an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

More on La Salle’s Sales: My Revealing Q&A with the University’s Spokesperson

More on this here and here.

La Salle University’s website provides surprisingly scant information about its astonishing plan under a relatively new president to dispatch to Christie’s some 46 objects from its museum’s collection to raise funds for non-museum activities.

Exterior of the La Salle University Art Museum

Here’s the brief blurb about the planned disposal on the museum’s webpage:

In January 2018, La Salle University announced a decision by the Board of Trustees to deaccession 46 artworks. To see the full list of artworks, click here.

That’s it. There’s no press release from the museum or university providing basic information. So I shot off a series of questions to Jaine Lucas, the university’s chief marketing and communications officer, asking (among many other things) how the money from the art disposals would be spent.

Here’s the beginning of her emailed reply:

A select group of artworks is being deaccessioned to provide funding for the University’s ambitious and visionary five-year strategic plan, Momentum: 2022.

This gave me traumatic flashbacks to the Berkshire Museum’s “reinvention” initiative—also, in part, a rebranding gambit. In September 2016, La Salle launched its “refreshed brand, marketing campaign and new tagline, ‘Explorers are Never Lost.'” This fall, it rolled back tuition from $40,400 to $28,800, after having instituted “numerous campus enhancements,” such as “a beautiful green space on campus complete with lounge chairs, hammocks, and outdoor lighting, where students can gather and relax in community.”

At a time when decreased proceeds from tuition may necessitate an urgent search for new sources of funds for “campus enhancements” (not to mention educational initiatives), I’d argue that a commitment to retaining the museum’s art collection is a stronger institutional imperative than purchasing spiffy new furniture and fixtures.

As was the case with the Randolph College deaccessions (also orchestrated by Christie’s), the museum’s director and curator, Klare Scarborough, was not involved in the deaccession decisions, because they were “made at the [university] Trustee level,” according to Lucas. Scarborough did not respond to my emailed request for comment.

Klare Scarborough, director and curator, La Salle University Art Museum

Lucas went on to say this about where the money will go:

Proceeds from the sale of artworks will ensure growth and sustainability for the University, but importantly will fund initiatives that enhance student experience, student outcomes, and further innovation and excellence in teaching and learning. One example is the De La Salle Institute for Advanced Teaching [which fosters “excellence in teaching by providing workshops and seminars to promote and share pedagogical best practices and innovation,” according to its description, here].

Here are more details from our emailed discussion:

ROSENBAUM:  On what basis were the works to be deaccessioned chosen? Were they chosen for their high market value relative to other works in the collection? Any other factors?

LUCAS: By request of the Board of Trustees, University staff worked in thoughtful consideration with Christie’s and others to develop a list of artworks that could be sold to reach the target consignment amount of $5 million approved by the University’s Board of Trustees. [La Salle’s deaccession goal for 46 works is a pittance compared to the Berkshire Museum’s original target of about $50 million for 40 works.]

The criteria included identifying what works would remain in the collection, and what their pedagogical value is to the University and the community. As an example, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Mary,” the piece used most frequently in faculty curricula and which has significant historical value to the City of Philadelphia, has been retained.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Mary (La Sainte-Marie),” 1898

It seems to me that Thomas Eakins, under whom Tanner studied at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is also an artist of “significant historical value to the City of Philadelphia.” Nevertheless, his “Mrs. Matilda Searight” is to be removed and monetized:

Eakins, “Mrs. Matilda Searight,” 1904

Stephan Salisbury of the Inquirer of Philadelphia reported tonight that the museum’s former director, Caroline Wistar, had lamented to him that La Salle was jettisoning “all of the very best things—a Degas drawing, a Vuillard. This is major.”

But back to my Q&A with Lucas:

ROSENBAUM: When will the Christie’s sales take place?

LUCAS: The sales will occur between March 2018 and June 2018, depending on the category, and will be in NYC, London and online.

ROSENBAUM: What is the low-to-high total estimate of the value of the deaccessioned works? What are the estimates for each individual work?

LUCAS: Christie’s estimates the value of the 46 pieces to be between $4.8 and $7.3 million dollars, but they could sell for more. While artwork cannot be definitively valued until its sale, the following artworks are expected to sell for the highest amounts at auction:  Elizabeth Frink’s “Walking Madonna,” Jean-Auguste‐Dominique Ingres’ “Virgil Reading the Aeneid Before Augustus,” Dorothea Tannings’ “Temptation of Saint Anthony,” Georges Rouault’s “Le Dernier Romantique,” and Albert Gleizes’ “L’homme dans les Maisons.” Christie’s has valued these artworks between $2.2 million and $3.45 million, but they could sell for more.

ROSENBAUM: Was an appraisal done by Christie’s prior to your decision to auction?

LUCAS: No. The Board of Trustees made the decision to deaccession, but the list was developed after the appraisals.

ROSENBAUM: Was Sotheby’s also asked for an appraisal and a marketing plan?

LUCAS: Yes. Both firms received an RFP [Request for Proposal] from La Salle.

ROSENBAUM: Who made the decision to deaccession? Was it the university’s president and its board?

LUCAS: The decision to deaccession the artworks was made by the University’s Board of Trustees after many months of careful and thoughtful review of the University’s assets [emphasis added].

[Note the comment about art-as-assets by Joseph Klem of the American Alliance of Museums, quoted below.]

ROSENBAUM: As you probably know, deaccessioning for purposes other than acquisitions or direct care of the collection runs contrary to the guidelines of major professional organizations for art museums. What is your response to those who might oppose such sales as a violation of public trust and of your museum’s educational mission?

LUCAS: While we greatly respect and appreciate the perspective of the art community, La Salle is first and foremost a University, and one fortunate enough to have an art museum. Our Board of Trustees has fiduciary responsibility for the University, and their decisions supersede those of the Art Museum’s advisory board as well as the guidelines established by museum trade associations.

The robust and important pedagogical mission of our Art Museum will continue on January 8 when it reopens with refreshed galleries. [I assume “refreshed” is, in part, a euphemism for the closing of gaps left by the removed works.]

ROSENBAUM:  Is your museum a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums or the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries?

LUCAS: We are not members of the AAMD, we are a member of but not accredited by the AAM, and we are not members of the AAMG.

Here’s what AAM’s director of public relations, Joseph Klem, told me today about La Salle’s sales:

We are in touch with La Salle University to learn more about their plans. It’s a longstanding principle of the museum field that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset [emphasis added].

The Alliance’s Code of Ethics for Museums states that proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.

Sounds like we’re headed for another showdown. Has anyone yet sought the opinion of this legal luminary? (That’s a likely subject for a future post.)

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you enjoy 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