Hubert Robert, The Tomb of Virgil at Posilipo, Near Naples, 1784. Photo: Jack Ramsdale.

Art World Pushes Back Against La Salle University's Plan to Sell Artworks

Cultural figures and groups are up in arms after La Salle University announced last week that it planned to sell forty-six artworks from its museum’s collection in order to offset the cost of educational programming. Christie’s has estimated that the school can bring in between $4.8 million and $7.3 million from auctioning works by Edgar Degas, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Henri Matisse, Dorothea Tanning, and Jacopo Tintoretto, among others.

“I feel as though the place has been raped,” Caroline P. Wistar, a longtime curator of the museum—who retired about a decade ago—told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They’re selling all of the very best things—a Degas drawing, a Vuillard. This is major. I feel like they’ve killed the museum.”

In response to the controversial move, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued the following joint statement: “College and university art museums have a long and rich history of collecting, curating, and educating in a financially and ethically responsible manner on par with the world’s most prestigious institutions. A different governance structure does not exempt a university museum from acting ethically, nor permit them to ignore issues of public trust and use collections as disposable financial assets. This is a fundamental ethical principle of the museum field, one which all institutions are obligated to respect: in no event shall funds from deaccessioned works be used for anything other than support for a museum’s collections.”

The institutions added that they are in conversation with the university about the sale, noting that they “remain hopeful that the University leadership will reconsider their decision.”

Timothy Rub, head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, also rebuked La Salle’s decision to sell its works. “Is a gain of $4.8 to $7.3 million in operating funds really a game-changer for the university, or will this simply leave its museum—which is acknowledged as being an enormously valuable resource for faculty and students—weakened?”

According to the school, the sale of the works, which is expected to take place across a series of auctions starting in March and continuing through June, is part of a new strategic five-year plan that has already been approved by its board of trustees. The school has been working toward finding stable financial footing since it first reported that it had a $12 million deficit and an 18 percent drop in enrollment in 2015. Other institutions selling artworks from their collections have also recently come under fire, as in the case of the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts.