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Unexpected pairing creates course that’s part liberal arts and part business

The Business of Art

Art and business have always had a symbiotic relationship.

That relationship became the basis for a Spring Term course introduced last year by professors Elliott King and Raquel Alexander. Interest by art history and business students far surpassed capacity for the class, which filled quickly.

The course allowed students to learn about and see first-hand the business side of art at galleries, museums and auction houses on trips to New York City and Philadelphia. It also included guest speakers and a project that resulted in the acquisition of two pieces of contemporary art — from among several recommended by the class — selected by Dr. John Poynor '62, whose endowment funds art purchases for Washington and Lee's permanent collection.

King, assistant professor of art history, was pleased with the way students threw themselves into the project. "We asked students to think about what would be useful pedagogically for the University and to look for pieces that contained details that would not come across in reproduction," he said.

The students — divided into groups of three — contacted galleries and negotiated prices as real buyers, not just as students working on a class project. "Knowing that a sale could happen changed the dynamic" of those conversations, King said.

Alexander, associate professor of tax accounting, said students learned how to value art using comparable sales to justify their recommendations. It was important for the art to be useful across disciplines, not just for art history classes, she said.

Ultimately, Poynor selected a painting by Gene Davis and a print by Robert Indiana.

Poynor was impressed with how the students reached their recommendations. "Each group produced their first choice and reasons for eliminating second and third choices," he said, and they also presented their painting's availability, cost and location.

Davis, who came out of the Washington Color School, painted large abstracts, particularly vertical stripes, that need to be seen in person to value the role of texture and canvas, said King. "He was all about color and form."

Indiana created his print during President Barack Obama's presidential campaign. It represents the word "hope" - a reinvention of Indiana's classic "Love" image. "Hope" is "firmly rooted in the optimistic spirit of Obama's campaign," said Sarah Bartlett '16, a history and art history double major whose group recommended the purchase.

"We felt that the print would allow the University to own a piece of history," she said. " ‘Hope' is a piece that could be showcased in many different buildings on campus. While Wilson Hall features an abundance of paintings and sculptures, the Politics Department does not always exhibit many politically charged works of art."

Bartlett said that in addition to traditional research, class members used social media, especially YouTube, with which they explored "the ever-expanding world of online art sales," and Twitter, to keep up with the latest news from auction houses and galleries.

In New York, alumnus Jeff Bailey '84 hosted a reception for them at his contemporary art gallery (Jeff Bailey Gallery), and they toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and others, including galleries owned by alumni Hollis Taggart '71 (Hollis Taggart Galleries) and Bill Acquavella '59 (Acquavella Galleries). At Sotheby's, they viewed a collection of art that later sold at auction for $364 million, and they attended an auction at Christie's.

In Philadelphia, alumnus Gerry Lenfest '53, '55L gave them a tour of the Barnes Foundation, which owns one of the finest collections of post-impressionist and early-20th-century paintings — "the best of the best," said King. Works include paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, as well as important examples of African sculpture and Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles.

If not for the class, "I never would have had the chance to speak with Julian Schnabel while viewing his pieces at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea," said Bartlett. As someone who has always dreamed of working at Sotheby's or Christie's, she said, it was amazing "to be given the opportunity to speak one-on-one with art specialists and view the incredible contemporary art collections that the auction houses had on display."

The class also helped her focus on careers in the art world. She met docents, gallery owners and employees, art historians and auction-house specialists. "The entire experience opened my eyes to all the different opportunities available to me after graduation," she said.

Edward Thompson '17 enrolled in the class as a business student. "For business students looking for an introduction to basic business or a further exploration of prestige markets, I couldn't think of a better course," he said.

Both professors said one of their primary goals was to show business students that art has more than monetary value, and to show liberal arts students that there are business pressures in the art market. Although buying and donating art provide investment opportunity and tax deductions, "in the end, you leave class knowing you should buy art because you love the piece," said Alexander.

King, who studied both art history and business as an undergrad, said it was important to teach someone who would not normally take an art history course and watch that person develop into someone who appreciates art, and may even want to become an art collector.

The course "creates a real excitement for art. All the students ended the course saying that they'd like to acquire art," he said. Students learned that they don't have to go to Sotheby's or Christie's for their purchases. They can buy locally or even from fellow students to get started. It's all about loving what you buy, he said.

Thompson said his favorite part of the class was gaining a new perspective. "We learned about art that was easy to live with - think Monet, Van Gogh and Matisse - and about art that is challenging and occasionally downright ugly. As I learned about the various facets that can lend a piece its monetary value, I came to understand what forms of art I appreciate on an aesthetic level as well."

"Going to school and having art around you can only enhance your appreciation of fine arts," said Poynor. "I personally was able, as a student, to buy an Andy Warhol soup can print from a Baltimore gallery that brought many works on paper to duPont Hall for sale. No work was over $25. That was the beginning for me."

The course will be taught again in Spring Term 2016. Alexander said The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy study organization, featured the course at a recent conference as an example of revitalizing the business-liberal arts connection.

At W&L, Alexander said, "we have the opportunity to teach multi-disciplinary courses, which gives students a unique educational experience."

Tradition of Innovation

Washington and Lee occupies a unique position among its peer institutions, offering not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age.

In Action People and Programs

Washington and Lee occupies a special position among its peer institutions, offering not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age. Strong international and interdisciplinary programs address some of our most challenging contemporary questions, while our professional programs in law, business, journalism and entrepreneurship shape campus conversations in ways that do not occur in other liberal arts colleges. These professional programs benefit because they exist in a liberal arts setting, and our liberal arts programs benefit because they exist alongside areas of inquiry attuned to the problems facing our society.

Our commitment to innovation extends beyond our academic programs to our academic calendar, which features two 12-week terms and one 4-week Spring Term. This short semester at the end of the year allows students to focus their energies on one discipline and, often, to study abroad. With small class sizes, students in these Spring Term classes often work in the field, studying everything from plants to salamanders to stars. Students craving an artistic opportunity can make and produce music videos or learn the finer points of poetry. And these are only a few of the courses.

Co-curricular programs like the Rockbridge Report, the AdLib Conference, the Entrepreneurship Summit and the Williams Investment Society emphasize the link between the professional world and the liberal arts, effectively demonstrating the myriad ways students can use their liberal arts education after graduation. Facilities like the new IQ Center and the Center for Global Learning offer state-of-the-art technology that allows undergraduates to interact with professors-and the world-in new and exciting ways.

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At a Glance Facts and Figures

W&L's calendar features two 12-week terms followed by the innovative 4-week spring term.
44 Johnson Scholarships awarded annually.
5 Million Plus: the value of the stock portfolio managed entirely by students as part of the Williams Investment Society.
190 new courses created by W&L faculty for the innovative 4-week Spring Term.
W&L broke ground on the $13.5 million Center for Global Learning in 2014.

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