Phi Beta Cons

Fisk University Offends the Art World

Even more arrogant than many university administrators may be philanthropic administrators such as those who run art museums.

Fisk University has been struggling financially, and a few years ago tried to sell its multi-million-dollar collection of paintings donated by the famed artist Georgia O’Keefe. She had stipulated that they remain at the school, so they  could not legally sell them.

The issue was settled by a joint ownership arrangement with an Arkansas museum, Crystal Bridges.

The effort to sell the paintings not only raised questions of donor intent but also aroused the ire of museum administrators. They argued that it was unseemly for schools to obtain money by selling art.

Now we learn that two other paintings were quietly sold at the same time. Those paintings didn’t have the kind of stipulations that the others had. But even so, the museum world is shocked, shocked!

Especially upset was Lyndel King, who heads the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections. The New York Times wrote on July 26:

Though the task force does not have legal authority over universities, its members, who represent several museum associations, can censure those who sell art to pay operating expenses, putting pressure on them not to treat art as an A.T.M. That practice “alienates donors and undermines the purpose of having a museum on campus,” Ms. King said.

King also said, “It’s very much against the ethics of our profession.”

Now, exactly what is unethical about selling art? I think it is the fear that the art might escape a museum and end up in the hands of a loving owner. At least one of the two paintings did — but the owners have loaned it to the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art for an exhibition.

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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