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Valpo President/Board Decide to Sell Art Masterpieces to Pay for Dorm Renovation

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Michael Slusser:
Many museums own more artworks than they can display. Is that true of Valpo? and if so, is that a responsible use of their value?

The terms of the deed of gift play a role in what an institution can do with an object; careful institutions don't let themselves be bound too tightly.



--- Quote from: Mbecker on February 24, 2023, 08:26:19 AM ---A controversy has arisen on Valpo's campus due to the recent presidential/board decision to sell valuable art from Valpo's Brauer Museum to pay for dorm renovation. The art in question are masterpieces by O'Keefe, Church, and Hassan. The NYT will soon be publishing a story on the matter. The Chicago Tribune has already run a front-page story about it, as have our local newspapers.

The letter that I wrote against this decision has been signed by more than 90 other Valpo faculty, including 17 emeriti and retired faculty. The letter attempts to show why the decision by the president and Valpo's board is unethical and runs contrary to the Lutheran intellectual tradition, which has generally supported the liberal arts, including the visual arts. An additional faculty memo, which I helped to write, provides bullet points for why this decision is unethical and unwise.

Here's my blog post from yesterday, which provides links to the pertinent documents and news reports:

Matt Becker
Professor of Theology
Valparaiso University

--- End quote ---
Here is the meat Dr. Becker's reasoning, from the blogpost linked:

Yesterday, at a special meeting of Valpo’s faculty senate, a few of us presented a memo, which we hope will become the basis for a senate resolution that would call upon the president and board to rescind their decision. Here is the content of that memo:

1. The sale constitutes a gross violation of professional museum ethics. VU will be censured by professional organizations, lose credibility with those associations, and the museum will be unable to lend, borrow, or collaborate with other museums in the world. The president claims he has his own “ethic” to uphold—a confusion of ethics and expediency? Will that “ethic” trump ethical standards across all disciplines, professional schools, and university organizations?

2. The sale violates the trust of artists, the public, donors, and faculty. The Brauer Museum is at the core of Valpo’s liberal arts identity. The three masterpieces anchor the collection and its international reputation. Artists want their work to be displayed in notable public collections. Donors expect their gifts to contribute to the strength of the museum in perpetuity. Faculty count on these works as crucial pedagogical resources. This action tramples on the generosity and trust of current and past donors. It conflicts with the strong support for the arts and humanities in the Lutheran intellectual tradition. What is the presidential and board rationale for breaking these basic and long-term trusts for the sake of short-term, perishable goods?

3. The sale may be illegal. The sale clearly violates the terms of the trust agreement signed by the VU board president when the core collection was acquired in 1953. The Church painting was part of that gift; the other two paintings in question were purchased with funds from the restricted Sloan endowment fund. The president claims that will not be a legal problem. That remains to be seen. And, does it not matter that violating the trust is clearly unethical?

4. This sale is a poor management of assets. To sell an asset of appreciating value and use it to buy something of depreciating value (dorms) is problematic. Furthermore, by selling these pieces through a private auction, Sotheby’s will be entitled to at least a 25% commission. Add in PR and legal fees, and that is a very poor return on the value of these assets. Selling university assets in a reckless and/or unethical manner has already resulted in the loss of major donors and negative press. More will come. This could also have a negative effect on our bond rating. Is this short-term sale really worth the net outcome, especially in view of Valpo’s long-term future?

5. This sale seems very rushed. Do we understand why a dorm renovation suddenly rose to the top of the university’s priority list? What is the urgent necessity for this project? The administration could provide no concrete evidence.

6. The process of making the decision to sell these masterpieces lacked transparency. The plan to select and sell the works has been conducted with deliberate secrecy. The paintings were selected purely for cash value, without any investigation into or concern for their importance to the museum and the community it serves. No one with any knowledge of the collection was consulted, as if the details of the works themselves were irrelevant to the process. This is a shocking way to approach the sale of university assets, and not a path to a sustainable future.

7. The administration’s withholding of knowledge of the impending sale resulted in an unethical hiring process. Last summer, while in the process of finding and hiring Jonathan Canning, representatives of Christie’s Auction house were on campus. This information was withheld from the search committee, and more importantly from Canning when he accepted the job. Any association with this sale will be devastating to his career. The university asked Canning to participate in a sale that would violate his professional ethics.

8. This impending sale represents a further attack on the arts and humanities at VU. Student response has been spontaneous, strong, and often emotional. They immediately connected this action to the administration’s ongoing dismantling of the arts on campus. Notably, among the nearly 400 signatories on the student petition, approximately half are STEM majors. The board/presidential decision is contrary to Valpo’s stated mission.

I have to say I agree fully with #1-3, 7-8, but think I disagree with #4-6.

As for #4, I don't think the faculty are in a position to have a relevant opinion. Clearly it is sometimes expedient to sell something that is appreciating in order to buy something that will depreciate. People do it all the time depending on their circumstances. The physical dorn building will certainly depreciate (unless it were convertible to apartments down the road, in which case it will appreciate) but if it works to attract more freshmen to enroll or upperclassmen to stay in student housing, the depreciation will be offset by an income stream, much like machinery on a farm or factory depreciates but more than makes up for it.

On #5, it seems to me they've been talking about the need for new dorms for ages. How would slowing down and delaying all this affect anything? Valpo needs a better housing situation. I don't that much is really arguable. The issue is whether they're going to something about it soon or wait until later, and it could very well be (and likely is) that advisers are saying there might not be much of a later if they don't show signs of life on this front sooner. I just don't think the question of whether they need now dorms one year from now or three years from now changes anything, because of #6.

#6-- Secrecy of this sort is a hazard of actual leadership. You can't investigate possibilities in public without starting self-defeating rumors and self-fulfilling doomsday prophecies.

Faculty and administration are not the same lane of the highway. On items 1-3 and 7-8, I think there is a legit complaint from the faculty that the administration needs to stay in its lane. On 4-6, I think the adminstration can tell the faculty to stay in their lane.   

Dan Fienen:
Another point of view from the publication The College Fix, "Valparaiso University Wisely Plans Art Sale to Finance New Dorms."

From the article: "But the Lutheran university is correct to sell of luxury items to directly contribute to the future success of the university by building dorms.
First, the university is wise not to take on more debt, which only saddles future students with potential tuition increases or budget cuts."

"Paintings are like classic cars - we can enjoy them, we can look at them - and we can sell them.
The purpose of a university is to educate students and school leaders have a duty to provide that service at an affordable price. This is a good decision by the university."

The article also estimates the value of the three paintings under discussion as about $20 million.

Those valuations of the paintings might be considerably out of date. Art is like crypto-currency in how it has gone through the roof (and might crash back down).

Dave Likeness:
Here is a reality check on student enrollment at Valpo:

In the Fall of 2015, the student enrollment was 4,544.
Today, that enrollment has dropped by nearly 1,500 students.
That is a serious decline in enrollment and that fact needs to
be addressed by the President and Board of Regents of Valpo.

The university has experienced a 17% reduction in full-time
faculty and staff.  This amounts to 135 positions.


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