Museum Ethics: The Rape Of The La Salle University Art Museum

“This old thing alone will fetch enough to fund that Klingon language course!”

Among its other tenets, the Code of Ethics For Museums followed by The American Alliance of Museums requires that member organizations ensure that:

  • collections in its custody are lawfully held, protected, secure, unencumbered, cared for and preserved
  • acquisition, disposal, and loan activities conform to its mission and public trust responsibilities, and
  • disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission. Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.

In other words,  museums cannot ethically sell off  their collections to finance or benefit non-museum goals and objectives.

Never mind. La Salle University’s trustees announced that the university planned to sell 46 paintings, sculptures, and drawings selected by Christie’s auction house and use the expected profits of $4.8 -$7.3 million into teaching and courses. That means that the University will be using the art as investments and assets rather than art.


“I feel as though the place has been raped,” said Caroline P. Wistar, a longtime curator of the museum who retired about a decade ago. “They’re selling all of the very best things — a Degas drawing, a Vuillard. This is major. I feel like they’ve killed the museum.” Timothy Rub, head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors,  said,

“Is a gain of $4.8 to $7.3 million in operating funds really a game-changer for the university, or will this simply leave its museum — which is acknowledged as being an enormously valuable resource for faculty and students — weakened? It’s one thing to use deaccessioning as a means for strengthening the collection by ‘trading up.’ Indeed, the [ethics] guidelines provide for that. But it’s another to use the funds for something else entirely, and not necessarily a good thing either for the museum or the university.”

Museum directors talk this way. “Deaccessioning” means “selling.” “Not necessarily a good thing” means “a bad thing.”

The decision was approved by the school’s board of trustees and announced by La Salle  president Colleen M. Hanycz as “a strategic and good use of our assets,” adding that “we are doing what we feel is in the best interest of our students.”

But not in the best interests of art students, artists, art, the museum, or those who enjoy and learn from its collection. La Salle has decided that the ends justify the means. Other institutions strapped for funds have come to a similar conclusion. Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced a plan to close its museum and sell its art, but was foiled by students,  faculty and legal action. Randolph College in Virginia sold  a George Bellows painting worth more than $25 million.

Artworks donated or purchased for museums are regarded as being held in trust. If universities and colleges cannot be trusted to value these artworks as priceless art rather than investments and potentially sellable commodities when the budgets get tight, then they not trustworthy. Maybe art museums don’t belong on college campuses.

If the art works aren’t respected for what they are, and will not be preserved and protected, then they do not.


Pointer: John Glass

16 thoughts on “Museum Ethics: The Rape Of The La Salle University Art Museum

  1. Selling from a private and/or permanent collection, likely donated or procured with stipulations, for operating funds is as crass and tactical as it gets. There is nothing strategic about it…unless the strategy is to make the museum and university resources worse. Then they would be right on. Gawd.

  2. This is not limited to just this one instance or to college museums but is one faced by small (and large) museums across the country. My wife was president of our local historical society and that means trying to stay fiscally afloat. They never contemplated selling a few items that would have allowed much-needed repairs. Fortunately, they were left an endowment that was then wisely invested in aggressive funds four years ago (Thanks, Rick!) and the structures on site have been repaired, collections organized, and HVAC installed in the main building.

  3. “. . . into teaching and courses.” Just what we needed. More knee-jerk jerks to imbue students with more Mickey Mouse studies. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the students who don’t see why they should stand up and shout out about this don’t even know the museum is there, much less understand its value.

  4. Maybe art museums don’t belong on college campuses.

    Exactly. You have to ask whether LaSalle’s museum is really a “resource” for anyone at all these days. Or is that just high-minded but obsolete cant? Maybe the collection is just gathering dust, ignored by students and faculty alike, who, as at so many other schools, are indifferent or hostile to art and the life of the mind. If so, better to sell the collection to somebody who will appreciate it and use the money to buy videogames for the kids.

