Men of the Docks, Revisited: Part I

It’s been difficult to write this piece on the fate of the art being sold by Randolph College. I’ve commented freely about it on facebook, where I am sure of my audience of sympathetic and equally distraught alumnae, but it’s been more difficult to find ways to discuss something that feels so deeply personal in a more public forum. This is a challenge at the

An objective historian. (via wikimedia commons)
An objective historian. (via wikimedia commons)

heart of public history: how can we talk about painful topics that have deep personal meaning for individuals and communities in ways that are both analytical and constructive? Objective history is a bit like a Sasquatch; people like to imagine it’s out there, but folks in the know have basically discounted its existence. Personally, I think you’re far more likely to run into a Sasquatch than an objective account of history, but that’s an argument for another day.

The events at The Institution Formerly Known As Randolph-Macon Woman’s College have had a profound impact on my professional and personal life. R-MWC was the first place where I felt that I was part of a community much larger than myself, and institution rooted in the past that would go on indefinitely into the future. The announcements from 2005 onward constituted an attack on that community. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I am now interested in community identity.

I have tried several times to compose a piece that addresses only the sale of the Bellows painting and the other artwork, and every time I have hit a (red brick) wall. Like all good history, to really understand what happened we need context. This first post will look at the circumstances leading up to the decision to sell the art.

R-MWC c1906
R-MWC, c1906. Image via LOC:

I graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 2006. It’s hard to convey the women’s college experience to someone who did not attend one, but I can tell you this: enrollment was around 750 total at any given time, and the vast majority of students lived on campus. We ate together at family-style tables in the dining hall and lived in dorms that mixed first years, sophomores, and juniors (seniors had their own dorm and annexes). We took part in traditions like Neverending Weekend, Pumpkin Parade, and Even/Odd rivalries. We knew each other, if not personally than on sight. We lived by a strict honor code that gave us unproctored, self-scheduled exams and dorm rooms that were often left unlocked. Our classes were small; the history department boasted a total of four faculty members, most of whom I still keep in touch with. Though it took me a while to figure out where I fit in, I don’t recall feeling cloistered or isolated. We were sisters, and our t-shirts boasted that we were “Not a girl’s school with no men, but a women’s college with no boys.” When I graduated, I was eager to go out and make my way in the world, but I knew that for better or worse, I would never again have an experience like I had at Randy Mac.

At my graduation with my sister class ('04) senior. You can always tell an Even!
At my graduation with my sister class (’04) senior. You can always tell an Even!

The fall after I graduated, the college announced its decision to begin accepting men. This decision was made unilaterally by the Board of Trustees, supposedly in response to falling enrollment numbers and financial problems. The supposed financial challenges had been brought to the attention of students the year before when the college announced that it would do away with its long-standing study abroad program at the University of Reading in England. Readingites (as they called themselves) and their fellow students objected vigorously and ultimately salvaged the program. I refer to the financial challenges as “supposed” because the college had just completed two very successful development campaigns, and there is considerable evidence that the financial problems were the result of poor management by the Board, which was paying then president Kathleen Gill Bowman more than $370,000/year (only 28 percent of private college presidents made more than $300,000 a year at that time).* The enrollment crisis was something of a red herring.** None of this should sound unfamiliar in the wake of the recent financial crisis.

Ultimately, the Board went ahead with its decision to go co-ed, over vigorous protests from current students and alumnae. The Board’s approach to the decision and the attitude of the Board members, especially interim college president Ginger Worden (’97), further enraged and alienated alumnae, who made repeated offers to drum up the necessary funds to reverse the decision. Lawsuits began when these offers were ignored or dismissed. At some point, SACS, the college’s accrediting institution, launched an investigation into the college’s financial status which was a factor in maintaining its accreditation. I was told at the time that SACS was contact by a few alumnae, but I am not sure whether this is true or not. In any case, the question of accreditation was raised, which put more pressure on the Board of Trustees.

On October 1, 2007, College representatives along with Lynchburg police entered the Maier Museum of Art and seized and removed four paintings from the collection: George Bellows’ Men of the Docks, Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom, Ernest Hennings’ Through the Arroyo, and Rufino Tamayo’s Trovador. The paintings were not handled or wrapped and stored properly, and they were sent to Christie’s in New York immediately before the students or alumnae could be notified. More lawsuits followed, but Randolph College (as the institution is now known) was permitted to sell the four paintings. Trovador was sold in 2008 for $2.7 million. The funds raised by the sale of the art have gone into the college’s endowment fund, which is a violation of museum ethics (it is typically only acceptable to use the profits from the sale of deaccessioned items to purchase other items for the collection). The outrage of the alumnae was matched by censures from leading art and museum associations.

