A Valparaiso University campus gem has found itself at the center of an uproar. The recently unveiled “Uplift Valpo” Strategic Plan is looking to check an item off its to-do list and has found a funding opportunity within the Brauer Museum of Art. Announced on Feb. 8 in a campus-wide email from President José Padilla, the sale of three works of art will provide the necessary financial support for renovating two on-campus residential buildings.
Unnamed in the initial email, Georgia O’Keefe’s “Red Rust Hills,” Childe Hassam’s “The Silver Vale and the Golden Gate” and Frederic E. Church’s “Mountain Landscape” are the paintings in discussion. The news has raised heightened concerns from students, faculty and staff, accompanied by petitions, demonstrations and a request from Richard Brauer to remove his name and likeness from the campus museum.
“I’ve never had such a high honor in my life, [but my name], I think it would indicate that I approve of this sale. I was wondering what I could do and I’d say the best thing I could do is say that I want my name removed,” Brauer said. “I really believe this [‘Red Rust Hills’] is an irreplaceable work of art and a great loss.”
When the Brauer Museum of Art was first established on campus, donors (the Urschels) asked that it be named after Brauer, which was accepted by the university president and Board of Directors at the time. Under his direction, the retired professor obtained “Red Rust Hills” to help kickstart the collection in 1962 with the help of the 1953 Sloan Trust Agreement. Many have voiced concerns about voiding the initial agreement if the sale proceeds.
“When the trust agreement with the endowed Sloan Fund was signed, Valparaiso University promised to do three things: house the collections properly (we exceeded that expectation from what the Urschels provided [in donations]), exhibit the paintings they gave us in context with a developed collection and in context with the rest of the collection of American art we have, giving meaning to the Sloan collection itself and finally he wanted us to use the collection educationally,” Brauer said.
Other concerns have surrounded the idea of the necessity of renovations for the residential buildings: Brandt Hall (a freshmen dorm) and Wehrenberg Hall (a current upperclassmen dorm). Brandt was last renovated in 2016, whereas Wehrenberg was renovated in 1995.
“A lot of the time, people aren’t considering where they will be living until they’ve committed to a university or have been accepted and are looking to commit. In which case they’re going to be looking at a lot of these residential halls and seeing the same thing … I don’t envy the Board or the President about having to make decisions on how to get enrollment up. The thing that makes Valpo special is the academics and the opportunities and the passion our professors and staff have for this community. Dorms have never been a place for us to stand out because they’ve never needed to be,” said Ashley Vernon, a junior digital arts major and current Director’s Aide for the campus museum.
Since 2016, Valpo has undergone a 30% reduction in freshmen enrollment alone. Looking to combat the drop and adhere to the “Uplift Valpo” Strategic Plan, Padilla and the Board of Directors have analyzed survey data from students that did not commit to university. Poor on-campus living conditions were allegedly stated as a top factor of students turning elsewhere for their education.
“First and foremost, I have an obligation to provide the best student residential experience for our students and I think we’re in a situation where Brandt and Wehrenberg, because they haven’t had substantial renovations in a long time ... It’s not providing the kind of experience I really want our students to have. So that’s first and foremost, but [with] respect to enrollment. I think again we have seen a lot of students these days, for the money they pay for a residential experience, in our case, around $13,000, for our students who want to have an optimal student life experience like you would get at Butler and that’s really a great experience and students are picking those over us,” Padilla said. “I want to make sure we are competing as much as possible to get those students here.”
Padilla envisions a community-oriented freshmen experience for on-campus residents, noting that he picked the two facilities primarily for their ability to be physically connected through what is now known as Wehrenberg’s Rotunda. He believes this will allow students to develop stronger relationships with their peers.
“What we want to do is renovate … so that we create a freshmen village for students living in those dorms. So that will be a central meeting point for meeting rooms, support services and other activities that will help their experiences and get through the first year,” Padilla said.
Students, faculty and staff have stated a disconnect between university administration and the mission and values of Valpo. Specifically, individuals against the sale are claiming a clear attack on the arts as a whole with Padilla stating that strategic plan initiatives will continue to seek out funding from “assets and resources that are not core or critical to our educational mission … ” and align them with “Uplift Valpo.”
