Randolph College selling the art farm

You may have already heard that the Board of Trustees of Randolph College (a small, private women’s liberal arts college in Lynchburg, Virginia) made the controversial decision to sell off parts of its celebrated art collection to stay financially viable. The story has already been covered by the NYT, The Washington Post, and even the Chronicle took some time off from EdTech bashing to cover the news.

Nonetheless, I didn’t hear about this fascinating story from any of the above mass media outlets. Rather, I got the news from UMW Blogs. About three weeks ago I was reading the comments of Marjorie Och’s Art History students when one of them linked to this earlier article in the Washington Post about Randolph College considering selling a few of the college’s prized possessions to keep itself financially afloat. This article was particularly powerful because it briefly traced the intimate relationship between the artwork in the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College and the school’s identity. The article frames how the school purchased its most valuable work, which will be auctioned at Christie’s in NYC next month, George Bellows’s “Men of the Docks:”

Image of George Bellows's Men on Docks

In the spring and summer of 1920, students at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College came up with a heady plan for the small school in a postage-stamp corner of the nation. They would pool their nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars to enhance the school’s fledgling art collection by obtaining a masterpiece: George Bellows’s “Men of the Docks.”

Under the direction of art professor Louise Jordan Smith, students put together $200. The college came up with $495. Townspeople and alumnae scraped up $1,500. As the students closed in on the purchase price of $2,500, the student paper jauntily reported: “Yesterday, one friend of the college donated $24 and another $50. Of course, the plan will come to a glorious end. Randolph-Macon undertakings always do. Who would like to donate the next $100?”

Talk about your glorious endings: “Men of the Docks” became the cornerstone of the school’s $100 million collection of American art, including works by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and William Merritt Chase.

I just love the way this is framed, everyday people pooling their pennies to buy a masterpiece born of school spirit and good will. A work which will be sold next month to the highest bidder for millions of dollars. All the while, Randolph College loses a piece of its institutional identity, further compounding the equally controversial decision to make this renowned women’s college co-educational as of this past August. It just seems so much like an epic tale of the virtues of collective identity and memory versus the voracious appetite of institutional myopia and mismanagement! Not to mention the larger questions of whether or not the board had the right to make such a decision. In fact, just recently Fisk University was refused the right to sell a Georgia O’Keefe masterpiece to a museum in order to jump start their emergence from financial hardship (NPR report here).

I also learned from my very brief research that the Maier Museum at Randolph College was designed during the cold war 50s as a fall-out shelter for The National Gallery of Art’s collection in Washington D.C. in the event of a nuclear attack. So fascinating to me!

Even more so when I once again stumbled upon a post on UMW blogs about the “Monday Massacre at Randolph College” by Marjorie Och, which provided a link to Culturegrrl’s blog post that features an interview with the now Ex-director of the Maier Museum (Karol Lawson) discussing the Elia Gonzalez-like raid on the museum last Monday, October 1st. In a late-afternoon, early-evening “raid,” the president of Randolph College seems to have organized a pick-up of four works of art (including the cherished Bellows piece, for transport to NYC for auction). The event seemed extremely mis-handled according to CultureGrrl’s report, and the police requested to “protect the artwork” cleared the area by tell onlookers there was a bomb threat (I love the irony CultureGrrl captures here, the cold war bomb shelter the site of a bomb threat!). The police department has since apologized for their actions, which were reprehensible.

Long story short, the school has, at least for the moment, lost the cornerstone of its art collection, lost three valued employees over the incident (including museum director Karol Lawson), along with a strongly worded condemnation from the Association of Art Museum Directors (well worth a read), and that feel-good story portending signs of hope and promise (however hidden) I read three weeks ago tentatively ends as most things do in this day and age –with little struggle, even less national outrage, and a whole lot of unaccounted for rage that is keeping close track of the number of times the American people have dociley taken it on the chin again and again by institutions, agencies, corporations, and organizations. All of which feel that they can do whatever they want in the name of “freedom, safety, and fiscal responsibility!” I hope the good folks of the Randolph College alumni associations and community groups head on up to NYC and grab that painting off the auction block, much like the administration stole away with it last Monday.

But, maybe this is just my own easily manipulated heart strings pushing me to righteously clamor for “what’s right!” Here is the administration’s press release explaining their position on selling the artwork -sounds like a million other poorly disguised excuses to make some quick cash. Sell outs! (I tried to be neutral there for a second, you saw me!)

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5 Responses to Randolph College selling the art farm

  1. Pingback: Wal-Mart, Iraq, and an Inexcusable Silence at bavatuesdays

  2. CultureMan says:

    All this is a big joke. The Presidents and Trustees of these institutions suffer from their own form of p. envy. They are at provincial institutions and they aspire to grander things. After all, who cares about some self-important “art collector” from St. Louis who is the President of Randolph College? But, he sure can get a lot of attention from the Yale and Harvard and NYC brahmins if he can control the destiny of tens of millions is art, and then have the ill-gotten gains to spend on his college. Maybe in a few years he can get a job at a “real” university. It’s so much easier to sell assets than to give donors a reason to be generous, or to work within your means to build a school from inside.

    Alice Walton isn’t to blame. She has loads of money, and can spend it on whatever she likes. She could just buy clothes and private planes and houses. Instead, she buys art, and everyone treats her and her second-rater sycophant employees like they are actually educated or have any taste or knowledge about the works and their history. At least it’s respectable. She didn’t build Wal-Mart, her Daddy did, so you can’t fault her for being born right.

    The rich have always bought art to make themselves seem cultured and sophisticated. That’s fine. That Randoplh is selling is just the old boys network at work — you wanna bet that the President of Randolph isn’t schmoozing with some NY poohbahs and greasing old connections with this sale?? Pleeeaaazzee!

