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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Arts All Around: Big Art News in Virginia

By Barbara-lyn Morris | December 24, 2007

A year ago, few could have predicted one of the biggest 2007 art stories in the country would come from a small liberal arts college in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Renamed Randolph College from Randolph-Macon Woman's College (RMWC) as of July 1, 2007, after the institution went coeducational, the small college has an art museum and unusual American art collection that have received considerable national press coverage (Newsweek, Washington Post, and others).

2007 was the centennial of the college art collection — great cause to celebrate until the unthinkable happened: four major pieces were removed for sale. Here's the background as best I can discern it.

The senior class of 1907 commissioned the highly respected American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) to create a portrait of William Waugh Smith, the first president of the college. In 1911, Louise Jordan Smith, the first professor of art at the college and cousin of the president, started what would become an annual exhibition of art on campus. By 1914, students, faculty, and other supporters began the fortuitous practice of acquiring almost yearly a work from the annual exhibit or a work by one of the artists in the exhibit. In 1929, Professor Smith's bequest established an endowed acquisition fund, a benefit rare for a small institution of higher education.

The college also acquired major works in a variety of other ways. Alumnae were inspired to bequest works to the college. Artists were motivated to make donations. For example, in 1915-16, WM Chase, the first of an honors list of visiting artist/teachers at RMWC, donated a significant work, "The Deserted Beach," to the permanent collection. Beginning in 1920, the local community of Lynchburg joined in to raise funds to make purchases. That year "Men of the Docks" (1912) by George Bellows (1882-1925) was purchased from the ninth annual art exhibition. Bellows was pleased to have his work " a place where it would be appreciated...(and) at a price on a shoestring." It was purchased for $2,500; today its appraised value ranges in the $30 million range.

"Men of the Docks" is at the core of a complex art story that is yet to be resolved. On October 8, senior administrative officials of the college, along with Lynchburg police, arrived unannounced at the college's prestigious Maier Museum of Art and removed the Bellows work along with three other pieces with the intent of selling them through Christie's Auction House in New York City. The other works are as follows: "A Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks; "Through the Arroyo" by Ernest Hennings; and "Troubadour" by Rufino Tamayo.

Since then, there has been near hysteria among many alumnae and supporters of the Maier Museum. Additionally, lawsuits and restraining orders have been filed, the details of which will not be explored in this column, primarily because they constitute a complexity and timeliness not conducive to coverage here. (Editor's Note: On November 16, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction that prevents the paintings from being auctioned. College officials said they would comply with the injunction, but plan to pursue selling the artwork at a later date.)

A perusal of the guest book in the museum, intended for comments about the centennial exhibition, reveals the dominant sentiment among visitors to the museum. Refrains include: "Don't sell the art!" and "Shame, shame, shame!" One wrote: "Sell the college, not the collection." The college trustees and senior administrators maintain that, although the college has a handsome endowment exceeding $150 million, the college needs funds to restore its financial security; one obvious way to secure the future of the institution, according to these decision makers, is to sell a few pieces of the more than 3,500 artworks in the collection.

Suffice it to say the response has been visceral: "How sad and depressing that it has come to this — what a loss for us all," Kennedy '66; an unidentified visitor wrote, "Read the preface by L.K. Lorine in American Art: American Vision. What 'vision' now?" The referenced work is American Art: American Vision: Paintings from a Century of Collecting, a catalogue of major works in the prestigious collection (1993). Hebra Davis, a Lynchburg native now living in New Zealand, expressed a frequent concern: "What a betray (sic). These were bought and donated to stay here."
Carrington W. Ewell, formerly of William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, Va., wrote: "A crime and tragedy for the college, the community, and the art world has been committed with the removal of these works."

Within 24 hours of the art removal, museum director Karol Lawson resigned in protest. Associate director Ellen Schall Agnew and associate professor of art Laura Katzman left earlier in the year when talk of "de-accessioning" intensified among trustees and administrators. The remaining curatorial staff person, Martha K. Johnson, guardedly talked with me about the "politics" of the situation and the ever-changing status of at least four lawsuits at different places in the courts.

Johnson explained that Lawson stayed "thinking with each passing day that no works were sold, there was hope. She stayed as long as she could, until the works were removed." To my question about why the choice of those particular four works, Johnson responded, "It's easy to understand why the Bellows. It represents 40 percent of the total monetary appraised value of the more than 3,000 pieces (many works on paper) in the collection." She added, "The Bellows is outrageously valuable, the most valuable piece in the collection. The Hicks is up there, too. No clear reason why the other two."

The history of the Maier Museum of Art, named after a major gift from the Maier Foundation was received in 1983, is in itself a fascinating story. Through the early decades following the Chase commission in 1920, the growing collection was spread throughout campus — in offices, public places, and the library. In 1951, RMWC was chosen by the National Gallery of Art as the site for a storage facility specially designed for the nation's collection of art in Washington, D.C., in the event of a national emergency (remember the Cold War years when the United States was in a face-off with the Soviet Union). The front rooms of the building, with state-of-the-art environmental and security controls, were used to exhibit selections from the college's growing collection. After 50 years, the entire facility was deeded to the college.
Even with the removal of the four identified works, the collection remains a stellar repository of American Impressionism and 20th century Realism. The museum holds extensive collections of works by symbolist Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928) and social realist Ben Shahn (1898-1969). The Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College is worth a visit as soon as possible. "Yellow Cactus" by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and "Mrs. Scott's House" by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) would make the trip worthwhile.

Directions: From Bristol take I-81 north to Exit 188; follow US 60 east to Buena Vista and Route 501 south to Boonsboro which becomes Rivermont Avenue, Lynchburg; proceed 4.l miles; turn left onto Norfolk Avenue.

"Men of the Docks" by George Bellows (1882-1925) was purchased for $2,500; today its appraised value is around $30 million.