A Catholic liberal arts college nestled in Philadelphia’s Center City has drawn the angry glares of art museum directors across the country. La Salle University wants to sell off part of its art collection to help close a major funding deficit. The school plans to sell 46 pieces of art that could bring $4 million to $7 million, and possibly much more, La Salle spokeswoman Jaine Lucas said.
But the proposed sale, planned for March at Christie’s auction house, runs afoul of one of the art world’s cardinal rules: Money from the sale of museum art should only go to pay for more museum art. That rule, codified in the ethics guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), is meant to prevent museum directors and boards from cashing in on art meant for public enjoyment. But as more and more museums struggle financially, keeping up the old tradition could mean the end of publicly available art, especially in small and medium-size cities.
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., announced last summer its plan to sell about 40 pieces of art, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell, to raise a possible $60 million. The money would go toward a turnaround plan to improve the aging and financially distressed museum. The AAM and the Association of Art Museum Directors condemned the plan, and locals began to protest. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office obtained a court order to stop the sale while it investigated whether the nonprofit museum’s board had shirked its fiduciary responsibility.
In court filings, the museum’s lawyer contended the attorney general’s actions “threaten the museum’s future, preventing the museum from securing the financing needed to allow the museum to continue to contribute to the economic, educational, and cultural life of the community.”
Museums and nonprofit organizations across the country face a similar dilemma. They are sitting on millions of dollars worth of art but can’t generate enough income to pay the bills. Money from ticket sales and programs make up only about 40 percent of arts funding in the United States, according to a 2012 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, the most recent data available from that agency. Private donations and endowments account for 52 percent, and government funding takes care of the remaining 8 percent. A 2011 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy estimated 55 percent of donations to art museums in 2009 went to the 2 percent of museums with budgets of $5 million or more.
Western culture traditionally has not asked the general public to bear the cost of enjoying fine art. The artistic revival of the Renaissance had two major backers: the extremely wealthy and the church. Pastor Kevin DeYoung in 2009 called on churches to re-examine their relationship to the arts.
“The church has a history of supporting the arts,” he wrote. “There is something unique about the visual arts—I’m thinking of painting, banners, murals, photographs, etc.—that are well-suited for inclusion in ‘sacred space.’ … Good art can help strip away pretension and pragmatism. Good artists will always be humble about their own limitations and besetting sins. And good Christians will always be eager to see truth and beauty wherever they can find it.”