Before Marilyn Krupnick was a science teacher at Northeast Philadelphia’s Wilson Middle School, she was a student there. When she stepped through the building’s doors for the first time in 1956 with her mother, she was shocked by what she saw.
“I said, ‘Mom, this school is an art museum.'”
About 70 pieces of art lined the walls, including works by the famous African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner and Philadelphian Dox Thrash.
Many years later, as the head of Wilson Middle School’s mentally gifted program, Krupnick taught students about the 19th- and 20th-century paintings.
“And you know what’s amazing?” she said. “Not one student damaged any painting in the building. And we had some wild kids.”
The School District of Philadelphia has approximately 1,125 paintings, photos, sculptures and other pieces that are scattered throughout city schools and an undisclosed storage facility.
Most of the artwork was donated to the schools or purchased for low prices over several decades. The collection even includes portraits by Thomas Eakins, one of the country’s most beloved painters.
District seeks bids to appraise, auction collection
In the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis, school district officials are now thinking about selling the pieces. They asked companies this summer to bid on a contract to appraise and auction the art, a move that has largely flown under the radar.
Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district issued a request for quotation, or RFQ, for a simple reason.
“We are considering selling the art collection because we must look at every revenue source possible to assist us with putting more resources the classroom,” he said.
Facing a $304 million budget deficit, the district sent pink slips this summer to nearly 3,900 employees, including teachers, guidance counselors and safety staff. The district received emergency funding from the city and state after the layoffs, but only enough to hire back 1,600 workers.
It is unclear how much money the district could raise by selling the collection. In 2003, an art consultant said it was worth $30 million. Gallard said it is now valued at $2 million, but couldn’t explain the change.
The fact that the district is eyeing a sale drew a range of responses from education advocates, school employees and city officials.
Krupnick, who is now retired, said the artwork shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder because it could end up in private hands, never to be seen by Philadelphia school kids.
For her, that would be a tragic ending to an even more tragic story, which began in 2003.
Artwork taken from schools, consigned to storage
Then-district CEO Paul Vallas decided to conduct a survey of the art at schools throughout the city. Afterward, district officials said about 200 pieces at Wilson Middle and other schools were in danger of being stolen or damaged, so they quickly moved them to a top-secret storage facility.
Gallard said former officials did not notify school employees before boxing up the art because they believed that could have put it at risk.
“One day, an unmarked truck pulled up,” said Krupnick. “The paintings were all hung on wires, with beautiful frames and lighting. They just started snipping wires. We were all crying hysterically.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and several other media outlets reported on the district’s discovery of its valuable collection.
Teachers and principals called for it to be returned to schools. Some education advocates said it should be sold to help shore up the district’s budget. But for almost 10 years, neither one of those things happened, and the paintings languished in storage.
Krupnick is afraid that Wilson’s paintings could be stolen now if they were returned to the school. The next best thing, she said, is for them to be available for children to view at a museum, ideally for free.
Arlene Holtz, a former principal at Wilson Middle School, agrees. She said the district’s proposal goes against the wishes of teachers and administrators who collected the art decades ago with the explicit goal of educating children.
“You never know whose life you touch with a painting or a choir rehearsal or a show performance,” she said. “Putting up paintings in a school — that first generation … those teachers, those parents — that was an act of faith. We’ve broken that faith. I really feel, deeply, we’ve broken faith with that generation.”
Helen Gym, co-founder of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education, urged the district to be cautious while considering an auction.
“What you don’t want is a fire sale and a frantic desperation to dump things,” she said, “for what’s essentially not going to be that much money.”
Gym also worries that the proceeds would be used to pay off the district’s massive debt service, instead of funding school programs. Gallard said the money “would definitely be going to back to schools.”
Value of art vs. value of arts programs
Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth, supports selling at least some of the paintings to raise money for the district’s art and music programs.
She noted that many of Philly’s schools do not currently have choruses or annual plays.
“At this point,” she said, “if we can get another year of art and music out of it, it’s probably a better use of the picture than having it be on the wall and reminiscing about when we had art and music for children.”
City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who has audited the art collection, said selling it would be an improvement over storing it indefinitely.
But he warned that may not be as easy as it sounds. He said some pieces are damaged or missing.
For instance, he said, murals at the former Thomas Middle School were painted over during a renovation. (It is now the Mastery Charter Schools’ Thomas Campus.) He said the pieces were valued at $210,000.
To further complicate matters, Butkovitz said, the district may have a hard time determining who owns the artwork.
“There were claims that teachers owned them, or they belonged to associations, so that has to be sorted out,” he said. “But nine years is way too long to grapple with these decisions.”
Gallard said the district unquestionably owns the entire collection. He declined to confirm or deny Butkovitz’s claim that Thomas’ murals had been destroyed.
The district’s proposal to auction off the collection faces another barrier. The School Reform Commission needs to approve a sale of the work.
In the midst of a doomsday budget, though, it’s hard to imagine the SRC won’t.
This article was reported as part of a partnership in covering the Philadelphia schools between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.