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:”
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!)