You are the president of a small, private liberal arts college that has fallen on hard times. Your enrolment has declined by 39% since 2016, you have had to cut academic programs, and your dormitories are badly in need of repair – attracting students is of paramount concern, but there are few funds available. Your campus has an art museum that holds 5,000 works, though none of them of any outstanding value. One morning you get a call from an alumnus who has done well for himself, and he says “I am giving the university $10 million; I want you to spend it on whatever you think is of highest priority right now.” You cannot believe your good fortune. “Wonderful!”, you reply, “There are three paintings, worth a total of $10 million, now on the market, that I have had my eye on for the college. And now I can go and buy them!”
I’m going to assume we can agree this story is a bit ridiculous. So when the New York Times reports breathlessly on Valparaiso University’s intent to sell three paintings to gain a badly needed $10 million, the opposition to the sale cannot be that, had the university not already owned the paintings, this would mark a good investment. The opposition arises from what economists call the endowment effect, an attachment to things already possessed greatly in excess of what we would be willing to pay on the market if we did not already own the object (I think we all have this to some degree – look around your house for things you would never want to part with that, had you not already owned it, you would simply pass by in the store).
For a university in dire straits, what consideration should we give to the endowment effect? Of course there will be a few faculty with attachment to the works to be sent to auction, but how exactly ought we take these feelings into account? Being on a campus with pleasing art is a nice benefit to being a faculty member, but I’m not sure this should determine university financial management (and I say this as a faculty member, with some personal attachment to some works in my campus museum – I would be sad to see them go, but I don’t see how I can objectively say that matters very much in the grand scheme of things). Students matter more here, but the president of the university receiving “dozens of letters” should not be seen as representing the interests of the current (and future) student body as a whole. One professor said she worried this could be a net financial loss for the university, if donors came to believe that their wishes for how their donations ought to be used would not be respected (the museum itself was founded by a gift in 1953). Well, maybe. But a willingness to take tough decisions in financial management might send a positive signal to donors that the school is intent on turning things around. And as for associations of museums calling deaccessioning “the worst practice” … I can think of worse; we read about them on this website weekly.
The Times story searches out opposition to the sale without really giving weight to the other side. It mentions a faculty vote that the university ought to find other sources of revenue without (not surprisingly) giving any indication of what those alternative sources might be (cutting more academic programs?), or why the university has, to this point, left all those $20 bills lying on the sidewalk that could so easily be gathered up. It is not a serious analysis of the stakes.
Silence Dogood says
How absurd and totally disrespectful to donors! A donor wanted to share art with people not finance dormitory repairs. The university should donate the art to another museum if it can’t keep or care for the pieces and it should begin to sell off its real estate, reduce programs and eliminate the staff in a few departments if it can’t maintain a budget. Start with selling the museum building site after Valparaiso gives all the art to some institutions who can better care for it. Is it suitable for a condo tower perhaps?
It’s time to let donors to Valparaiso (and similar institutions) know that it is obviously more committed to a ongoing pattern of mismanagement and squandering what it has been given in public trust than it is in honoring the wishes of its donors.. How can we get this message out to prospective donors?
Andrea Siegel says
If you look at the history of art collection since the French Revolution, you find there’s one good way to destroy a collection, other than an individual collector dying (invariably the collector’s kids want the money not the art). Destruction happens when the steward(s) who created the collection move on or die, and then someone comes in and cherry picks the good stuff. After that, the collection implodes. Does that matter? Yes, if you believe that art matters to culture, regional pride, and human well-being. (Caveat: Many people don’t believe this.) Valparaiso is facing a systemic, long-term national problem with a short-term guess at a solution: nationwide, colleges face catastrophically lower enrollments; and especially many small colleges, without endowments, are on death’s door. As a Nation we are closing off pathways to higher education for all but the wealthiest Americans, and consigning the working people to colossal college debt if they try to “get ahead.” I don’t have the solution to the problem of our Nation’s indifference to supporting the good-faith efforts of “We the People” to pursue happiness and the American Dream through a college education. I just don’t think the answer is selling masterworks that make a college nationally distinctive in order to upgrade the dorms.
Fred Goldstein says
It is easy for Mr. Rushton to create a scenario that supports his position. Try another: A donor meets with the University’s museum director and offers $10 million to purchase art for the benefit of the museum and the university’s programs in art history and studio practice and the welfare of the student body and the general public. The director is thrilled but explains he needs approval from the CEO. That person is thrilled: “Great” he says. “Accept the donation, buy the art and then we can sell it to finance the renovations of our dormitories!” Museum director takes the donor out to lunch and sadly declines the gift.
Chris Crosman says
No. it is not okay for an art museum to sell works from its collection for any purpose other than care of its remaining collection or to buy other works of art. Among many reasons why deaccessioning (i.e. disposal of art works from a museum collection) is extremely problematic is the damage it can and does do donors. In the case of a college, this can also mean major current and future donors to institution and its fundamental education mission. Trust is an existential consideration governing most non-profit organizations, including and, possibly, especially colleges and universities. If a college accepts gifts of art for its permanent collection, there is an implicit promise to the donor that these gifts will constitute an enduring commitment to their legacy. Buildings with donor names attached might last a century or so, the Georgia O’Keeffe painting should hold its educational value well past a short-sighted “sell by” date as determined by crises du jour. If Valparaiso University trustees and administrators cannot provide safe housing for their own students, they have existential problems that treating their own art museum as a private ATM will never solve.