Eleven historic paintings owned by the Logan City School District — which may have been purchased by students in the 1930s through a milk-money-for-art program — are being sold in a closed-bid auction.
The paintings include works by prominent Utah artists LeConte Stewart, Minerva Teichert and James Taylor Harwood and are on display at David Ericson Fine Art gallery, 418 S. 200 West, Salt Lake City. The gallery is accepting bids on the paintings through noon on Jan. 31.
The 11 paintings each were appraised at more than $5,000, the highest-valued works among the school district’s 42-painting collection, said Logan City School District Superintendent Frank Schofield, who added that the district doesn’t have the money or expertise to safeguard the collection, which has fallen into disrepair while its value has increased.
Previously, the district’s most valuable work, a large Teichert painting — appraised at $500,000 — was loaned to the Utah State Capitol. It’s on exhibit in the Hall of Governors, just northwest of the portrait of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
The collection on sale constitutes a “Who’s Who of Utah artists,” said Scott Bushman, a Cache County artist and historian. Bushman remembers attending parent-teacher conferences in the Logan High media center, where he made a point to visit the Stewart painting hanging there. (Stewart’s “Late Afternoon in Winter” is dated 1924. It has a penciled price of $300 on the back and features three stone Farmington houses, which Stewart painted multiple times.)
“We are very concerned with the loss of the collection and would very much prefer that it stay in the public sector and be accessible to the schoolchildren of Cache Valley,” said Bushman, who is a board member and past president of the Cache Valley Historical Society.
“These are part of our local heritage,” said Wendi Hassan, executive director of the Cache Valley Center of the Arts. “I would like them to stay public. I would like them to stay local.”
Hassan lauds the efforts of pioneering Utah arts activist Alice Merrill Horne, who, as a Utah state representative, led the effort to create the country’s first arts institute and launched the state’s art collection.
Notably, in the 1930s, Horne launched milk-money-for-art programs in dozens of Utah school districts, with kids donating 5 or 10 cents to purchase art by local artists. “When we talk about starving artists, isn’t it marvelous that here these young people sacrificed, they gave up their lunch money, they gave up their lunches, to buy art by Utah artists,” Hassan said.
Last week, Karen Horne, a Salt Lake artist and gallery owner, was celebrating the 150th birthday of Alice Merrill Horne, her great-great-grandmother, when she heard about the sale of the collection. She was shocked to learn of the sale, and worries the paintings will no longer be available to the public.
Records show the district’s ownership, but no actual receipts as to how the artwork was acquired, Schofield said. He understands arts advocates’ concerns, but said the school district doesn’t have the ability to adequately safeguard the collection.
Prints are being made from the original paintings, which will be exhibited at Logan schools. Money from the sale will be earmarked for an endowment fund to aid students traveling to national art, debate or other competitions, Schofield said.
The sale was discussed in a public school board meeting in October. “We feel in order to show appreciation for this artwork, it really needs to be cleaned and restored and taken care of,” Schofield said.
Ericson said the paintings required 41 hours of restoration to be prepared for sale. One Harwood painting, a copy of the famous “The Gleaners After Millet,” was thought to have been made in 1889. That painting had been patched six times in a bad restoration; when the patches were removed, another four holes had to be fixed, Ericson said. Another painting was covered in coal soot, which means it was probably stored for some time in a school boiler room.
District officials didn’t consult with the local arts experts for conservation resources or help, said Katie Lee-Koven, executive director and chief curator of Utah State University’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art. “We would welcome that conversation,” she said, as the only art museum in the valley and one of only five accredited art museums in the state.
“My understanding was these artworks were intended to educate students and given to the school with the intention of being owned and cared for in perpetuity,” Lee-Koven said.
The sale sets a “really bad precedent,” says Laura Gelfand, a board member of the Utah Cultural Alliance, an arts and humanities advocacy group, which is circulating a petition to halt the sale. Gelfand is head of USU’s department of arts and design.
At the least, she said, there should have been more research about the background of the paintings before the sale. “Anyone buying them would want to know their provenance,” she said.
Petition • To view the Utah Cultural Alliance petition, visit http://www.utahculturalalliance.org/lcsd-art-collection. To contact the Logan City School District before its regular board meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9, visit http://www.loganschools.org/school-board-1.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship of Karen Horne to her relative. Alice Horne Merrill is the artist's great-grandmother.