The Brauer Museum’s $20 Million Deaccessioning Plan Has Hit Another Snag: A Lawsuit From Its Founding Director

The complaint argues that the proposed sale would violate the intentions of the artworks’ donor.

The Brauer Museum of Art at Indiana's Valparaiso University. Photo courtesy of the Brauer Museum of art.

The founding director of Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art has filed a lawsuit against the school over a controversial plan to deaccession several prized works from the institution’s collection. 

The complaint, filed April 24 at the Porter County Superior Court in Indiana, alleges that the planned sale “violates the… intent” of the artworks’ donor, a man named Percy H. Sloan. It calls on the court to bar the move. 

The lawsuit represents the last chapter in a months-long debate over the fate of three artworks earmarked for sale: Frederic E. Church’s Mountain Landscape (c. 1849), Childe Hassam’s The Silver Vale and the Golden Gate (1914), and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills (1930).  

Valparaiso president Jose Padilla announced his intention to offload the artworks, estimated to be worth a combined $20.5 million, in February. Proceeds from the planned sale would be put toward a dorm renovation project on the university’s campus, the president explained. 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Rust Red Hills (1930). Collection of the Brauer Museum of Art at Indiana's Valparaiso University.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hills (1930). Collection of the Brauer Museum of Art at Indiana’s Valparaiso University.

But the move was quickly met with opposition from members of the school’s community, including Richard Brauer, the inaugural director of the Valparaiso University Art Museum. (The institution has since been renamed the Brauer Museum of Art in his honor.)  

“For Valparaiso University’s Museum of Art to have my name has conferred a high honor on me, but with this sale it will wrongly reflect my approval of its utterly disgraceful, irreparably existentially diminishing, unethical, and seemingly unnecessary, museum art collection sale actions!” Brauer wrote in an email to Padilla earlier this year. 

Brauer teamed up with retired Valparaiso law professor Philipp Brockington to file the complaint against Padilla and the school this week. The university, Padilla, and Indiana’s attorney general Todd Rokita are listed as defendants. (The Art Newspaper, which first reported the lawsuit, pointed out that Rokita was included because of his role in ensuring that charitable corporations in the state comply with legal requirements. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.) 

According to the Art Newspaper, Sloan bequeathed his art collection to Valparaiso on the condition that the school “display a representative selection of the works” of his father, Junius R. Sloan. The Church canvas was among the artworks in Sloan’s collection, while the pieces by Hassam and O’Keeffe were purchased using money from a trust established by the donor. 

Frederic E. Church, Mountain Landscape (c. 1849). Courtesy of the Brauer Museum of Art at Indiana’s Valparaiso University.

But the new lawsuit points out that Sloan’s agreement with the school did not include a deaccessioning policy. 

Padilla and Valparaiso “have proposed selling artworks donated by Percy H. Sloan, or acquired using monies donated by Percy H. Sloan to potentially bring in millions for the sole purpose of updating and renovating student dormitories, as if the [Sloan] donation is a mere ATM to be used irrespective of donor intent,” the complaint reads. 

Representatives from Valparaiso did not immediately return a request for comment.  

Brauer and Brockington are not the only vocal opponents of Padilla’s deaccessioning plan. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD),  American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Curators have all come out against the sale. Julie Marciari-Alexander, the president of AAMD, warned the Brauer Museum that it could face sanctions from the organization if the sale went forward.  

Last month, Valparaiso’s Faculty Senate voted in favor of a resolution to ask university leadership to “put a halt to the sale of the artwork both on ethical grounds that are connected to our university mission and on grounds connected to the potential collateral harm it may have to our institution, monetarily, and to our brand.” 

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