Valparaiso University closes museum and moves ahead with selling from the collection
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, July 24, 2024


Valparaiso University closes museum and moves ahead with selling from the collection
In its May petition to Porter County Superior Court, the University claims that the three paintings have become too valuable for it to keep them safe.



VALPARAISO, IN.- Valparaiso University has closed its Brauer Museum of Art and dismissed the director, Jonathan Canning, as part of an administrative restructuring announced late last week to address the tuition-dependent school’s falling enrollment and mounting operating deficit. The move surprised the local community as it comes just weeks after the museum opened America the Beautiful, its summer exhibition of Impressionist paintings drawn from the permanent collection. It also comes as the University moves ahead with its plan to sell the museum’s three most valuable paintings to fund renovations of freshman dormitories.

News of VU’s intention to sell Mountain Landscape (ca. 1849) by Frederic Church, The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate (1916) by Childe Hassam, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills (ca. 1930) startled the art world when it was first revealed by The Chicago Tribune in February 2023. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors both condemned the proposed sale and use of funds as a breach of professional ethics and best practices. The museum’s former director, Richard Brauer, and former VU law professor and museum donor Philipp Brockington delayed the sale by filing suit against the university. They claimed it would violate the terms of the original gift agreement between Percy H. Sloan and VU. Sloan donated the Church landscape and established an acquisition fund with which Richard Brauer bought the Hassam and O’Keeffe in the early 1960s. Ultimately, the Court denied Brauer and Brockington standing. Indiana State Attorney General Todd Rokita stepped in to review the case, but recently opted not to oppose a sale.

In its May petition to Porter County Superior Court, the University claims that the three paintings have become too valuable for it to keep them safe. The petition cites an example of European environmentalists throwing paint at the Mona Lisa. VU estimates that security upgrades would cost between $50,000 and $100,000, and professional guards, as opposed to students, would add an additional $150,000 to the museum’s annual staffing costs. It also argues storage fees at the undisclosed secure location, to which the paintings were transferred last Fall, are wasteful given its financial predicament. That predicament– a 2024 operating deficit of $9M–is the result of declining enrollment that “not only preclude[s] [the University] from incurring the capital costs needed in order to securely display the three paintings, [but] jeopardizes its core education mission and its continued economic contribution to the local and state economies. For these reasons the University seeks the Court’s permission to liquidate the paintings to underwrite dormitory renovations to bolster enrollment.”

VU also argues that the Hassam and O’Keeffe paintings should not have been bought with Sloan’s funds because of a stipulation that they be used to acquire only “conservative” paintings. Claiming that Richard Brauer first broke these terms, VU appeals to be released from all other restrictions, especially the requirement that revenue from sold paintings be deposited into the Sloan Purchase Fund. In response, Brauer has appealed to be heard by the Court, asserting that the University has misinterpreted his actions and overlooked the fact that Sloan’s executor, given full discretionary authority under the gift agreement, authorized both purchases.

Whether the judge engages in the art historical debate, he must determine if the enlargement of the student body, attracted by upgraded dormitories, cleaves closely enough to Sloan’s stated desire to educate students in the appreciation of art to allow the sale. As part of the dormitory renovations, the university will construct a gallery in which freshmen can examine examples of “conservative” art from the Sloan Collection. Senior Research Professor John Ruff scoffs at the whole proposal. “The Brauer Museum was the embodiment of both Sloan’s dream and the University’s commitments to him. Percy Sloan would not have understood the University’s argument about “conservative” art. He gave us paintings by Impressionists and early Chicago Modernists. A student common room is not a suitable place for a museum collection; nor, for reasons of student safety, can it be open to the general public. These, plus the employment of a professional, are core requirements of the Sloan gift. The University, in its desperation, is despoiling one of its greatest treasures. It has torn up the original agreement. The Court has got to put a stop to this.”

In addition to undergoing administrative restructuring, the University is also considering the discontinuance of up to thirty programs. Decisions as to whether the Lutheran-affiliated school will continue to offer undergraduate degrees in German, theology, philosophy, and music performance will be made in the coming weeks. They are likely to be as controversial in the world of higher education as the deaccessioning proposal is in the art world.










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