A group of leading museum governance organizations in the United States issued a joint statement yesterday, February 9, opposing a small Indiana university’s plan to sell over $20 million dollars’ worth of art to fund improvements on freshman dormitories. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG), and the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) collectively called on Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art to reverse course and search for other solutions to its financial woes.
As the Chicago Tribune reported, the Brauer Museum of Art plans to sell works including Frederic E. Church’s “Mountain Landscape” (c. 1849), Childe Hassam’s “The Silver Vale and the Golden Gate” (1914), and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Rust Red Hills” (1930).
For years, Valparaiso has faced financial challenges related to declining enrollment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, the university has cut 17% of its faculty and staff. Against this backdrop, the school’s board approved selling the artworks in October of last year to help remedy the institution’s budget shortfalls. The sales have yet to be finalized, but auction house appraisers reportedly paid the museum a visit.
Backlash to the potential sales came swift and harsh with the museum’s first director and namesake Dick Brauer threatening to remove his name from the institution if the plan goes through. It was Brauer who suggested that the university purchases O’Keeffe’s “Rust Red Hills” in 1962, long before the museum was established in 1995.
Valparaiso University and the Brauer Museum of Art have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
“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,” Valparaiso President José Padilla said in campus-wide email on February 8. The sale proceeds will help pay for a five-year strategic plan that includes improving freshman living conditions, a move that the university hopes would encourage enrollment.
In the museum world, however, Valparaiso’s planned sales would break a taboo. Although deaccessioning artworks is exceedingly common, museum governance organizations have long prohibited institutions from selling art to fund anything other than art acquisitions and care for existing collections. However, those restrictions were briefly loosened during the pandemic lockdowns as museums faced falling revenue.
“This remains a fundamental ethical principle of the museum field, one which all institutions are obligated to respect,” the joint statement reads. “In no event shall funds from deaccessioned works be used for anything other than support for a museum’s collections, either through acquisitions or the direct care of works of art.”
Even when artwork sales are technically allowed, deaccessioning announcements repeatedly stir controversy. Under AAMD’s loosened pandemic policy, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced it would sell $65 million worth of art to fund an equity initiative, but facing severe criticism, the museum reversed course only hours before the works hit the auction block.
The organizations said that they “remain hopeful” that Valparaiso University will change its mind, adding that they are willing to assist the museum in finding other solutions to its financial woes.
“We stand ready to assist, in any way we are able, to find other solutions to the institution’s needs without resorting to the selling of works that can never be recovered, to the great detriment of current and future students and community members,” the organizations announced. They have not given any specific details on what help they can offer the struggling university museum.
Editor’s Note, 2/13/2023 11:30 EST: A previous version of this article misattributed loosened deaccession policies during the COVID-19 pandemic to the AAM instead of the AAMD. This has been corrected.