A Shot Through the Art

The Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College is closed to tourists on Mondays, so Karol Lawson, the museum's director, was surprised last week to have her paperwork interrupted by visitors. And not just any visitors—the college president, John Klein, flanked by two staffers. When they walked into Lawson's office and closed the door, she thought she was going to be fired. In fact, she—and the school—were about to lose something far more valuable. In order to boost its shriveling endowment, Randolph was going to auction some paintings, including the school's pride and joy: George Bellows's 1912 "Men of the Docks." A moving van had already pulled up outside. A small army of campus police, security guards, movers and—most ominously—a lawyer marched into the building and began removing million-dollar paintings and spiriting them away in cardboard and bubble wrap. They took four pieces. It wasn't until later that she realized someone had cut off her phone and e-mail during the purge. "It felt," says Lawson, who resigned, "like a mugging."

Or more like an identity theft. Since its founding in 1891, Randolph College—originally Randolph-Macon Woman's College—has been a draw for young women passionate about the liberal arts, like graduate and Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck. The school's reputation as an art-world heavyweight tucked in a quiet corner of Lynchburg, Va., attracts not only art majors but thousands of tourists. The college's heady days peaked in the late 1960s, however, just before all-male colleges across the country opened their doors to women, luring away potential students. In order to save itself, the school has been chipping away its endowment, along with other treasures. First, 15 percent of the staff was laid off. Then, the college did the unthinkable—it admitted men for the first time this year, prompting two lawsuits "and a lot of grieving," says Klein. But that wasn't enough. With a looming review from an accrediting agency, the board of directors started eyeing Randolph's $100 million art collection. The Bellows was the first victim. Many think it won't be the last. "The soul of this university is several things—the art, the faculty, the writing center," says senior Maggie Williams. "When you pick away at any one of those, the college ceases to be."

School officials say they had no choice. "It has been a complicated and painful process," says Klein, tightening his jaw. "I also care deeply about the future of this college—the sale of the Bellows is something that the college needed to do." The 660-student school has a $153 million endowment, but officials say that without the sale Randolph could vanish. "We're not hanging by a thread yet, but we can't have the museum if we don't exist, can we?" asks Virginia Worden, a recent board member. Just last week, a judge allowed Fisk University in Nashville to negotiate a deal to share its collection (donated by Georgia O'Keeffe) with Crystal Bridges, a new museum founded by Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton. "We love our school as much as anyone else," says board president Lucy Hooper. "But we had to think with our heads rather than our hearts."

"Men of the Docks" is special. In 1920, students and locals scraped together $2,500 to buy their first masterpiece. (It's valued now at $25 million to $30 million.) The purchase was the brainchild of the schools' first art professor, Louise Jordan Smith, who used the painting to establish a collection that now contains more than 3,500 works. "This is a question of values," says Frances Elliot, 83, one of Smith's last living relatives. Students have posted MISSING signs with photocopied images of the four works around campus and placed NOT FOR SALE tags on the paintings near the president's office. "I was against the decision to go coed," says senior Katherine Balcerek. "And now they seem to be treating the Maier like an ATM. Take out a painting and—bam—they've got cash."

The irony is that "Men of the Docks" might not be so easy to sell. The art establishment abhors institutions' selling art to raise capital—"You don't sell art to fix the boiler. The ethics are very clear on that," says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums—which means no museum is likely to touch it. It's expected to be auctioned by Christie's in November. "This was the farthest thing from a 'prudent' decision I could ever imagine," says Sarah Cash, curator of American Art for the Corcoran Gallery of Art and a former director of the Maier. "The Bellows will probably go to a private collection, and that is heartbreaking." But lucrative.