SRC rejects plan to sell off art

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The art will not be sold.

The School Reform Commission rejected a proposal Thursday to hire two companies, including Sotheby’s, Inc., to market and sell about 60 pieces of artwork that were taken out of schools nearly a decade ago — under what some people still consider questionable circumstances — and put in storage.

The artwork, including paintings by prominent African American artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Dox Thrash, was at first estimated to be far more valuable than experts now say it is. Commissioners nixed the idea of selling the pieces after hearing that appraisers have put their collective value at less than $1 million, and after being told that the intention was to put any proceeds in the general fund instead of dedicating it to arts-related programming in schools.

They also acted after hearing from Marilyn Krupnick, a former student and teacher at Wilson Middle School, who argued passionately against selling off the pieces, many of which adorned Wilson before they were put in storage.

"This collection has historical richness," she said. "You certainly can’t believe that selling the artwork would solve the problems of Philadelphia School District."

The commissioners questioned Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski and finance staffer Erin Davis, who was put in charge of the art sale project. They asked why the idea of an art sale was coming up again now, and the answer they got was that it comes up every time the District has a financial crisis and scrounges for every penny it can.

Davis said that the most recent appraisal put the collective value of the 60 pieces in storage at between $600,000 and $900,000. Asked whether she has any way of knowing if the estimates are accurate, she confessed, "I don’t know art, I don’t sell art, I’ve just been given this project to manage."

All four commissioners who were present voted against the resolution, which called for the pieces to be sold at live auction.

"I don’t think we should sell this art — and move to ask the District leadership to come up with a way to restore the art to the schools from which they came," said Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky. "This is part of the history of the District and an asset of another character. The [money] it brings in is not going to solve our problems. It just doesn’t feel right."

He said that the SRC has been dealing with this on and off for 10 years while the artwork, whatever its value, languishes unseen and untended in storage.

"At one time people thought this was some kind of golden goose egg, but it clearly isn’t," he said. "Do we really want to spend any more time on this?"

Commissioner Feather Houstoun did not oppose the idea of selling the art but said that she was voting against the resolution because she said that any proceeds should support arts programming in District schools. Art and music instruction has been severely reduced for several reasons, including budget cuts and a focus on the tested subjects of reading and math.

Krupnick, a science teacher, was ecstatic after the vote, as was former Wilson principal Arlene Holtz.

"That art was so essential to the whole character of the school," Holtz said. "A great generation from the ’20s and ’30s bought the artwork in the belief that it would inspire kids, and it did. We loved it, kids loved it, teachers loved it."

In her formal presentation to the SRC, Krupnick again said that she believes there were 72 pieces of art removed from Wilson, and that eight of them are currently missing. "Until an accounting is made for all of them, I request no decisions concerning the art be made," she said. Davis said that among the 60 pieces being sold, about 35 are from the Wilson collection

Krupnick recapped the history: that the paintings were acquired from Bucks county artists by Wilson principal Charles Dudley, an art lover, so that they could become part of the students’ educational experience. They stayed in Wilson for some 65 years before being removed in 2004 because former CEO Paul Vallas felt the paintings were not properly secured or cared for.

At the time, news stories suggested that the paintings could be a significant source of revenue, speculating that their value could be as high as $35 million. The District owns more than 1,100 pieces of art, most of which still hang in school buildings, Davis said.

What will happen to the 60 paintings now is not clear. The commissioners said they would ask the administration to come up with a plan to return the paintings to the schools from which they came, so long as they can be kept secure.

Holtz and Krupnick said that they hope this will happen. If not, Holtz said, the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Bucks County, has offered to display the art.

"There will be a place the kids can go see it," she said.