A Growing Critical Voice for Art: Wilkes’ Sordoni Gallery Loses Assistant Director.

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

Wilkes’ Sordoni Art Gallery: Another Deaccession Tragedy.

Sordoni Art Gallery as of 2015. Courtesy: Times Leader.

Sordoni Art Gallery as of 2015. Courtesy: Times Leader.

Just a month ago, Wilkes University’s Sordoni Art Gallery (est. 1973) released a statement that outlined their plans to deaccession works from their collection in order to raise funds to expand into a new, larger space in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Their collection currently features works by John Singer Sargent, George Luks, John Sloan, and Walter Elmer Schofield. But this may no longer be the case in the future. Some of the appealing features of the new plan include: the ability to create specialized exhibition spaces to draw larger and international crowds, a near six-figure salaried director to help coordinate new exhibitions and programming, and a larger – possibly permanent – endowment. From their press release:

“To create this endowment and fund the annual schedule of exhibitions, Wilkes will de-accession selected pieces of the collection.  The sale of the art will be combined with the existing endowment to create funds needed for a substantial permanent and dedicated endowment, improve the academic experience for our students, faculty, and enrich the arts experience for our community.

There are than 1,500 pieces in the collection, and it has been determined that approximately 65 works comprise the majority of the monetary value.  The respected auction house Sotheby’s will assist in the de-accessioning process.  The sale of the collection is estimated to yield around $1.3 million. ” 

WIlkes University President, Patrick Leahy, with Dr. Anne Skleder (Senior VP:Provost) and Dr. Stanley Grand. Courtesy: Warren Ruda/The Citizens' Voice.

WIlkes University President, Patrick Leahy, with Dr. Anne Skleder (Senior VP:Provost) and Dr. Stanley Grand. Courtesy: Warren Ruda/The Citizens’ Voice.

President of Wilkes University, Patrick Leahy, has remarked that this is part of the University’s “enduring commitment to art.” But does he have the slightest idea how greatly this plan upends the whole purpose of an art collection and museum in the first place? That is, to provide a space where art is not valued solely for its market price, like at an auction house, but where it is handled and cared for by stewards of cultural heritage. While this plan, according to news reports, does have the blessing of the collection’s founder Andrew J. Sordoni II, this sets a dangerous precedent for the gallery’s future.

The Sardoni Art Gallery is not accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, so it would appear that they can do what they wish with their collection. Though they have been a member of AAM, they might want to consider what a move like this would mean for their credibility. News of their plans sparked a discussion amongst museum professionals on the AAM website.  One individual remarked aptly that the decision to sell is being based on the strength of a work’s dollar value and not on its connection to the mission of the collection:

“What strikes me about this situation is this sentence from the press release: “it has been determined that approximately 65 works comprise the majority of the monetary value.” While it is not explicitly clear, I interpret this to mean that the collections items to be deaccessioned and sold are these 65 that have monetary value and therefore, the decision to sell is being based solely on dollar value and not based on the strength (or weakness) of each object’s connection to the collections scope and mission. That is very alarming.”

Art is being used as an asset that can be traded and used for better space for patrons and bigger campaigns. What about caring for the art itself?

Even the owner of a studio that helps museums install Natural History exhibits, who certainly would understand the business side of things, commented negatively on the Wilkes Gallery’s decision: “As the leadership of an increasing number of museums now comes from the corporate sector, we’re starting to see more controversial decisions like this that often are more “bottom line” and “business” oriented rather than what might be expected from a museum.” 

A letter from a disturbed museum professional at another university museum collection was published in a local paper, highlighting the danger this decision sets for the future of arts stewardship at universities:

“We must understand that university art collections are not merely assets waiting to be leveraged into other projects.

Consider the implications if this were to become the standard for other universities. If another university is planning a similar worthwhile project, it might as well circumvent its traditional fundraising procedures and just tap into its art collection to find the best works to sell in order to make up any possible shortfall, relinquishing the responsibility of the board to raise the necessary funds. And, of course, very few donors would ever be interested in donating to an institution if they knew the works they wished to donate, most often given in memory or recognition of someone they love, with the intent and belief that these works would remain in the public sector for study and appreciation, would be treated in such a manner. The consequences are obviously deeply troubling and far-reaching for any institution.

[…] Wilkes must understand that by going against accepted museum guidelines and standards most, if not all, major institutions would not be willing to participate in such a future loan.

If the Wilkes Gallery is to take its mission seriously, they might consider the American Alliance of Museum’s stance on deaccessions:

“Deaccessioning and disposal from the collection must result from clear museum policies that are in keeping with the AAMD’s Professional Practices. Deaccessioning and disposal from the art museum’s collection must never be for the purpose of providing financial support or benefit for other goals of the university or college or its foundation. In no event should the funds received from disposal of a deaccessioned work be used for operations or capital expenditures.” (AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, part IX. “University and College Museums”, section B.)

Yet another collection taken to task by leveraging art as financial assets. We’ll see what happens next.

By Ruth Osborne