    • I’d say it’s a resource for the art department and the students who fulfill liberal arts requirements by taking art courses. And it is a resource for the university & community in general, though maybe not as apparent. La Salle has plowed a lot of money into, among other things, sports, student center, science building, performing arts program, to name a few, who alas provide better ROI. But I like your contrarian drift!

  5. For 7 million bucks you don’t dump your art collection, but mount a campaign to raise funds. I would have contributed as would many others. And I’m certain there’s at least one successful graduate out there to kick start a matching grant program, if not supply an outright gift. But this particular president was brought in for business reasons, to re-brand the university; she has no real educational background. This is so bad ethically, coming from a Catholic Liberal Arts College (now) University no less, that she and the board members who supported it, need to rethink their personal mission statement & depart.

  6. But Jack, now the university can hire some World renowned scholar to teach courses covering the contemporary vampire novel!😆 Way to go, La Salle!!

  7. I have been accused of writing posts that come from a personal and emotional place. And I will agree that’s very much true. But as I navigate issues from an ethical standpoint (as this blog is teaching me to do), I’m one of those learners who needs to apply it to her every day life. So, there it is.

    I’m a theater and museum geek. In fact, I just got done performing in two school matinees this afternoon in a play about the Holocaust. I was able to do so because my employer pays me to do volunteer work, and because my theater receives upwards of $800k in funding every year through grants and donations.

    There are ethical and socially engaged benefactors who seem to understand that art is meant to be shared, that it is good for mankind, that children and adults alike should visit museums, have access to the fine art masters, the potters, the glassblowers, the photographers, experience the performing arts, live theater. It’s what makes us more civilized.

    Of course capitalism says that if you have the means and the access, you have every right to sell a Rembrandt, or purchase one and hang it in your ice fishing hut on Lake Superior if you feel so inclined. It’s not what I would do if I had the means, but it certainly is the right of anyone to do so.

    But if colleges have been entrusted with art, donated, curated or otherwise, they have an obligation to make sure that art remains accessible.

    This hurts my heart. Emotional as I am….

  8. This is what passes for Rhetoric in a school of liberal arts today as well as journalism in the alt-left media:

    Using a combination of Newspeak & Doublethink, La Salle’s president Colleen Hanycz explains it all for you. Yes, Big Brother, Sister Mary, and Nurse Ratched did come to mind as I pondered her labyrinthine logic & prose style. Do not spare yourself a look into the future of all liberal arts by clicking on “Momentum 2022,” a 12-page panegyric that informs her strategic vision. I especially liked “the transformation of the school’s Connelly Library into a ‘learning commons’ that will feature both a new fitness center and high-tech academic upgrades.”

    In what seems more like a press release than an interview (sic) with Philadelphia Magazine writer (collaborator?), Joe Trinacria, himself a La Salle grad (2013), they put a brave face on an unconscionable act. For the uninitiated, the Tanner’s “Mary” – Henry Ossawa Tanner – that wasn’t sold was by an 19th century African-American artist. Hence, the good president was aware of the expected outcry (and fallout) from one segment of the community.

    Mixing neither metaphors nor false fallacies, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued the following joint statement as reported yesterday in

    “College and university art museums have a long and rich history of collecting, curating, and educating in a financially and ethically responsible manner on par with the world’s most prestigious institutions. A different governance structure does not exempt a university museum from acting ethically, nor permit them to ignore issues of public trust and use collections as disposable financial assets. This is a fundamental ethical principle of the museum field, one which all institutions are obligated to respect: in no event shall funds from deaccessioned works be used for anything other than support for a museum’s collections.” Summary: UNETHICAL ACTION!

    The institutions added that they are in conversation with the university about the sale, noting that they “remain hopeful that the University leadership will reconsider their decision.” Summary: CHANGE OR EPIC FAIL!

    Let’s hope also that there’s new leadership.

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