R-MWC is no more, one painting is sold, and three more are on the auction block. So ends Part I.

*Meredith Minter Dixon, And When I Go: the End of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), Kindle edition, 2.

**Enrollment regularly fluctuated in connection with economics and other factors since the mid twentieth century; to my knowledge, it has not recovered to pre-coed levels at the time of this post. (see Dixon’s prologue for a more thorough analysis)

Post Script: Men of the Docks

I learned this evening that Randolph College has sold George Bellows’ Men of the Docks to the National Gallery in London. You can read more about the sale here.

Though the sale should not come as a surprise, I cannot help but feel a sense of profound loss, partly for the painting but more for what this transaction means for the legacy of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which will always be my alma mater. I also cannot resist taking this opportunity to note that the sale of the painting comes on the heels of a study showing that Randolph College has the sixth highest per-student endowment of all colleges in Virginia, DC, and Maryland.

I wanted to sign off with a link to the college song, but I found this instead, and somehow, it feels right. Hopefully you’ll agree.

On Diplomacy & Heritage Unseen.

The other day, I came across an article in the LA Times about how the US used the return of a chalice that had been illegally removed from Iran to help open the door for negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The chalice had been brought into the US illegally and was seized by customs, where it was held until its recent return to Iran.

This is where I assume they kept the chalice, next to the Ark of the Covenant. (from the Indiana Jones wiki)
This is where I assume they kept the chalice, next to the Ark of the Covenant. (from the Indiana Jones wiki)

The article mentions a couple of times that there are questions about the chalice’s authenticity; in particular, Iranian hardliners opposed to the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani and his stance regarding the West claim that the chalice is a fake. The head of Iranian cultural heritage and tourism, Mohammad Ali Najafi, replied that, “We do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if it is fake, it is worthy.”

The griffin chalice returned to Iran. (via the LA TImes, Mehdi Moazen / Islamic Republic News Agency / November 30, 2013)
The griffin chalice returned to Iran. (via the LA TImes, Mehdi Moazen / Islamic Republic News Agency / November 30, 2013)

Now, of course the chalice’s authenticity is not particularly important in this context. Its real significance is the gesture, the return of a piece of cultural heritage not to a ruler, but to a nation. Repatriation of cultural heritage can be a touchy subject; just ask the British Museum about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Diplomatic concerns aside, however, the return of the chalice is much less controversial than the repatriation of cultural artifacts and art removed under imperialism. The chalice was kept under lock and key in storage, and the dealer who imported it intended to sell it rather than display it in a public museum. There was no significant national attachment to the object, unlike the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, which many consider to be an integral part of the British Museum’s collections.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon in His Study
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon in His Study

It seems to me that the question of display is central to our emotional attachment to cultural heritage. When I lived outside of DC, I heard about visitor complaints when the Star-Spangled Banner was taken down for much-needed conservation. Similarly, several years ago the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art underwent a significant renovation that required various sections of the building to be closed off. I visited during a stage of the renovation when large parts of the galleries had been closed off and was startled to see the most popular paintings jammed into whatever space remained available so that visitors would not miss out on their chance to see Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den or Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. I was personally relieved to see David’s Napoleon in His Study, a painting I am rather attached to, having seen it for years every time I visited the National Gallery and then coming across it unexpectedly at a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

In the case of art or antiques, seeing cultural heritage is how most people encounter it. Few of us have the resources to own a famous work of art, and I would argue that work people get to see and engage with is more culturally valuable than work hidden away in a private collection. In an age where visual media saturates culture, seeing something in real life is a unique experience. It’s so unique, in fact, that people will fight through amazing crowds just to take a crummy camera photo of the Mona Lisa so that they can show that they were really there and they really saw it. They could just as easily look at the painting and drop a Euro or two for a postcard reproduction, or spend nothing at all and look at it online. The value is showing that they saw it with their own eyes, and that experience sets the heritage object beyond financial value. When we think about repatriating heritage, we think about giving away not only the object itself but the experience of seeing it.

Crowds at the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa (via wikimedia commons)

Giving the chalice back to Iran makes sense because it will hopefully allow the Iranian people the chance to enjoy this piece of heritage that was going unappreciated and unseen here. It becomes more complicated when the heritage in question has become a part of the culture where it currently resides.