either for the museum or the university,” Timothy Rub, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), told the Inquirer. “Is a gain of $4.8 to $7.3 million in operating funds really a game-changer for the university, or will this simply leave its museum — which is acknowledged as being an enormously valuable resource for faculty and students — weakened?”
Indeed, on Friday, AAM and AAMD issued a joint statement opposing the proposed sale of the works. “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 reads in part. “A different governance structure does not exempt a university museum from acting ethically, nor permit them to ignore issues of public trust and use collections as disposable financial assets.”
La Salle, a private, Catholic university founded in 1863, relocated to its current campus in Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood in 1931. It currently has more than 5,000 students. The university’s Art Museum spans six galleries in the lower level of Olney Hall, with a collection of European and American paintings spanning from the Renaissance to the present, more than 100 Japanese prints, over 150 pieces of Chinese ceramics, 165 Indian miniatures, and important holdings of sculptures from Sub-Saharan Africa, pre-Columbian ceramics and textiles, and ancient Greek artifacts spanning the Mycenaean and Hellenistic periods.
The public outcry against La Salle’s deaccessioning plan is hardly surprising, though the sums involved are relatively small compared to recent, similar controversies. The Berkshire Museum, for instance, had hoped to raise between $50 and $60 million by selling many of the most valuable works in its collection through Sotheby’s — though all those sales are currently halted while the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office investigates the issue. The Delaware Art Museum earned a stern rebuke from the AAM and AAMD in 2014, when it decided to auction off a few exceptionally valuable works from its collection to raise around $30 million and pay off its debts.