Home News Its Georgia O’Keeffe Is Worth Millions. And Its Dorms Need Updating.

Its Georgia O’Keeffe Is Worth Millions. And Its Dorms Need Updating.

by Staff

During his decades teaching literature at Valparaiso University, John Ruff looked beyond words, bringing his students to the school’s art museum to help them acquire what he called emotional wisdom. While discussing stories that originated in the Southwest, he would point out Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Rust Red Hills.” When he wanted to draw parallels to 19th-century American literature, Frederic E. Church’s “Mountain Landscape” was right there.

But those paintings may not hang on campus much longer.

Valparaiso, a Lutheran university in northwestern Indiana that is struggling with the declining enrollment seen at many schools, is planning to sell several works from the collection of its Brauer Museum of Art to raise $10 million for the renovation of two freshman dormitories, which it sees as key to securing its future.

The announcement angered many arts organizations and has divided the university: Last week the faculty senate approved a nonbinding resolution that sought to halt the sale and identify alternative ways to fund the renovations.

Richard Brauer, a retired art professor who served as the director of the museum that now bears his name, has told the university’s leadership he wants his name removed if the school goes through with the sale.

“It really does outrage me,” Brauer, 95, said. “I think it’s wrong; the museum profession calls it the worst practice. And I think it’s shameful.”

Valparaiso is among many private colleges and universities looking for ways — such as slashing the advertised tuition price — to combat declining enrollment among a generation of young adults more aware of the burden of student debt. Its enrollment has fallen 39 percent since 2016, to 2,964 students last fall; the law school was shuttered in 2020, and degrees such as secondary education and French have been discontinued.

In response, Valparaiso has developed a five-year strategic plan that includes improving the experience for first-year students. The residence halls date to the 1950s and 1960s, and administrators say they now require significant, expensive renovations. The paintings entered the Brauer’s collection during those same decades, and have since skyrocketed in value. The school saw an opportunity.

Valparaiso’s president, José D. Padilla, said in his announcement to students and faculty that the school was reallocating “resources that are not core or critical to our educational mission and strategic plan.” In a statement to The New York Times, he said that the decision to put the paintings on the market was not made lightly, but that “attracting and retaining students drives the tuition revenue that strengthens our ability to serve our students.”

The university’s communications director, Michael Fenton, said the hope was that the renovations — one of the residence halls has single-pane windows and no air-conditioning — would keep Valparaiso competitive with schools like Butler University, in Indianapolis, and Drake University, in Des Moines.

The O’Keeffe painting, which depicts a New Mexico landscape of rolling hills with blood-red hues, is the crown jewel of the Brauer’s collection and has been exhibited in Ireland, Spain and Canada. A sale is estimated to bring in $7 million. The orange-tinged work by Church, one of the Hudson River School’s most successful artists, is valued at $1 million, and the university hopes to make another $2 million by selling Childe Hassam’s “The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate,” a coastal landscape by a pioneering American Impressionist.

Schools typically court controversy when they announce they will sell artworks to raise funds, an act known as deaccessioning. Several sales have resulted in sanctions from art associations. To settle a lawsuit, Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., reversed its decision to sell off its artwork and close its museum, part of a plan it had made in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Valparaiso’s desire to pay for work on the dorms with proceeds from the paintings has received pushback. Students delivered dozens of letters opposing the sale to the president’s office, and 75 faculty members expressed their disappointment in another letter. 

“The problem is that the whole process has been secret,” said Ruff, who retired from teaching in July and now serves as a volunteer gallery attendant at the museum, where his wife long worked as an associate curator and registrar.

The faculty senate resolution against the sale passed, 13-6, with two people abstaining. Jennifer Hora, a political science professor who voted in favor of the resolution, said she worried that if the sale goes through, the wishes of future donors might not be respected: “My true fear is none of this will be a victory for anyone.” One of the no votes came from Sami Khorbotly, an electrical and computer engineering professor, who said, “While we all appreciate the art and respect it, I think that we needed to prioritize, and our students are our top priority.”

Some question whether Valparaiso is legally allowed to sell the paintings. Fenton, the university spokesman, said the school believed that it was permitted to pursue the sale and was conducting due diligence. But Brauer, the former director, said he believed that a sale would violate the 1953 agreement that established the museum, a gift by Percy Sloan to honor his father, the self-taught artist Junius R. Sloan. (The museum, which now owns more than 5,000 works of art and hosts 300 weekly visitors, was originally called the Sloan Collection of American Paintings.)

That agreement stated that Valparaiso must hold the “funds and property” it received from the estate in conformity with the conditions listed in Percy Sloan’s will. Among those conditions, the will states that income should be spent for “the maintenance and expert care” of the collection or “the acquisition of paintings by American artists.”

The initial gift to Valparaiso in 1953 included the landscape by Church. In 1962, Brauer, while he was the museum’s director, bought the O’Keeffe with $5,700 from the Sloan fund. Five years later, he purchased the piece by Hassam.

Nicholas O’Donnell, a lawyer who represented plaintiffs in a suit when the Berkshire Museum, in Massachusetts, deaccessioned work to close budget gaps, pointed out that the language in an initial trust by Percy Sloan emphasized that he wanted college students exposed to the beauty of art.

“The trust is very clear about what the art is supposed to be used for,” O’Donnell said. “It is not to be used as a piggy bank.”

Valparaiso’s announcement alarmed art associations because of a long-held principle among museums: Revenue from deaccessioned pieces should be used to acquire new works, not for operating costs. (The rules were relaxed during the coronavirus pandemic, and museums may now use such funds for “the storage or preservation of works of art.”)

Four art associations issued a joint statement condemning Valparaiso and the idea that the works in the Brauer’s collection were “disposable financial assets.” One of the groups, the Association of Art Museum Directors, also told the museum’s director, Jonathan Canning, that if the university proceeded with the sale, it would consider censuring and sanctioning the museum.

In 2018, the association asked its more than 200 members to refrain from sharing artwork or collaborating with La Salle University Art Museum after the Philadelphia school sold several pieces to pay for educational programming. In 2014, the association sanctioned Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Va., which bolstered its endowment by selling a George Bellows painting for $25.5 million.

“I am gravely concerned by the reprimand and threat of sanctions,” Canning wrote in an email to The Times.

Sophia Duray, a 21-year-old vocal performance junior who said she was satisfied with her experience living in Brandt and Wehrenberg Halls, the two dorms slated for renovations, organized a letter to the Valparaiso student senate that opposed the sale.

“It’s frustrating because this art museum situation is not the first low blow,” Duray said, referring to the discontinuation of the theater degree and cost-cutting measures in the music department.

Duray said that whenever she visits the Brauer Museum of Art, which reopened in November after closing for the pandemic, she is calmed by the works that stretch across its walls.

The paintings at the center of the debate are still on display, and Ruff, who was an English professor for 33 years, said he hoped they would remain a permanent fixture for anyone to view. He was helping to install the “Celebrating Black Artists” exhibition in January when several well-dressed people with “an out-of-town look” walked in to the locked, dimly lit museum. 

The auction house Sotheby’s had stopped by. 

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