Uncertainty surrounds district's art collection

Posted: October 25, 2013

THE SCHOOL Reform Commission voted last week against auctioning off part of the district's esteemed art collection, but questions continue to swirl about the approximately 1,200 paintings, sculptures, antique furniture and other items.

Among them, how many items are stored at an undisclosed location?

Where are 31 pieces of the collection?

What is the true value of the district's art collection?

Many of the district's works have been stored since January 2004 at a climate-controlled facility, for which the district pays $735 per month. The art was removed from schools and then transferred to the site by order of former schools CEO Paul Vallas.

Exactly how many pieces of artwork are stored at the site came into question this week.

Erin Davis, who works in the district's financial-services division, told the SRC at last week's meeting that all the stored art, about 60 pieces, had been proposed to be put up for auction.

Yet, according to a 2008 audit by the City Controller's Office, 216 pieces of artwork are in storage.

But yesterday, district spokeswoman Deirdre Darragh told the Daily News that Davis had been misunderstood. In fact, 216 pieces are in storage, she said.

Davis told the commissioners that a firm, contracted by Vallas, recommended to the administration and the SRC "to remove those pieces that were considered in jeopardy and put them in a secured storage facility," according to a recording of the meeting.

SRC member Joseph Dworetzky asked, "How many were there?"

Davis: "About 60 pieces of artwork."

Dworetzky: "Sixty? Is that what we currently have in storage?"

Davis: "That's correct."

Dworetzky: "And it's still 60 pieces that are proposed to be sold?"

Davis: "That's correct."

Additionally, the City Controller's Office in September determined that 31 items, valued at about $91,000, had been removed from the district's art inventory list without any documentation.

They include pieces by two prominent local artists, Bucks County Impressionist Walter Emerson Baum, and Dox Thrash, an artist specializing in printmaking who depicted 20th-century African-American life. Both works were part of Woodrow Wilson Middle School's well-regarded art collection.

Baum's 1937 painting, "Hills of the River," valued at $38,000, was in the first-floor hallway of the Northeast Philadelphia school. Thrash's 1935 painting "Backyard, Philadelphia," valued at $5,000, was in the principal's office.

The works were deleted from the inventory list in 2009, which was was news last night to Wilson's self-proclaimed art advocate, Marilyn Krupnick.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," said Krupnick, a former science teacher who headed the gifted program at Wilson. "I want to know who the culprit or the culprits are. This is disheartening."

Krupnick said she twice saw men in unmarked vehicles removed the artwork from the school, first in December 2003 and later in July 2004. Seventy-two pieces were taken from the school during that time, she said. Now, 63 of the Wilson pieces are stored in the warehouse, according to the controller's audit, meaning nine are unaccounted for.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz says the district's "negligence is not tolerable at this level."

The district's entire collection, which includes two portraits by the famed Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins and one by N.C. Wyeth, was once estimated to be worth $30 million. The the latest audit by Butkovitz's office says the collection is valued at $8.1 million. But Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told the controller in a letter last month the collection is worth $1.5 million.

The $8.1 million value is the replacement worth, not its true resale value, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

That reasoning doesn't sit well with Butkovitz. "Art doesn't appreciate like that and you got to do a better job of explaining [it]," he said.

On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

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