I’ve recently seen a number of things on the social media with this quote of Jefferson’s:
“I cannot live without books”
The quote is from a letter to John Adams, and I can understand why it appeals to people. I love books so much that I am dragging a shocking number of them halfway across the country, but I don’t own or want any of the myriad items floating around with this quote on them.
Jefferson was a brilliant man who played a pivotal role in the founding of this nation. He also owned thousands of human beings throughout his life, despite his extensive writings on liberty, and repeatedly rapedSally Hemings from the time she was 14 (he was 44). Jefferson’s lifestyle was possible because of the labor of enslaved people, and he periodically struggled with bankruptcy because of the instability of agriculture and because he consistently lived above his means, in part because of his compulsive purchasing of books. In order to fund this lifestyle, Jefferson often mortgaged his property, including his human property.
Jefferson mortgaged human beings to pay for his lifestyle. He only ever freed two enslaved men during his lifetime. He claimed that black people were not suited to freedom, and that they should be sent back to Africa rather than permitted to live in the land of their birth. He claimed that they could not be integrated into white society. These beliefs were convenient for a man who wished to justify keeping human beings as property and capital, able to be mortgaged or sold to cover his debts when it suited him.
Yes, Jefferson loved books, but he purchased his books with the lives of the people he owned, and that is worth keeping in mind when you see that brief quote stitched on a pillow or emblazoned on a tshirt.
If you’ve been keeping up with the bankruptcy situation in Detroit, you’re probably aware that the situation is pretty dire. The city is home to thousands of abandoned buildings, ranging from grand industrial and commercial buildings to private homes. The sprawling metropolis’ population has steadily declined since the mid-20th century, but it was laid particularly low by the Great Recession. In 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, arguing that its debts far exceeded anything the city could afford to pay. After a series of court cases, the bankruptcy was allowed. Since the decision at the end of 2013, the city has been in negotiation with its creditors over the terms of its bankruptcy, to be decided by a federal judge this year.
One of the key pieces in the debate is the fate of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to an extraordinary collection, ranked as one of the top six in the United States. It holds the a Van Gogh self-portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to become part of an American museum’s collections, along with extensive collections of art from around the world. The DIA offers free admission to local residents (those who live in Detroit and three surrounding counties), something that is sadly increasingly rare.
The LA Times does a much better job unpacking the legal and political aspects of bankruptcy case than I am equipped to do, but the crux of the situation is that the city has been working on a “grand bargain” which involves the state, several private foundations, and the museum raising some $820 million to fund the municipal pensions that are on the chopping block. In exchange, the city will give the collection and the building to the affiliated nonprofit that runs the museum. This bargain allows the art collection to remain local and available while rescuing the pensions and benefits of city workers.
Detroit’s creditors, however, are less than pleased. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company has insisted that the collection is worth far more than $800 million, and want the entire collection to go on the auction block to repay Detroit’s debt. The infamous Koch brothers have weighed in, with their PAC Americans for Prosperity threatening to “make life difficult” in the next election for any Republicans who vote for the grand bargain, despite its popularity with Michigan residents on both sides of the political aisle.
It’s hard to see this story and not be reminded of all of the art and museum collections currently and previously under threat. The MaierMuseum situation of course comes to mind, along with the Fisk University’s sale of its Georgia O’Keeffe collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by a Wal-Mart heiress). It’s also hard not to be frustrated by this trend of putting price tags on cultural heritage.
For me, access to cultural heritage is a key part of the democratic experience. There was a time when people believed that fine art was the exclusive purview of the wealthy and aristocratic, and that ordinary people could not appreciate such things. Museums like the DIA are the opposite of this notion. Those collections belong in a very real sense to every visitor who walks through its doors to visit them. For locals especially, the chance to see a collection like that of the DIA in their hometown is a chance to visit far away places practically for free. As globalization has contributed to a sense of same-ness, museums offer a place to experience the truly unique in person.
Detroit has suffered in the last ten years or so. The population has declined, and the built environment has suffered tremendously. To further gut the city’s cultural heritage by auctioning off its signature art collection would be a devastating blow, and to what end? So that wealthy creditors won’t have a bad quarter? To appease a pair of billionaires? Detroit has taken extraordinary measures to rebuild itself, with local businesses and government going to great lengths to encourage people to return to the city and revitalize it. In a way, it would be poetic if a city built on capitalist enterprise was destroyed by it, but there would be no beauty in that poetry, only a landscape whose abandoned buildings reflect the barrenness of its soul, and the first bleak signpost on a road many cities may shortly follow.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
So, in my last post I discussed the context for the sale of George Bellows’ Men of the Docks and three other paintings from the Maier Museum at Randolph College. In this post, I want to talk about Men of the Docks in particular and the response to the sale.
Part of why there has been such an uproar over the Bellows painting in particular is its place in the Maier collection. Men of the Docks was a key piece of the collection. The painting was selected by Louise Jordan Smith, R-MWC’s first art professor who later left her valuable art collection to the college. She and a German professor established “The Randolph-Macon Art Association of Lynchburg,” a coalition of students, faculty, alumnae, and local townspeople who raised the $2,500 to purchase the painting from Bellows in 1920. It was the first masterpiece in the collection. Men of the Docks was not simply another valuable piece in a large collection; it was one of the first, and it had special meaning attached to it due to the circumstances of its acquisition.
