It is time that we reconsider how we value art. Does Principia keep great art around as a monetary safety net? Is a painting simply a giant dollar bill filling space on a wall? Or is it art a beautiful expression of creativity that can teach us lessons that lectures cannot?
The Pierre Soulages oil painting titled, “Abstraction in Colors of Yellow and Black/ 11 Juillet 1953” that used to hang in the library lobby was sold on March 12.
A campus-wide e-mail was sent on April 14 announcing the sale and discussing the management of the art holdings at Principia. It stated that the purchase was made by a private collector who had been interested in buying the piece for several years. The letter also gave a brief history of the donor, announced that the Principia School museum in St. Louis is closing, and declared the need to downsize the college’s art collection. In addition, the letter announced the retirement of the library’s Archives department head, Jane Pfeifer.
This e-mail, written by President Palmer, introduced a new advisory committee that “will provide recommendations for future investment.” Palmer said that they would use the income from the sale of the Soulages to support the art and art history departments, though he did not specify any specific projects for which the money will be used.
While Principia does need the money, and Tremaine did give permission to eventually sell the Soulages, one has to wonder why we chose to sell the painting now. This decision seems illogical because artists often become famous posthumously, causing the value of their works to skyrocket. As awful as this sounds, Pierre Soulages is 91 years old, so why wouldn’t Principia hold on to it for a few more years and wait for the value to increase? What expense could not wait a few years? According to Palmer, the 77” x 51” painting was sold not just for money, but also for its own protection and restoration. Apparently conditions in the library were speeding the deterioration of the oil painting. An explanation of why it was not simply relocated to another place on campus was not offered.
Who is responsible for the final decision of a sale? Palmer noted that the Cultural Properties Committee is in charge of determining the focus of the collections, archives, and museums. The committee evaluates a work based on whether “it is scholarly or gracious for a space to live in,” among other criteria. Studio Art professor Danne Rhaesa did not know that such a committee existed until she read the e-mail. It might have been both helpful and considerate to include all of the Art and Art History professors in the discussion of whether or not to sell artwork.
Donated in 1963 by Christian Scientist Emily Hall Tremaine (1908-1987), the Soulages piece has been one of Principia’s most valued works of art; originally priced at $10,000, the value has greatly increased since then. There was recently a Soulages exhibit in Paris and an auction that established the market price. Though the sale price of Principia’s Soulages is undisclosed, Palmer said that he feels Principia got a fair return on investment.
Pfeifer was sad to see the piece go, but said she was grateful to have had it: “Beautiful art is a gift to have around campus.” She added, “It educates our eyes and thought about places, people, and visual art. It’s so much more than wall decor.”
Pfeifer said that Tremaine had the idea that beauty is an abstract thought, and that Christian Science informed her collecting. Tremaine, who started as a lover of surrealism and later moved to abstract expressionism, also donated a work by Perle Fine.
Rhaesa said her classes analyze such works regularly. She said that the Soulages was very important to her teaching because “you have to have really fine artwork from well-known and valued artists to give students something of quality to respond to in their own writing or art.” She added, “I appreciate how it teaches students about abstraction. There is value in the pursuit, challenge, and process of learning that abstract pieces teach.”
On the subject of how the Principia College community values and responds to art, Rhaesa said that while students may not grasp the entire meaning, they are still able to appreciate the intended meaning of the image. People untrained in art may think that abstract art is a joke. A tragic yet common belief is that anybody with a paint–roller could whip out a Rothko in an afternoon.
Reversing that mentality is one of the main goals of the classes Rhaesa teaches. When asked if she had ever used the Soulages piece in her classes, Rhaesa pulled out several students’ capstone papers that they had written on that specific “11 Juillet 1953” painting. They found it inspirational and full of meaning. Her excited smile fell as she said, “That’s what a liberal arts education is about, and now we have removed a cherished abstract piece.”