an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Assailing the Sales: La Salle’s Art History Chair Says: “We Were Not Consulted”

With opposition continuing to grow over La Salle University’s plan to sell 46 prime artworks from its collection through Christie’s to fund non-museum activities, Susan Dixon, chair of the Philadelphia institution’s art-history faculty, has circulated a letter lambasting the deaccessions (full text below).

So far, I’ve seen nothing about whether this luminary intends to scrutinize La Salle’s plans:

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro

When I asked the Attorney General’s office if it’s on the case, I got this cryptic reply from Joe Grace, its chief spokesperson:

We can’t confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation. Generally speaking, cases about the sale of art involve determining if the art is subject to any restrictions or conditions that prevent its sale. I’m afraid that’s all we can say on this one for now.

He might consider tapping the expertise of Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, who is deeply engaged in examining documents pertaining to the Berkshire Museum’s analogous plan. That plan is now mired in court, necessitating indefinite postponement of sales at Sotheby’s.

According to the La Salle University Art Museum’s deaccessions information page (recently expanded from the previous brief blurb), “the University’s due diligence indicates it has clear title to the artworks it intends to sell; 31 of the 46 artworks were purchased using University funds. All of the artworks were acquired by Br. Daniel Burke, the Museum’s founder, and a President Emeritus of La Salle.”

Burke, who died in November 2015, “introduced the art history major to La Salle’s curriculum in 1963,” according to the university’s obit, and “wanted students to have the opportunity to see quality paintings on their own campus….Over the years, he bought carefully, and traded up wisely, creating an art collection once described by Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward Sozanski as a “little jewel.”…He stepped down as President in December 1976 to return to teaching full-time and to grow his beloved Art Museum.”

Daniel Burke, with La Salle University Art Museum’s Tintoretto, now about to be sold

It would be the AG’s first order of business, should he decide to get involved, to determine if the founder/donor or the institution had placed any restrictions on sales of the works he had acquired for La Salle with university funds.

The controversy over La Salle’s selloff eerily echoes the 2007 deaccession disaster at Randolph College’s Maier Museum, Lynchburg, VA (in which anti-sale litigants got no help from Virginia’s AG).

Infamously spirited away from the Maier was its signature work, George Bellows‘ iconic “Men of the Docks” (bought by the National Gallery, London).

George Bellows, “Men of the Docks,” 1912, sold by Randolph College to the National Gallery, London, for $25.5 million

The director of the Maier, Karol Lawson, and its associate director, Ellen Agnew, resigned in protest after the surprise removal of four paintings (including the Bellows), that were consigned, without their knowledge, to be sold by Christie’s. La Salle’s castoffs were removed while staff and students were away for winter break. (Classes resume on Tuesday.)

The La Salle Museum’s director, Klare Scarborough, has not yet responded to my request for comment.

Dixon, La Salle’s art-history chair, doesn’t mince words in her missive. We learn from it that although only 46 of the museum’s 5,000+ works have left campus, they constituted one-third of the works that had been on display.

Susan Dixon, La Salle University’s art-history chair

The museum’s expanded information page reveals that 36 of the 46 jettisoned works “were on display in the Museum’s galleries; 10 were in storage.” Might more be sold later? The museum hedged: “At this time, the University has no plans to deaccession more of its artworks [emphasis added].”

Astonishingly, given Dixon’s flat assertion that the art-history faculty was not consulted, the museum’s information page claims that the criteria for deciding which works would stay and which would be sold included “what their pedagogical value is to the University and community.”

It seems obvious that the faculty, not the university’s board, would have been the best judge of “pedagogical value.” In fact, according to Dixon’s letter, “the removed works were “use[d] daily for pedagogical purposes.” Dixon openly discussed her opposition to the sales for this piece by Joe Trinacria in Philadelphia Magazine and her letter was quoted in this piece by Susan Snyder of the Inquirer.

Here’s Dixon’s dictum, which landed in my inbox yesterday from an anonymous La Salle source:

The Art History program at La Salle University is dedicated to the institution’s mission and to its commitment to the value of an ethically centered liberal arts education. We were not consulted or informed about the selling of one-third of the works on display at the La Salle University Art Museum (LSUAM), all of which we use daily for pedagogical purposes.

In 1976, Brother Daniel Burke opened the doors to the museum, with the understanding of the transformative potential of art as communicated by Saint Jean Baptiste de La Salle. He devoted his life to creating this resource for our students and the surrounding community, many of whom have also given their time, money, and talent to support this dream.

This sale breaks faith with Br. Daniel Burke’s legacy, as well the integrity of a critical component of our mission — to deepen students’ ethical sensibilities. La Salle has violated the ethical code that all museums are obliged to follow. According to the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the Association of Art Museum Curators, funds from deaccessioned artwork should never be used for non-museum investments.

Museums hold and preserve art for the public; they do not own it. The professional organizations governing museums have strict guidelines for selling artwork. They, along with many other cultural leaders, have condemned La Salle University for this unethical practice.

LSUAM is a museum that has no parallel in the greater Delaware Valley region, providing free admission not only to our students, but to underserved audiences whom we are proud to call our neighbors. In order to deliver on the Momentum 2022 strategic plan, we need to ensure that we do not diminish one of our greatest assets, weakening our reputation in the community and our national standing as a civically engaged liberal arts institution.

We understand the University is committed to providing the very best for its students. As such, we are hopeful that the administration will engage in constructive dialogue with faculty, students, staff, and community to reach an alternate solution.

And for the other side of the story, here’s the letter sent to alumni by La Salle President Colleen Hanycz, explaining the uses to which the art proceeds will be put.

La Salle University President Colleen Hanycz

A key passage from Hanycz’s letter:

As over two-thirds of the artworks being deaccessioned were originally purchased with university funds—supported by student tuition—the Board is of the view that reallocating those assets in this way is an appropriate use that goes to the core of our mission in Lasallian higher education.

Most arbiters of museum ethics would strongly disagree.

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notifications of new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog