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Editor’s Desk: History repeats: Kansas gallery wrong to sell artwork to fund renovations

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Opinions


At the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, urgency has prompted an art sale. Sound familiar?

The gallery located at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., has announced it will be selling a 1919 still life by Marsden Hartley, which one expert told the Kansas City Star was the “crown jewel” of the collection. The estimated proceeds range from $700,000 to $900,000 and will be used to pay for renovations to the gallery.

Clearly, the gallery at Bethany College has not heard the phrase, “art trumps money.”

This art sale is not a first for Bethany, a college of 610 students founded in 1881. In August, the college announced it was auctioning off 11 art pieces by Birger Sandzen and a collection of Native American pottery for profits of $1.15 million. In an August 2011 press release, the college president, Edward F. Leonard III, attributed the decision to a lack of space: “We don’t have the capacity to showcase and care for all artwork. Some of them hadn’t even been on display in years.”

In contrast, the Hartley still life, which was the gift of a Bethany piano teacher in 1968, was not taking up too much space. Instead, with the August sale as a precedent, the latest auction is being sold as a way to raise the last $700,000 for a renovation project after a failed capital campaign. In good form, the gallery’s curator, Ron Michael, told the Star, “We really looked at a variety of options … and felt this would be the most expedient way to complete the renovation.”

In 2009, Brandeis faced ethical and legal scrutiny when it announced the closing of The Rose. In comparison, the Sandzen Gallery does not belong to the American Association of Museums nor does it need to follow its ethical guidelines, and the Hartley painting was given as a gift without restrictions on its future sale. Other than an article in the Kansas City Star, press coverage has been minimal.

From a public relations standpoint, the gallery at Bethany has done everything right. The gallery’s curator has given approval to the plans and the announcement of the various art sales have been spread out over time to minimize press coverage.

But there’s a lesson to be learned from Brandeis’ experience. Art lasts longer than recessions or budget deficits. In 2009, closing The Rose was urgent. Today, the museum marks its 50th anniversary and the university, through hard work, has managed to keep its finances afloat.

Urgency is never a given. Think of the occupy Best Buy tents from Thanksgiving day—also known as the line where only some people get a $300 TV and the rest lose sleep for nothing. Best Buy is clever: The company says there’s no choice, if you want a $300 TV, Black Friday is the day. Period.

But that isn’t true. Wait out the holiday cycle or even wait another three months and there’s bound to be another opportunity to buy that TV for as good a price.

Urgency is exciting and motivates action. At Brandeis, without a sense of urgency there would be no Justice Brandeis Semester (JBS) program or Curriculum and Academic Restructuring Steering (CARS) committee recommendations for future university improvements.

But if urgency had won, the art would have been sold. Thankfully, legal hurdles extended the timeline on the closure of The Rose long enough for the community to realize other options existed.

I’ve never been to Bethany College or seen the gallery, but I am confident that the school could have waited a year or two to try to solicit donations before starting the renovation project. Sure, the heat might have gone off in the summer and the lighting might not be state of the art. But who needs a museum that’s state of the art when there is no art to display?

CLARIFICATION: This article has been clarified from its original version to emphasize that the Sandzen Gallery is at, but independent of, Bethany College.