In response, social media erupted in a storm of protest, generating #artisacoresource and posts expressing students’ experiences involving art thus far at Valpo. University affiliates have continued to discuss what they consider as central to a Valpo education.
“What makes Valpo, Valpo is this focus on making a well-rounded person that we’re sending out into the world to have this impact. To make that person we need all these resources, we need a great student life department, these museums people can go to that focus on aesthetics and art and imagery. We need our core program, it’s literally called CORE, teaching us about ethics and how to view the world and continue learning from everything we see. Those are so vital to the Valpo experience that what is core is kind of this figure of speech in the fact that we tie everything into the core of who we are and we have all these resources to continue learning and continue growing as people we have for a reason,” Vernon said.
For Brauer, each piece of art also adds to the overall learning experience at Valpo. He views it as a vital element to the education students receive.
“The study of art is the most fruitful disciple of study available to the academic world. It is centered in the arts to the experience of life. We want to both train students for a career and for a life. I believe we have rare, quality art to teach that last part of our mission.” Brauer said. “Art is an experience, the fundamental, age-old way of experiencing life with your sensibility and feelings, the mind having a ton of focus. It will mean something, you will remember it, it’ll change you.”
While Padilla doesn’t look to dismiss the part the artwork specifically plays on campus, he doesn’t see it as a foundational aspect to university’s mission.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into it, there’s not just one factor. Of course, the ones that come to mind are academics, building and developing student growth, having a sense of community and that’s why we want to renovate those two dorms. That’s what goes into it. I would say that the museum, the Brauer, plays a supportive role in academics and that will continue to stay open by the way, I want to stress that,” Padilla said. “It will continue to serve its role, and is a very important role with 5000 pieces of remaining artwork, but I have to tell you that with the respect to the three pieces we want to sell, I don’t consider them critical, I don’t consider any one piece of art critical to our mission. It’s a supportive role and it provides tools in which our faculty can teach our students, but do I consider an individual piece of art core? No.”
Petitions were drafted and shared at both Student Senate and Faculty Senate general assembly meetings. The student petition garnered nearly 400 signatures of current students and alumni, while the faculty petition gained almost 100 signatures and represented several departments. An additional response included groups of students hand-delivering letters expressing their disagreement of the decision to Padilla’s office on Feb. 15.
“First of all, folks, I know there are people that have very heartfelt reasons for disagreeing with me and I respect that. They’re still my colleagues at the end of the day, they’re still family members. If you’ve ever been at a dinner table and you disagree with your brother, your father, your sister, but you still love each other and you still respect each other and I hope that’s the case. In this case, I think anytime students for example state their opinions, I think that’s a good thing. Universities are supposed to be incubators for debate, dialog and dissent. That’s what we’re made for. To the extent that students are doing that civilly, which they have done, I think that’s a good thing,” Padilla said.
Several have introduced new potential solutions for gaining the money to complete renovations while keeping the three paintings looking toward fundraising and endowment funds as the answer. Padilla insists that the planned timeline for renovations won’t allow for enough time to fundraise and that the better portion of the endowment is spoken for.
Brandt Hall and Wehrenberg Hall are projected to face offline status by summer 2023 and reopen by fall 2024. With the rapidly approaching temporary closure date, Padilla and the Board of Directors acknowledge that time is of the essence. The president also looks to avoid using the university’s budget in order to evade any potential resource cuts.
“Fundraising would be an impediment only because sometimes fundraising is unpredictable and may take me a couple years to do. The other thing is in the Strategic Plan, we have various priorities that have fundraising components to it and so we’ve all kind of thought this out in terms of what we can do in the long-term with fundraising, what can we do or not do with fundraising in the short-term, the dorms being one of them. Another possibility is the endowment. The vast majority of the endowment is already called for and restricted, so that wouldn’t be a solution,” Padilla said. “We’re still finishing out the due diligence in this, so I can’t give you an absolute timeline, but I would like to do it in such a time that I can have the proceeds in order to take the dorms offline this summer.”
