Monday, April 23, 2018

Rockwell Art Sale Resolution and an Unusual Major Gift

I. Last November ( I wrote about the contentious dispute regarding the intent of the  Berkshire  Museum in Pittsfield MA to sell works of art (“deaccession”) in order to cope with a large deficit and fund new, non-art strategic initiatives. The estimated value of the art was $55 million, the bulk of which was represented by a single painting by Norman Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.”  

National museum groups decried the proposal on ethical grounds. Such sales are supposed to fund art acquisitions, not deficits. Local museum patrons, including several of Rockwell’s sons, filed suit to block the sale at Sotheby’s. At the last minute a judge ordered the sale delayed to give time for the Massachusetts attorney-general’s office to examine the matter.

In February 2018, the state announced it had reached an agreement with the museum that would allow the sale but modified from the original proposal. “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” would be sold to another, as yet unnamed museum for an unknown sum, but would always be in public view. The painting would also remain in the state for 18-24 months at the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum and be made available for display in other Massachusetts museums. The Berkshire Museum would be limited to proceeds not to exceed $55 million from the art sale, the amount it claimed needed to stabilize its finances.  Any funds realized  of between $50 million and $55 million would be required to be set aside for acquisitions of art. 

In his April 5 decision allowing the agreement to go forward, Judge David Lowy of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the “serious concerns” raised by sale opponents but concluded it the sale was vital to the museum’s survival: “the museum’s charitable purpose of aiding in the study of art, natural sciences and cultural history must be protected.”  As one observer noted, the decision may have been sound on legal grounds, but weak on ethical ones.

II: A most unusual and heartening gift was reported in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy .  William H. (Bill) Miller, a famous money manager and investor renowned for beating the S&P 500 Index for 15 years in a row, announced in January a donation of $75 million to Johns Hopkins University in his native Baltimore. The sum is significant enough, but its purpose is what got attention.  It has been designated for use by the Philosophy Department, not for instance health or STEM fields, popular designee programs for higher education. The donation will create endowed professorships and eventually almost double the number of full-time Philosophy faculty members.

Miller was a Philosophy major at Hopkins and a candidate for a Ph.D.  when, faced by a difficult job market,  he left for greener pastures in the investment field.  But as he stated in the interview: “Philosophy I found intellectually, psychologically and emotionally enriching. My life is a lot better for having studied it. Secondly…the critical-thinking skills, the analytical skills, the rigor of philosophy were extremely valuable to me in analyzing capital markets...” 

Are you listening, Wisconsin? The University of Wisconsin, at Stevens Point is proposing to drop 13 majors in humanities and social sciences, including Philosophy , History and  English, and adding programs with “clear career pathways. ” The Washington Post also reported that in 2015 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had attempted secretly to  change the mission of the state university system by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” to be replaced by the mandate “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”  Such moves are in line with the belief in some conservative quarters that universities are breeding grounds for liberal ideas. After a storm of protest when the move was exposed, Walker pulled back, calling it a “drafting error.”  Perhaps he could have used more  English majors on his staff….

When asked about the timing of the gift to Johns Hopkins, Mr. Miller said he was advised by an associate that unless he wanted the government by default to become his favorite charity, he should do something important in his lifetime.  “I wanted to think about things that had an impact on me, “he said, “where significant money could really move the needle. I thought philosophy was a good place to start.” 

The somewhat idiosyncratic nature of this donation should remind nonprofit leaders that giving, in whatever amount, is a personal action, often driven by the donor’s particular passion. Honoring and working with that understanding can bring mutual satisfaction to all concerned, and should never be overlooked.

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