Last week, we posted on the troubling activity in Wilkes-Barre, PA: the university’s Sordoni Art Gallery had plans to deaccession and sell pieces of higher value from its collection in order to fund a new and more attractive gallery. We have criticized both the plan to deaccession and sell works for their value to fund this new effort as an issue of proper collections stewardship practices.
But once ours and others’ criticism reached the surprised ears of Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy, it is clear that he still believes this plan to toss out for adopted international traveling exhibitions will truly show “an enduring commitment to art.” But why do those in charge feel the need to sell the art they already own in order to “attract high-quality traveling art shows” instead of just being creative and coordinating their own unique exhibitions with the local arts community that (Leahy argues) is showing support? Why is a nation-wide search for a new director so necessary? The likely answer: the university is really looking to create a higher profile for themselves to make them worthy of international art exhibitions (and dollars). But will this truly better serve the local community?
This week, news broke of the resignation of the gallery’s assistant director Brittany Kramer DeBalko, citing issue with the university’s “unethical” actions. The student-run newspaper “The Beacon” also took a critical stance on the University’s plans, as well as other university faculty members. If this plan is in the students’ and community’s best interest, why has there arisen such suspicion?
The idea that the way to grow the reach of the university’s art gallery to the students and local community is to provide it with a high-profile director and international traveling shows is a bit disconnected. What the university likely hopes this new highly-paid director will do is to attract more important donors that, in turn, bring the university larger donations. But does this individual know the collection and the community audience well? Will this be a star individual who reaches for grandiose and costly exhibitions that don’t invest back in the gallery’s permanent collection? As with so many other museums around the world, the gallery will now have to draw on a larger budget and put in more labor for the packing, shipment, insurance, and conservation that goes on behind the scenes of these traveling exhibitions. What about investing in the permanent collection with the guidance of those who have worked with it and its local audiences for years?
Other collections and museums have made similarly unethical decisions – unethical for the way in which they subvert the value of art to gain a higher profile – that have gone on unnoticed, with no one forming a critical public opinion until years later. We commend the voices of those in Wilkes-Barre who have arisen to create a dialogue about what is happening with the arts in their community. It is the mission of ArtWatch to be a voice for art where there is no one else; to insist standards are maintained and art is cared for in a conscientious manner; and the ability of a critical voice to arise is essential in the future well-being of cultural stewardship.
By Ruth Osborne