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“Utterly Disgraceful”: Indiana College Selling A Priceless O’Keeffe To Fund New Dorms

February 22, 2023
An impressionist painting showing a promontory painted mainly in blues and greens shrouded in mist and cloud across a body of water.

The Silver Vale and the Golden Gate by Childe Hassam

Valparaiso University in northwestern Indiana is a relatively small school with barely 3,000 students. However, it is known for its arts center, which houses the Brauer Museum of Art. The museum specializes mainly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art, particularly by Midwestern American artists like Julius Sloan. But the museum and school have come under fire recently after planning to sell several works from the museum collection, including a Georgia O’Keeffe masterwork, to fund dorm building renovation.

Valparaiso’s student body has shrunk by about a third in the past ten years, prompting the board of directors and university president José Padilla to enact a five-year plan to attract and retain more students. In this plan, it seems that more dorms take precedence over prized paintings. Of the three paintings the university plans to sell, The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate by Childe Hassam is valued at around $3.5 million, while specialists last appraised Mountain Landscape by Frederic Edwin Church at about $2 million. But the third work is what many have been focusing on. Rust Red Hills by Georgia O’Keeffe is considered one of the crown jewels of the Brauer Museum’s collection and is valued at $15 million.

A landscape painting of a mountain rising off in the distance on the right-hand side, illuminated by the dull orange glow of the either rising or setting sun. An area of dense forest surrounds the peak, while a lake with a single canoe lays in the foreground.

Mountain Landscape by Frederic Edwin Church

Richard Brauer, the museum’s founding director and namesake, has been very outspoken in opposing the sale. He has even threatened to revoke his permission for the museum to use his name. “For Valparaiso University’s Museum of Art to have my name has conferred a high honor on me, but with this sale it will wrongly reflect my approval of its utterly disgraceful, irreparably existentially diminishing, unethical and seemingly unnecessary, museum art collection sale actions!” Brauer was the one who purchased O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills for the museum in 1962 for $5,700, making it the second work he acquired as director. It makes sense that he would feel so strongly about this. Many, including Brauer, have pointed out that selling these paintings would violate the rules set in place by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which states that funds from the sale of artworks can only go towards purchasing additional art and maintaining collections. The AAMD has acted in the past to sanction those institutions that violate these rules. In 2014, the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph University in Lynchburg, Virginia received AAMD sanctions after the school decided to sell a George Bellows painting to fund college operations. The AAMD prohibited any affiliated organization from interacting with the Maier Museum, including loaning works and collaborating on exhibitions. Though the Brauer Museum is not an AAMD member, two hundred nineteen museums do claim membership, including three major Chicago museums just an hour away.

The American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums & Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Curators have also spoken out against Valparaiso’s plans to sell the three works. They issued a joint statement with the AAMD claiming that the school’s administration is “ignor[ing] issues of public trust and us[ing] the museum’s collections as disposable financial assets.” In response to the recent criticism, Padilla claims that keeping the paintings is not part of “our strategic plan and our core mission of educating students and giving them the best campus residential experience”. Despite affirming the museum’s role as a “vital and vibrant destination for students and the local community”, Padilla’s administration seems to believe that the Brauer Museum and its collection of American masterworks are not a priority when it comes to attracting prospective students and providing current students with both resources for their studies and sources of on-campus recreation. No… more dorms for a shrinking student body seem to trump all that.