La Salle University plans to sell museum’s masterpieces for cash

Caroline Wistar was the curator of La Salle University’s art museum for 30 years, from 1976 on, and retired 10 years ago.

Wistar had one word to describe the university’s plan to auction off 46 of that museum’s artworks: crime.

“It’s a crime,” Wistar said. “It’s just devastating to see this decision made by people who know nothing about art. No thought has been given to the teaching value of this museum, and they’re talking about taking this money and using it for teaching and learning? It makes no sense.”

La Salle University, located in North Philly, announced plans this week to raise an estimated $4 to $7 million by selling 46 art works deaccessioned from the museum through Christie’s auction house. The collection includes priceless works by artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Edgar Degas, Thomas Eakins, and even a small ink sketch by Henri Matisse.

“People that haven’t seen the collection, they’re just absolutely astonished,” Wistar said. “It goes all the way from the Renaissance to modern times.”

A La Salle spokeswoman said the funds are intended to be used to “help launch the initiatives of our five-year strategic plan.”

But the move shocked the art community, and some say may violate the ethics of the American Association of Museums, which says art sales should only be for acquisitions (“trading up”) or direct care of a collection.

“If you don’t follow that, you’re blackballed,” Wistar said.

But the university asserted that their decision is in the best interest of their students.

“Our board of trustees has fiduciary responsibility for the university, including its art museum, and their decisions supersede those of the art museum’s advisory board,” spokeswoman Jaine Lucas said in an email. “While we respect and appreciate the perspective of the art community, our trustees have made a decision they feel is in the best interest of the students we serve. Our ambitious and visionary strategic plan will further enhance innovation and excellence in teaching and learning, among other benefits to students, which is very much aligned with our mission.”

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