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For Sale: Commodifying Culture

Valparaiso University of Indiana Considers Selling Invaluable Artworks

Opinions
Opinions
For Sale: Commodifying Culture
Derin Akdurak

Derin Akdurak

Date
April 17, 2023
Read
1 Min

Recently, the Valparaiso University of Indiana, located in northwest Indiana, has been toying around with the idea of cashing in its Georgia O’Keefe painting, estimated to value around 7 million dollars. This idea was brainstormed to solve its liquidity problem for funding its new dorms. The Lutheran university has been struggling with declining enrollment and has decided to let go of some of the iconic paintings in its art museum collection.

Georgia O’Keeffe is an American modernist painter, most well-known for her enlarged flowers and landscape paintings of New Mexico and New York skyscrapers. She is commonly regarded as the “Mother of American Modernism.” O’Keefe’s Rust Red Hills (1930), currently a part of the University’s collection, uses rich colors and depicts crevices of the mountains, synthesizing a New Mexico landscape right out of O’Keefe’s imagination. 

The museum’s website also references the painting as “one of the Brauer Museum of Art’s most beloved paintings” This is particularly surprising, as it illustrates how the first artwork the university administration decided to let go is also regarded as one of its most significant treasures. The museum now bears the retired art professor’s name, who served as the museum’s director for some time. The New York Times has reported that Brauer has threatened to have his name removed if the sale goes through by the university.

Valparaiso is merely one of the many universities that have opted to join the trend of “deaccessioning,” selling art to raise funds. Butler University also tried to take a similar course of action in 2009 following the global banking crisis, but later did not go through with it to settle a lawsuit. José D. Padilla, who currently serves as Valparaiso’s president, announced that the university was scrambling to reallocate resources that weren’t “core or critical to our educational mission and strategic plan.” When interviewed by The New York Times, he admitted that this decision was made with a heavy heart, but their need to attract students and increase tuition revenue was overbearing.

One could argue that the paintings they are considering selling, such as the Rust Red Hills, can be considered factors that attract and interest students to apply and enroll at Valparaiso. The university could also treat these artworks as income streams, which they can loan to other museums. The Breuer Museum has done this in the past, exhibiting the Rust Red Hills in Ireland, Spain and Canada. This attitude could be used to treat the painting as a long-term investment rather than a one-time, big-ticket payout. The legality of the sale is also up for debate, as the terms of the Sloan fund established that made the acquisition of the painting possible in the first place are still being deliberated.

Hopefully, the university administration can devise a solution that does not reduce artworks to simple commodities. This would alleviate the backlash they have received, and maybe the simple headlines they have made in the media would be enough to increase their enrollment. Otherwise, this sale could open up the larger debate about art as a commodity rather than the expression of human creativity and cultural treasures.

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