  3. jimgroom says:


    Now that’s my kind of comment, thanks for chiming in here. I certainly agree with you that Alice Walton isn’t necessarily to blame, but she is certainly a symptom of a larger problem of accumulating culture while at the same time benefiting from its destruction with mega wholesale box-stores like Wal-Mart.

    But, in fact, I think we’re all to blame in some real ways. So maybe I’m just trying to problemtize the process by which art has become a means of establishing cultural status for your average billionaire while at the same time decimating and localized flavor of culture and pride. I mean isn;t this what Wal-mart does, it makes all ppalces the same and defines what you can and cannot have access to, albeit for less! The selling off of master works of art that get relegated to a few museums in a few locales is not that different in my mind, it is the concentration of culture in the hands of a few elite whom, by extension, frame its relevance for us.

    How different is that from the Bellows piece hanging in the Randolph College library as a testament to its rich history in the arts? The context will soon be lost, like the context of the small, intimate storefront where you can buy a range of things you can never get from a box store. And while I may be guilty of some virtual nostalgia here, I can’t help but think that we are disemboweling our culture, so the sad irony that the Wal-Mart fortune is being used to buy up our culture is cuts deep in my mind.

    That said, I had no idea the new president for Randolph College was a St. Louis art collector, the plot thickens yet again. And connecting the dots ain’t that hard, wasn;t the Bush family in the Oil business or something like that?

  4. Andi says:

    Temporary injunction could delay sale of Maier Museum of Art paintings

    By Christa Desrets

    cdesrets@newsadvanc e.com

    Thursday, November 8, 2007
    A Lynchburg Circuit Court judge on Thursday granted a temporary injunction that could delay the sale of four paintings from the Maier Museum of Art until ongoing litigation against Randolph College is settled.

    The injunction would take effect once opponents of the sale post a $10 million bond, Judge Leyburn Mosby Jr. said after hearing several hours of arguments from both sides.

    After the ruling, plaintiffs said they were unsure how or when they would raise the money, and college officials said they would quickly seek appeal.

    At issue are four pieces of art from the former Randolph-Macon Woman’s College’s Maier Museum of Art – George Bellows’ “Men of the Docks,” Edward Hicks’ A “Peaceable Kingdom,” Ernest Hennings’ “Through the Arroyo” and Rufino Tamayo’s “Troubador.” They were removed from the museum on Oct. 1.

    The artwork was slated for sale in public auctions on Nov. 19 and Nov. 29. Officials expected the auctions, to be held through New York-based Christie’s, to raise $32 million or more.

    Mosby said he had to weigh the damage that would be done if the art was sold, and compare that to the damage that would be caused to the college if it could not sell the art.

    Dennis Belcher, a Richmond-based attorney representing Randolph, said that the money from the auctions would go to the school’s endowment.

    Last December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Randolph’s accrediting organization, put the college on warning after a review showed the school spending its endowment at an unsustainable rate.

    This December, SACS will perform another review. If the school hasn’t improved its finances, it could be put on probation, one step away from losing accreditation.

    Chris Burnley, the school’s vice president for finance and administration, said the extra money from the auction, if added to the endowment, would lower the college’s spending rate and possibly help secure a positive SACS review.

    Opponents of the sale of the art countered that information, saying that the auction would damage the college, the museum, students and the community.

    Museum docent and retired judge Paul Whitehead Jr., who in 1997 donated $155,000 for the school to purchase an Andrew Wyeth painting, testified that the sale would devalue the remaining art and also affect the number of future donations.

    Ellen Agnew, former associate director of the museum before resigning in August over the sale, testified that the school did not follow its own policies or widely accepted art policies directing a museum to use proceeds from the sale of art only to directly benefit the museum.

    The Association of Art Museum Curators, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, the College Art Association and the Virginia Association of Museums each have issued statements critical of the college’s decision.

    Margaret Williams, a Randolph College senior majoring in art history and museum studies, and American history professor John d’Entremont also testified.

    Belcher compared the plaintiffs’ arguments to “throwing everything up against a wall to see what sticks.”

    Mosby said, “I think the harm if the art is sold is greater than the harm if the art is not sold.”

    He also overruled a motion that the college filed asking him to dismiss the case.

    The college will immediately seek an accelerated appeal in the Virginia Supreme Court, spokeswoman Brenda Edson said. The school hopes to reverse Mosby’s decision before the first auction on Nov. 19.

    “We’re disappointed in the court’s decision but we continue to believe that the college has the right to make the choices that are in the best interest of the college as a whole,” she said. “We believe we will prevail in the higher courts, and the college will be able to move forward with its plans to auction four paintings.”

    Christie’s spokesman Rik Pike said by e-mail Thursday night that he could not comment on how the case would affect the planned auctions because he had not seen the ruling.

    Melissa Roberts, representing opponents of the art sale, called the judgment a “significant victory” but was unsure about specifics related to the required $10 million bond.

    “When and how we can post that will be decided later,” she said.

    If the injunction is finalized, then the sale of the art would be halted pending three legal decisions regarding the college.

    Two of the cases involve the college’s decision to become coeducational. Mosby dismissed both cases in January, but the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals, which have not yet been scheduled.

    Another ongoing case involves legal action the college filed in August to determine whether it could sell or share 36 pieces of art bought from a trust bequeathed in the will of Louise Jordan Smith, the school’s first art professor.

    Litigation filed in response asks the court to declare that the entirety of the collection is interconnected and should be protected from sale.

    A hearing for that case has been scheduled for Nov. 15, also before Mosby in Lynchburg Circuit Court.

  5. jimgroom says:

    Thanks for the update Andi.

    Looks like we have an interesting brewing around all of this stuff.

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