Deaccessioning is the process of transferring ownership of a museum piece to another institution or individual through sale or exchange. The deaccessioning of collections is a tricky topic, and several museum organizations who offer guidelines on the topic, including the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. In general, pieces are considered for eligible deaccessioning if they do not contribute to collection; for example, if a museum specializes in 20th century abstract expressionism, and had a few pieces of American folk art, they might consider deaccessioning the folk art in order to acquire more abstract expressionist work. This is the other side of deaccessioning; any proceeds from the sale of collections should only be used to expand the collection, rather then put toward building maintenance or the general endowment.
Museums are stewards of heritage and art with tremendous cultural significance and often great monetary value. In order to protect their role as stewards, museums cannot treat their collections as financial assets to be cashed in on a rainy day. Donors who give their art or collections to museums usually do so in order to ensure that the pieces will be cared for and appreciated by future generations, otherwise they would simply sell the items themselves and keep or donate the profits. The concept of a museum piece is is that it has a cultural value that far exceeds whatever price could be put on it. I’ve talked about this idea in earlierposts, so I won’t dwell on it here.
This is why the sale of Men of the Docks and the other three paintings has raised so much attention. Men of the Docks is a foundational piece in the college’s museum collection. According to the Maier’s own website, the collection features “works by outstanding American artists of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries”; a description that the Bellows painting clearly exemplifies. Beyond the fact that the painting should not have even been considered for deaccessioning, the proceeds from the sale are being used to bolster Randolph College’s general fund, not further the museum collections. The money from the sale of Rufino Tamayo’s Trovador went into the general fund. When questioned, current president Bradley Bateman indicated that the Trustees intend to go forward with the sale of both Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom and Ernest Hennings’ Through the Arroyo. There is no reason to believe these sale proceeds will go anywhere but the general fund.
Essentially, what’s happened is that the Trustees of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College mismanaged the college’s finances so badly that the only recourse was to open the college to men and sell off a portion of the art collection, the proceeds from which will go back to a fund managed by the people responsible for the crisis in the first place.
Randolph College’s response to the objections raised by those in the museum field has been somewhat disheartening. In addition to continuing on with the plan to sell the two remaining pieces, the college has gone so far as to claim that the Maier is not actually a museum.This should make for interesting discussions this fall in Randolph College’s Art History 261: Introduction to Museum Studies and Art History 315: Curatorial Seminar at the Maier Museum of Art.* Perhaps these courses would better be titled “Introduction to Asset Management” and “Commodities Seminar”?
It’s easy to see, then, why this action has drawn so much criticism from the museum field. While Randolph College had already been censured for its actions by the Association of Art Museum Directors, on March 12, 2014 the organization officially sanctioned Randolph College for its actions. (For commentary, see: this, this, and this.)
So then, what can be done? In the case of Trovador and Men of the Docks, nothing. There has been surprisingly little backlash against the National Gallery in London as the majority of articles focus on Randolph College’s poor practices. Randolph College has tried to focus on the fact that the Bellows’ painting will still be on public view, and alleges that this the start of a partnership the National Gallery. The college also claims that no other artwork will be sold; the college still owns a Georgia O’Keeffe (Yellow Cactus), an Edward Hopper (Mrs. Scott’s House), and a drawing by Mary Cassatt, so the remaining paintings are not insignificant (though quite valuable, which might put them in jeopardy). The problem here is that the college has already tried once to break the trust through which Louise Jordan Smith left her personal collection to the college.** Although the effort was abandoned, it is hardly reassuring to those interested in protecting the remaining collections or considering future donations.
For many alumnae (though of course not all), the decision to admit men and sell the art has been a one-two punch, insult on top of injury. The Trustees have adopted a party line that brooks no opposition. More disturbing still, to me and the unscientific smattering of alumnae I’ve spoken to, is the way the Trustees and the college have dismissed the alumnae who feel betrayed by all of these actions as “bitter.” If it is true that some alumnae contacted SACS and put the college’s accreditation into question, that is not an action I agree with. At the same time, the Trustees have hardly shown themselves to have the best interest of the legacy of R-MWC at heart, nor have they made any effort to mend fences with the alumnae. During the year or so following the decision to admit men, I sent the college letters and emails asking them to reconsider or explain the situation. I never received a reply, though I did continue to receive requests for donations.
In the days following the announcement of the decision to go co-ed, many of my classmates and fellow alumnae were asked whether we would prefer that the college no longer exist. The question seems moot now. Randolph-Macon Woman’s College has become a footnote in the history of Randolph College. The sale of the art, especially Men of the Docks, has only underscored how fragile the legacy of my alma mater truly is, and by extension, how important and fragile all cultural heritage is.
The story of the “Maier Four” and Randolph College is not unique. In 2009, Brandeis University came very close to closing its Rose Art Museum or at least selling off part of its collections. Fisk University broke up a collection given by Georgia O’Keeffe and sold work to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. It’s too late for Men of the Docks and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, but it is not too late to take a serious look at how we value our cultural heritage and the institutions that safeguard it for the future.
**Incidentally, before deciding to sell the four paintings, the college first attempted to break the trust through which Miss Louise (as she was known) donated her collection. This is further elucidated in Meredith Minter Dixon’s And When I Go (pages 62-63).
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
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.
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.
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.
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)