Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Right now, Randolph is not a peaceable kingdom

There is something profoundly sad about the spectacle of an institution shooting itself in its institutional foot -- in the case of Randolph College, repeatedly.

Let me say here that I haven't perused the college financial records. I don't know how badly in debt the college might be, or how badly the board of trustees needs to sell off part of the art collection for the school to survive. Nor do I know for sure how Randolph got itself into this situation, or whose fault it was (if anyone's).

I do, however, know Karol Lawson and Ellen Agnew, the director and former director of Randolph's Maier Museum, and how dedicated they were to the museum's collection. The fact that both of them have resigned -- Lawson today, Agnew a few months ago -- tells me a lot.

For this is not just any art collection, but part of what has always given the college its unique identity. Not many schools the size of Randolph have their own museum, much less a collection of American art considered one of the richest in Virginia -- if not the nation.

Moreover, this is Lynchburg's museum, as well. The city has no public space in which to view art, and the Maier and the Daura Gallery have filled that gap. Central Virginia schools regularly bus students to the Maier on field trips, and the museum often hosts concerts and speakers for the public's enjoyment and benefit.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that selling part of the collection is the only possible avenue left for the college. Either George Bellows' "Men of the Docks" and Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom" must go, or the school is doomed.

Even if that's a given, it seems obvious to me that the whole affair has been handled badly. The school did everything but send in a SWAT team to remove four paintings on Monday, after notification had been sent out to students, alumni and faculty by e-mail. Right after that, Karol Lawson quit.

The equivocation about the art collection, the notification by e-mail and the unannounced removal (under cover of a bogus bomb scare) all seem to point, rightly or wrongly, in the direction of a guilty conscience.

I feel for Brenda Edson, a former co-worker who is now the director of public relations at Randolph. She's just doing her job, and from what I've seen, she does it well.

And on the surface, she had a point when she told our reporter Christa Desrets: "Those are four pieces out of 3,500 pieces of art."

Unfortunately, two of those pieces -- the Bellows and the Hicks -- were the "faces," if you were, of the whole collection.

It's as if Virginia Tech were to announce it was saving money by eliminating football scholarships, but then reassuring students that they would still have a team on the Division III level.

Not knowing Randolph's finances, I don't have any easy solutions to suggest. The logical step, perhaps, would be to ask the alumni to collectively "buy" these paintings and then donate them back, but the school has only recently gone to these same folks for the money it will take to convert the college into a co-ed institution.

As it stands now, though, the heavy-handed manner with which the school is going about its art sale lays bare a public spectacle of an administration at odds with many of its students, some key staff people, and more than a few alums.

Not the image you want to project when you're trying to grow.