Art in the middle

The I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium on the S.C. State University campus is expected to close for up to two years because of infrastructure improvements.

Amid the turmoil at S.C. State University, which is scrambling to put its financial house in order, another drama is playing out on the Orangeburg campus of the historically black school. It's a controversy within a controversy, and a significant collection of art is caught in the middle.

S.C. State's I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium houses nearly 1,000 pieces of African artifacts, 164 prints and photographs by Andy Warhol, paintings and prints by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, William Johnson and Leo Twiggs, and several historical photographs by Cecil Williams, among other items.

That collection now must be moved out of the building and stored, by Sept. 30 at the latest, so a central boiler and heating system can be upgraded, the university has instructed. The museum would remain closed for about two years.

About a dozen other campus buildings also are closing, at least temporarily, because of the financial crisis. S.C. State University is nearly $25 million in debt.

Museum director Ellen Zisholtz and members of the museum's advisory board are worried, according to two board members and a professor at the university. As stewards of the donated art, they said they feel obligated to protect it and argued that transferring the collection to a nearby building is unnecessary. The planetarium cannot be moved, and its instruments would be at risk if kept in an unheated building.

“There's a certain care that we need to provide to preserve the collections, not only for the university but for the state and the country,” Zisholtz said. “We are looking for ways to carry out the mandate without putting the collection at risk.”

University administrators say the museum is one piece of a larger puzzle and must be closed in order to upgrade the infrastructure on campus.

“We know the value that this museum brings to the community and to the state,” said Sonya Bennett, vice president for external affairs. “The last thing we want to do is close a building down that serves the public that way. But we can't keep things broken.”

The work on the boiler system and other upgrades will help the school turn the corner, Bennett said.

“Here on the ground there's anxiety, because people don't have all the info they want.”

The administration is waiting for details from the museum about the collection's value and the logistics required to move it in order to determine the best next steps, Bennett said.

The collection never has been officially appraised, and to do so now would cost a lot of money, museum advisory board member Millicent Brown said.

“We were fortunate to be the recipients of multiple donations from serious art lovers,” Brown said. “We should be grateful and gracious and do all that we can to live up to the standards that they expected when they gave their donations. We intrinsically know that we have very valuable pieces.”

The university has suggested that, to avoid expense, the artwork could be relocated to a space in a nearby building by student volunteers. Whatever doesn't fit in that space could be loaned to other institutions.

Museum board members say that idea is problematic, raising important questions about insurance, liability, handling, logistics and scheduling.

Zinnia Willits, director of collection administration at the Gibbes Museum and president of the S.C. Federation of Museums, said moving art requires a formal plan, thorough catalog, careful and constant oversight and climate-controlled environments, as well as movers who are “trained professionals who do this for a living.” It can cost thousands of dollars.

Advisory board members say relocation isn't even necessary.

As an alternative plan, the museum has offered to raise about $250,000 for a new, independent heating system and to have it installed before the cold weather sets in.

“Why move the collection out of an existing building which was designed to house art and into a different building that wasn't?” asked board member Dave Dennis.

The university has not yet indicated if this alternative plan might be acceptable.

“We've not been given a specific answer,” Brown said. “We've simply been told that, in their move to decrease expenditures and take several buildings off line, there is this bigger goal of reducing cost on campus. But you can't deal with this particular structure like you would a dormitory.”

Starting in 2005, the museum invested about $75,000 to upgrade the planetarium, the only such facility at any historically black college. It spent another $75,000 or so on improvements to the rest of the 10,000-square-foot building, according to Zisholtz. It had been closed for several years before that, resulting in extensive mold and roof damage. The university, too, spent money on the museum building for mold remediation, painting, repairs and new carpeting.

The African objects in the collection are mostly the result of three major gifts received from Roderick and Nancy McDonald (1989), the Ordway Starnes estate (2007) and Simone and Linda Gregori (2012). The Andy Warhol Foundation made donations of photographs and prints (2008 and 2012).

The museum receives about 12,000 visitors a year. Young students from Orangeburg schools use the planetarium and often visit the museum to learn from its art holdings and to participate in after-school or summertime programming.

The museum's 2015-16 operating budget is a meager $11,000. By comparison, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which is part of the College of Charleston, has an annual operating budget that exceeds $700,000 (about $300,000 comes from the college; the rest of the money is raised by the Halsey). The I.P. Stanback Museum relies heavily, therefore, on its own collection for exhibits.

Currently, it's showcasing objects that belonged to musician and South Carolina native James Brown (a collection the museum is safeguarding for a third party), as well as photographs related to the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre and the 2014 Ferguson unrest after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a policeman.

The African artifacts are kept on special sliding shelving units located in an air-conditioned storage space.

Dennis, Brown and others, such as former history professor William Hine, fear the directive to close the I.P. Stanback building is part of a larger effort to cut costs that could disable the museum permanently.

In the past several years, S.C. State University has struggled with deficits, allegations of financial mismanagement, leadership turnover and a corruption scandal. The school is at risk of losing its accreditation, and some worry that it could be closed or merged with another state university.

In May, state officials appointed an interim board of trustees, replacing the former board entirely. The following month, the state's financial oversight board granted the university a five-year reprieve on paying back a $6 million state loan.

At the end of June, the board of trustees approved a balanced budget for the 2015-16 school year that cut more than $17 million, according to a July 8 faculty email. As a result, all personnel will be furloughed for 12 days; vendor contracts will be renegotiated to reduce expenditures by $5 million; athletic scholarships will be cut, along with some athletic programming and staff; 33 faculty and staff will be let go; and professors who remain will teach an extra class.

The state Legislature recently approved a special expenditure that will effectively reduce the university's debt by $4 million, and no school programs were put on the chopping block, according to the email.

The pressure to relieve the financial distress could only make matters worse, Hine said.

“You cut programs, you cut faculty and you cut things like the museum, and potentially you reach a tipping point,” Hine said. “At what point have you cut too much?”

He said it's a myth that budget cuts were not made in the past and now the school is catching up.

“It wasn't only malfeasance that led to this,” Hine said. It was a longstanding pattern of underfunding, neglect and reliance on loans. Budget cuts only exacerbate the problem, he said.

Dennis echoed the concern.

“If you want that institution to survive, borrowing money to take care of past debts is not sufficient,” he said. “Of course (the school) is going to be back in debt in a couple of years.”

Sometimes, to relieve a crisis, you have to spend more money, not less, Dennis added. Expanding school offerings will make S.C. State more appealing to prospective students, increase enrollment and, ultimately, ensure better financial standing, he said.

The museum is a good example of an asset the school might try to take advantage of, he said. “S.C. State should want to preserve it, not only because of its important collection but for its strategic value.”

Bennett said the school is in flux and nothing is written in stone.

“I think people are prematurely panicked, and that's unfortunate,” she said. “There are all kinds of variables that come into play. ... Things are still unfolding.”

Brown said members of the museum's advisory board are sympathetic with the university administration, concerned about the challenges they face and eager to help.

“We've said we'll take the lead on the fundraising,” Brown said. “We want to support S.C. State in any way we can, but we are certainly a little confounded about why (the museum) is not being fully appreciated for its uniqueness.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.