This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Holly Otterbein for NewsWorks
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 painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), one of the first African American artists to achieve international acclaim, and Philadelphian Dox Thrash (1893-1965).
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 about 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 the beloved realist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who studied and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
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.