Although it has been reported that the paintings were appraised for $15 million, $2 million and $3.5 million respectively, Padilla also claims that the sum would instead amount to roughly $10 million between the three. He also states that the renovations for both buildings will cost approximately $10 million.
If any additional funding remains at the end of the project, that money will be redistributed back to the Strategic Plan. There is not currently a plan to renovate any other dormitory facility on campus following Brandt and Wehrenberg.
“Let’s say we get more than $10 million. I'm not holding my breath, but if we did, sure, I would probably use the excess proceeds to fund other parts of the Strategic Plan because the Strategic Plan is meaningless if it’s not supported financially. There are some things you can do that don’t necessarily need money, but most of them need investment,” Padilla said.
Entities outside of the university have also responded to the announcement. A press release was sent on Feb. 9 by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) and the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC). In the joint statement, the groups raised strong opposition to the sale of the artwork and pointed to violation of ethical obligation to continue growing the museum’s collection.
Although the Brauer Museum of Art is not currently a member of AAMD, the groups offered to meet with the university to think of other potential solutions. Valpo has yet to publicly address the statement as of Feb. 22.
“As students, we understand things need to be done to improve the university, but we don’t want it to be at our expense. We’re truly begging and imploring the Board to accept the offer to sit down and find a compromise that works for everybody. Without it, if there is a stubbornness and they’re digging their heels in, it truly is terrifying what can happen if people aren’t willing to admit mistakes or that they’re wrong especially in that high of a position,” Vernon said.
Brauer echoed a similar stance.
“Padilla is well-meaning and he wants the best in the way he knows how and all that, but I think he’s mistaken and I think the Board is mistaken. They have the problem of paying the bills and making students come here and this looks like it could fund that. I’m just saying it’s not right to do it in my view,” Brauer said. “I love Valparaiso University, I don’t want it to fail, but I think it needs to do the hard work of obtaining grants, working with private resources to fix the dorm situation. I can imagine the difficulties they’re facing, but I don’t think it’s ethical to do it by selling our best paintings.”
If the university sells the painting, there is an increasing possibility, as Brauer states, that the on-campus museum will be censured. This would create a limited ability for obtaining artwork for exhibits and the pool of interested future employees would decrease.
“I think we will still have a strong, vibrant arts and humanities program. For example, with respect to the collection, we still have 5000 pieces and we still have other collections there that continue to be great learning tools and teaching tools for our faculty. So [three less] pieces, I don’t think that’s diminishing whatsoever. In the Strategic Plan there’s an arts and humanities and liberal arts component, which I asked to be put in there because I wanted to make sure we continue to remain devoted to that and the part it plays in education for everybody on this campus,” Padilla said.
Individuals have also disclosed fears for the relationship Valpo will have with donors in the future and the university’s overall current projected image.
“Because of the negative press this has already brought in, there is that very real understanding that this university and its commitment to ethics that is stated on its mission page are being viewed in this negative light which is going to diminish admission on its own before this decision even goes through and that’s going to have a very real effect,” Vernon said.
Padilla ultimately sees the decision to prioritize funding for the renovations as a starting point to new possibilities that broadens the demographic of prospective students in the coming years.
“This is really important for us, for the student experience, that we want all of our freshmen to get. Not only in terms of experience and enrollment, but I think it plays a vital role in retention because as you may know from the Strategic Plan, pursing being an HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution) or other things … our student population, there may be more students that are first-generation students, it’s important for us to be the springboard for those students. I would prefer as much as possible for those students to live on-campus because I think there’s an experience you get from living on campus. So that’s why we want for example that freshmen village because there will be retention [and] student supported activities in that central hub so we can support them as well as they make that transition from high school to college,” Padilla said.
More information about the “Uplift Valpo” Strategic Plan can be found on valpotorch.com under “Padilla’s plans for the University unveiled” or at valpo.edu/uplift-valpo.
This is a developing story. The Torch will update this story as more information becomes available.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.