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CultureGrrl Confidential: Leaks from La Salle President’s Student Forum on Art Sales

In explaining why the 46 artworks deaccessioned by La Salle University were spirited away from its museum by Christie’s during intersession (while the Philadelphia campus was mostly devoid of students and faculty), Colleen Hanycz, the school’s embattled president, dug herself and her institution into a deeper reputational hole.

La Salle University President Colleen Hanycz

Addressing a student forum about the planned art sales last Thursday, Hanycz offered her response to those who criticized the decision and its execution for insufficient consultation with the university community and a lack of transparency. (The audio from that event was leaked to me by a CultureGrrl reader who attended the meeting.)

Here are some key excerpts from Hanycz’s remarks [with my own bracketed comments in italics]:

The decision to deaccession art was never going to be something that we could talk about as a community for months ahead of making that decision. It’s a very sensitive decision and it’s a decision that does not allow for that kind of input….

Why are some of those decisions held so tightly? Because you do not want them in the media before you’re ready to talk about it [or maybe because you want to get the art off campus first, and explain after-the-fact]. Here’s what I know: …We heard from [Pulitzer Prize-winning] Sue Snyder, who is the education reporter for the Inquirer, within half an hour [after faculty and staff were notified]. So one of our faculty or staff members sent her that immediately.

Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer

There has been some conspiracy theory that we waited until the veil of darkness to carry out all the art. Not at all. The auction house that we are working with, which is Christie’s, had to have the art well ahead of the sale dates. Some of the art that we are deaccessioning requires conservation and they also like to have the art in hand so that they can start to generate interest in the art in some of their clients. [An auction house, eager to snare a consignment, has a need for speed. The Christie’s cart drove La Salle’s horse.]

So that date [Jan. 2, when faculty and staff were first notified] was not a date that we chose. We thought our first sale was going to be early March. I’m still not sure what all the sale dates are at this point [because the Attorney General might take an interest and delay the sales, as in the Berkshire Museum’s case?]. We also do not necessarily want to be in the press with a decision like this and then have a big delay when art is removed. There is a security risk, to be quite honest.

That said, Hanycz conceded that failing to notify the students at the same time as faculty and staff were informed “was a bad decision.” And she directly acknowledged that “even the faculty were not involved” in the deaccession deliberations. “Regrettably, that was just not something we could do, given the nature of a pretty confidential project, until we were ready to go.” [Perhaps she guessed that she couldn’t count on the faculty to keep this secret, because she correctly anticipated some opposition.]

The $5-7 million that the sale is expected to yield compares to “the overall value of the museum…in the $20 million range,” she said. “Are there lower-valued paintings on the wall? Yes, in many cases. Do I think that you will learn less? No, I do not.” La Salle, she said, would still “have a fully functioning art museum to supplement your education and have $5 million or $7 million to build a new initiative….This is about innovation, new initiative and enhancing the teaching and other support,” including “converting our library into a learning commons.” Some of the museum’s remaining works will be displayed in that learning commons, Hanycz said.

The key player from whom we have not yet heard (although I suspect we soon will) is Klare Scarborough, director of the museum, who has so far kept a low profile during this contretemps. One can only wonder how she feels about her president’s comment that “the artworld that is speaking so strongly against La Salle does not have the higher-ed perspective.” This seems particularly off-base in light of this condemnation of the La Salle sales by the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries.

Hanycz referred directly to her museum’s director in this troubling revelation:

One of the first things that was brought to me when I got here [two years ago] by our director, Dr. Klare Scarborough, was her concerns about the way that this multimillion-dollar art was housed in our museum—no environmental controls for art that you would normally have, in a basement with plumbing running through the ceiling.

Imagine a burst pipe in the art museum over Christmas, when maybe nobody even knows about it for four days. Then I have a problem: when I talk about those masterpieces that I did not steward.

From Dr. Scarborough’s view, we needed some serious investment in how we maintain our museum appropriately [emphasis added]. So then the things that kept her awake at night became the things that kept me awake at night. That’s something we need to consider too.

I’m guessing Scarborough wasn’t “kept awake at night” by thoughts of how she could unload the cream of the collection under her care. She wanted to care for it better.

The last student to speak at Thursday’s forum had this to say about the deaccession decision:

I think there a lot of people here who feel absolutely betrayed by it….I think this is a problem of ethics.

You think?

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