At the beginning of the year, news started coming out of Indiana’s Valparaiso University about a local scandal surrounding the deaccession of several paintings from the university’s museum. And now, the university might be able to proceed after a judge dismissed a lawsuit meant to stop the deaccession.
In February, Valparaiso University announced its decision to sell works by several great American artists from its Brauer Museum of Art. The proceeds are meant to fund dorm renovations, part of university president José Padilla’s five-year plan to attract and retain more students. These paintings include The Silver Veil and the Golden Gate by Childe Hassam (est. $3.5 million), Mountain Landscape by Frederic Edwin Church (est. $2 million), and one of the museum’s crown jewels, Rust Red Hills by Georgia O’Keeffe (est. $15 million). This story got even more coverage after Richard Brauer, the museum’s founding director and namesake, threatened to revoke his permission for the museum to use his name. He referred to the deaccession as “utterly disgraceful, irreparably existentially diminishing, unethical and seemingly unnecessary”. The American Alliance of Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums & Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Curators all opposed the deaccession plan, issuing a joint statement.
Padilla’s plan received some pushback, though. In March, Valparaiso’s Faculty Senate, representing faculty members from all the school’s colleges, voted 13 to 6 for the administration to drop the deaccession plan and look for alternative funding sources. Valparaiso’s administration was stalled yet again with a lawsuit in April. Brauer and former Valparaiso law professor Philipp Brockington sued Padilla and the school to prevent the deaccession since any sale would go against the intentions of the original donor. The paintings are part of a trust the donor Percy Sloan established in 1953. The plaintiffs allege that the student body and the public “will suffer irreparable injury if Valparaiso University violates the donor’s intent and liquidates assets of the trust”.
Porter County judge Jeffrey Thode ruled that Brauer and Brockington lacked standing. Neither officially represents the original trust and, therefore, cannot file a lawsuit related to the deaccession. The university’s lawyers argued the same in court. So, it’s not that the school isn’t allowed to sell the paintings, but rather on a legal technicality that the suit was dismissed. The plaintiffs have not filed an amended complaint, but that doesn’t mean this is the end of the story. Brauer and Brockington also named Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita as a defendant in the lawsuit. Judge Thode did not dismiss the suit against the attorney general, whose office has confirmed that he does have standing to decide whether the university can sell any part of the original Sloan Trust. An online petition against the university’s deaccession of the three paintings has already gathered over 2,500 signatures. That, plus the media coverage of the situation, I’m not entirely sure who would even want to buy paintings that are covered in this sort of mud.