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Whose Art Is It, Anyway?

America’s cultural institutions have been quietly selling off their art collections, and bad publicity—however shrill or indignant—seems no deterrent. One year ago, Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University sold off Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic—a masterpiece of American realism—to the acute distress of its alumni. Although the sale was criticized widely, the only element of the story that seems to have left a lasting impression is the sale price: $68 million. Two other colleges now seek to turn their own art collections into ready cash. Randolph College in Roanoke hopes to net over $30 million from its upcoming auction at Christie’s, while Fisk University in Nashville is expecting the same amount for a 50 percent share in its collection.

One can sympathize with Fisk, which is in dire financial straits. Ever since it was founded in 1866 as a school for freed slaves, it has teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy. Now, with all of its buildings mortgaged to the hilt, it has turned to this sale as a last resort. This is one case where a sale might do some good to gallery-goers: Fisk has never been able to exhibit its 101-piece collection, a gift from Georgia O’Keeffe, properly. The agreement to share its collection with the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas means that the public will at last be able to see such extraordinary works as O’Keeffe’s own Radiator Building, along with major works by Pablo Picasso, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin. Although the O’Keeffe estate is contesting the sale, claiming that it violates the terms of the gift, it cannot claim that the college has acted in bad faith.

Matters are less clear-cut at Randolph (which has just changed its name from Randolph-Macon and admitted its first male students). While the school pleads financial hardship, it is hardly at the point of shutting its doors. It is for this reason that a group of alumnae and donors have sought a court injunction to prevent the sale, which involves four paintings, including George Bellows’s Men of the Docks and one of Edward Hicks’s many versions of A Peaceable Kingdom. “Artwork should be used for the purpose for which it was given,” the group insists, “which is to educate women in the liberal arts, not to support Randolph College’s endowment.”

One should watch these sales closely: it’s not only colleges that own collections of this scale and value, but libraries and churches, historical societies and social clubs. Up until recently, these institutions have tended to view the stewardship of their art as a public trust, to be passed on to posterity. I think it’s safe to say that there’s now a growing tendency to view them less sentimentally. Depending on the outcome of these two proposed sales, one might expect other institutions to decide that it is time—as one trustee memorably (and somewhat frighteningly) put it—to “monetize their non-performing assets.”


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