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“Plundering the Art Museum”: La Salle University Faculty Senate Blasts Planned Art Sales (full text) UPDATED

In a statement approved unanimously by those attending its Mar. 6 meeting, the Faculty Senate of La Salle University, Philadelphia, blasted the proposed sale through Christie’s of 46 highlights of from the collection of the institution’s art museum. The proceeds would go towards implementing a five-year strategic plan, “Momentum: 2022,” that the university says will “position [it] for growth and sustainability, and further enhance student experience and outcomes, and innovation in teaching and learning.”

William Price, chair of La Salle University’s Faculty Senate and chairman of Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

The Faculty Senate statement was leaked to me by an anonymous source, with its authenticity confirmed to me by two members of the university’s faculty (not William Price, above, its chair).

According to the La Salle University Art Museum’s information page about the deaccessions, the sales are scheduled to begin next month. But I could find nothing about them on Christie’s website and my repeated queries to both the auction house and the museum about the sales schedule have thus far gone unanswered. (I’ll update if/when I know more.) Strangely, the “Faculty Senate” link on the university’ Faculty and Staff webpage is, at this writing, a broken link (“Page Not Found”).

It’s possible that the delayed announcement of the sales schedule awaits a green light from the State Attorney General’s Office. An anonymous university source informed me last week that “the AG’s office has interviewed several people with connections to the university and the museum. So there is, in fact, an active investigation.”

When I asked the AG’s spokesperson on Friday if an investigation was in progress, he would only say this: “We can’t confirm or deny the existence of any investigation at the Office of the Attorney General. That’s the only thing I can say on the record. [He didn’t say anything off the record.] We’ll keep you posted when we know more” (and I’ll keep you posted).

As CultureGrrl readers may remember, the Massachusetts AG recently mounted a mountainous investigation (which brought forth a molehill), causing a delay in the Berkshire Museum’s planned art sales (the fate of which is still to be decided in court).

A Q&A regarding the deaccession plans, posted on the La Salle museum’s website, asks this question: “Will the deaccession of artworks weaken the pedagogical value of the Art Museum?” The unequivocal answer: “Absolutely not.”

But Susan Dixon, the university’s art-history chair, an outspoken opponent of the sales, begs to differ. As I previously reported, she shot off a letter asserting that the works that were removed from the museum, without any consultation with her department, were “use[d] daily for pedagogical purposes.”

Susan Dixon, La Salle University’s art history chair

In my commentary on another (even more fraught) deaccession controversy—the 2009 Brandeis University/Rose Art Museum crisis—I suggested that it might be time to “deaccession” the university’s president (who ultimately did leave and was succeeded by an art-friendly leader). It might be time to consider deaccessioning La Salle’s embattled president, Colleen Hanycz, if she persists in her misguided course, disregarding her Faculty Senate’s considered judgment (which echoed the pronouncements of museums’ professional organizations) that the art-disposal plan is “a misstep which ought to be halted before it is too late.”

La Salle University President Colleen Hanycz

Professional guidelines state that museums’ art sale proceeds should be applied only to acquisitions (Association of Art Museum Directors) or to acquisitions and direct care of collections (American Alliance for Museums). The Association of Academic Museums and Galleries has also condemned as unethical “the sale of works from the museum’s collection for the general purposes of [La Salle] University.”

Here is the full statement from La Salle’s Faculty Senate [emphasis added]:

After much consideration and deliberation, the Faculty Senate declares its objection to the sale of the 46 works from the La Salle Art Museum’s collection.

The sale will cause irreparable damage to a collection renowned for its exquisite balance, taste and pedagogical value. The collection embodies fifty-some years of patient devotion by Br. Daniel Burke [the museum’s founder, and a president emeritus of La Salle], his co-workers and successors. Throughout the years many patrons have donated pieces or sold them to La Salle at below-market values to support his vision. The sale is a violation of their faith in us.

We believe the concept of public trust adhered to by most museums is consistent with the Lasallian mission as we serve our students and neighbors. A quality work of art holds one’s attention; it resonates with one’s experience; it communicates across cultures and across times. Br. Daniel considered it to be a glimpse of the divine. To reduce the quality of that experience for our students and for other museum visitors is a travesty.

There is the inescapable conclusion that the decision, which has a profound impact on the pedagogies of many faculty, was made without the consultation of faculty. And as representatives of the faculty, we must strongly protest such negligence. Furthermore the sale has placed our colleagues in Art in a very precarious position of working for an institution censured by their professional organizations.

The timing of the communication, last-minute and over break, seemed designed to dissuade any reaction other than resignation [not sure which meaning of “resignation” is intended here]. Moreover, the communication has been at best vague on the motivation for the sale, offering little to no detail on how the proceeds would be spent.

Instead of having the university’s strategic plan generate its own momentum, the administration is opting for a quick fix by plundering the Art Museum. Our mission emphasizes ethical decision-making and engagement in our community; this move seems to set the wrong example.

It has also come to light that La Salle may be in violation of its own established policies regarding the circumstances under which accessioned works of art can be sold, the process for identifying items to be sold, and the purpose for which the monies raised can be applied.

The decision has fostered so much ill will—with students, with faculty, with alumni, with members of the art community. There now exists a deep and palpable sense within the La Salle community that there has been a serious breach of trust, respect and collegiality towards faculty and staff by this unilateral decision that ignored major stakeholders in our institution.

With the advantage of hindsight it is difficult to view this action as anything other than a misstep which ought to be halted before it is too late.

UPDATE, March 14: The above statement was emailed to all La Salle University faculty the day after I published the above post. (Perhaps I helped to move things along.) The cover letter stated that the strong condemnation of the planned art sales “reflects considerable discussion with senators, faculty, staff and students since January.”

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