Lost and Found: The Wright Museum of Art on the Auction Block, 1979-1980
Lauren Woolf ’21, Souderton, Pennsylvania
Majors: History; Art History
Minor: Museum Studies
The implementation of a new academic structure, called the Beloit Plan, revolutionized Beloit College between 1963 and 1978, introducing cultural shifts and a changing student demographic, whilst simultaneously draining coffers and leaving the school in financial jeopardy.
As Beloit tried to recover from these impacts, the Wright Museum of Art’s collection became a casualty of attempted recovery. A decision was made to auction off a fair portion of the existing permanent collection. The press release from 1980 claimed that all the artwork sold off was repetitive or of subpar quality. Though this is true for a portion of the items, further investigation shows this claim to be convoluted. The process of deciding on which items to let go began in 1974, culminating in four separate sales at the Phillips’ auction house in New York between February and March of 1980. In total, 527 lots of items were sold for a disappointing amount of profit. Though the school’s dire straits justify these decisions on a surface level, the aftermath of the sales only resulted in a monetary gain of $115,099.73, whilst producing a loss of resources, including paintings, prints, and decorative arts, that would have benefitted the students, faculty, and community long after the echoes of the Beloit Plan faded.
This research investigates the circumstances surrounding the events and seeks to contextualize the significance of such decisions. Rich documentation, including reports from art historians and conservators, correspondence between on-site staff and off-site collaborators, auction catalogues, and receipts reveal a timeline that is especially eyebrow raising as the issue of deaccessioning becomes even more prevalent in the pandemic affected industry. How does this case at Beloit College leave a legacy locally and reflect questions more broadly asked?