Protests over sale of college art spread

RICHMOND, Va. – Officials of a private liberal arts college in Lynchburg, Va., had hoped to get at least $32 million by auctioning four rare paintings from its renowned American art collection at Christie’s auction house.

But a handful of outraged Randolph College employees and alumni resigned jobs in protest, and recently joined other critics in a lawsuit seeking to stop the sale.

“We consider the sale an unethical breach of public trust,” said Ellen Agnew, the former associate director at the college’s Maier Museum of Art and a plaintiff in the art lawsuit.

The Virginia Supreme Court on Nov. 16 gave the plaintiffs until early December to keep an injunction in force by posting a $1 million bond – lowered from the $10 million set by a local judge.

peaceable kingdom.jpgThe injunction would expire within six months, leaving open the possibility of a sale then, unless there is further court action.

The Peaceable Kingdom,
Edward Hicks.

The art community sees it as a moral imperative to keep the collection intact at the 6,000-square-foot Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College.

Agnew, a 1980 alum of Randolph College and 23-year employee of the college museum, said she resigned Aug. 1 after college administrators removed the following paintings from the museum walls: Trovador by Rufino Tamayo, Men of the Docks by George Bellows, A Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks and Through the Arroyo by Ernest Hennings.
Chrisitie’s estimated that the Bellows painting alone could command as much as $35 million.

Museum officials said they remained stunned at the “military-style raid” that preceded the removal of the four paintings. “They turned off all the museum phones and cut off our computer service,” said Agnew, who also forfeited her retirement when she quit her museum job. “I need my retirement, but I simply can’t have selective integrity.”

College officials argue that they need to sell the four paintings to boost the school’s $152 million endowment and protect its accreditation. The school of about 600 students already has reduced staff, eliminated low-demand programs and taken other money-saving steps. The former all-female college admitted about 70 male students in September.

“The alums were already upset about admitting the male students, and this art snafu seemed to be the last straw for many of us,” said Agnew.

Karol Lawson, former Maier Museum Director, said museums don’t think about objects they hold as financial assets. “These paintings are a wonderful educational resource, and must be saved,” said Lawson, who resigned Oct. 12 less than 24 hours after the paintings had been removed from the campus museum.

“Donors have given to the museum without strings because nobody would ever have imagined this could happen,” said Laura Katzman, who resigned in April as a professor of American art and director of the student studies program at Randolph.

Other opponents say the sale could have serious repercussions for museums and colleges across the nation. People may be reluctant to give art or money to buy art because of fear the acquisitions will be sold, said Agnew.

“They’re ignoring the larger art world and the larger community that has issues with the values implied in their actions,” said Katzman, now an associate professor of art history at James Madison University.

Organizations that have protested the sale include the Virginia Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the College Art Association.