Daniel Burke, a Christian Brother and educator who served as La Salle University's 25th president, began collecting artwork for the benefit of the school's students in 1965 before opening their museum in 1976. But Brother Burke died in November 2015, and less than three years later, La Salle's administrators and Board of Trustees have decided to trade his legacy for cold, hard cash.
"Brother Burke bought pieces of art selectively and traded up wisely, building a collection described by former Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski as ‘a little jewel' … believing that students should be able to experience quality art on their own campus, and not just read about it in textbooks," stated a listing at Christie's auction house for several of the most valuable pieces from the museum's art collection, which spans centuries and includes sketches by Matisse and Degas, along with more contemporary pieces like sculptures by Dame Elizabeth Frink. The items going on auction this week in New York City represent the cream of the crop collected by Brother Dan, who friends eulogized as teaching that "art was a window to God."
La Salle decided to de-accession 46 of the most valuable paintings in their collection with hopes of getting $5-7 million at auction to fund their "five-year strategic plan," known as "Momentum 2022." The plan calls for using funds from art sales for diverse goals, such covering the costs of their course offerings and renovating a school library to include a bookstore, cafe and fitness facility.
But the decision to sell the art has sparked outrage from La Salle students, alumni and faculty, and has been criticized by multiple national museum associations, which hold that museums cannot de-accession artwork unless it is to "trade up," or to pay for the upkeep of the museum itself. While La Salle's Museum is a bit smaller, it is held to the same standards. "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," the national Association of Art Museum Directors said in a statement.
La Salle did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokeswoman previously told WHYY, "The board of trustees has the ultimate fiduciary responsibly for the university. Their decisions are going to supersede those of the art museum advisory board as well as, quite frankly, standard practices of museum trade associations.”
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office reviewed the sale and found it to be legal. But the tangled provenance of some pieces may trail after them even after being re-sold, like that of Dorothea Tanning's "The Temptation of St. Anthony," considered to be the most valuable piece and being sold at an estimated $400-600,000.
Its original owners, Joe and Tonian Volk, said they never wanted their donation to be sold. They said they donated 75 percent of the piece they owned and the school paid a co-heir for the remaining 25 percent.
"We see this development as a betrayal of our covenant with Brother Burke and the university," the Volks wrote in a complaint to the university. "My wife had become intrigued by a story about the nascent La Salle University art gallery and she thought that a gift of art of this caliber could help the collection attract more important works of art. Our hope has always been that this legacy would be enhancing the lives of students and educators for generations to come."