Library Can’t Delay Any Longer In Art Sale

On behalf of the James Prendergast Library, I thank The Post-Journal for its editorial supporting the library this past Sunday. I think it is also necessary to further explain the library·s position and predicament.

The library has experienced financial hardship for several years now. 2016, however, gave the library its worst financial news in many decades. First, the vote for community funding failed quite decisively. This meant the library would have to begin to reduce hours and services to the community. Next, the City of Jamestown cut its funding to the library by an unprecedented and extreme amount. The library lost over 70% of its city funding in 2016. Now the library board must make extremely difficult decisions in order to keep the library open.

The library board has reduced staff to its lowest point in modern memory. The library board has reduced the library’s hours to the minimum amount allowed by law. The library board has further reduced the already low budget for new materials. These cuts cannot continue for the library to stay open.

The library board also embarked on a strategic plan development project last year. I thank the generosity of the local foundations that allowed the library to undertake this process. The strategic plan process started with community input including approximately ten focus groups with 119 people from the community participating. The library board members were not invited to the focus groups so as to not influence opinions. We also held two forums in which the general public was invited to participate. The overwhelming majority of the community participants, 99%, stated that the library should no longer have an art collection or even be in the “museum business.”

The library’s new strategic plan reflects the community’s input, both from the community focus groups and the 2016 vote. The library can no longer support an art collection or gallery while maintaining minimal library services. The library also faces an issue with fundraising where the library owns a valuable art collection but has up to now refused to sell it.

In order to sell the majority of the art collection, the library needed the permission of the Chautauqua County Surrogate’s Court. These are the paintings purchased for the library from the funds set aside in the will of Mary Prendergast after she had donated considerably more money to create the library. The New York State Attorney General was a party to the art litigation because the library is a not-for-profit entity.

At the same time as the litigation was proceeding, the library did enter into informal discussions with Jesse Marion, a resident of Texas, who expressed an interest in buying the collection. Mr. Marion made an offer to purchase the library’s art collection at the minimum value stated in our auction estimate. The library board never voted to accept Mr. Marion’s offer. I also understand that Mr. Marion had discussions with a loosely organized group of people in Chautauqua County about the future of the art collection. However, no one in Chautauqua County has ever approached the library board about purchasing the collection.

The Attorney General objected to the library selling the art to Mr. Marion for its minimum value.

The Attorney General would consent to a sale of the art collection only if the library agreed to use an auction house that could market the collection nationally and internationally.

The library board found itself in a predicament. The library board had an offer to sell the art collection to for its minimum value. On the other hand, if the library board refused the Attorney General’s stipulation, then further litigation would have delayed any sale of the collection for at least eighteen to twenty-four months once you factor in the appellate process and then time to market the potential auction. Even then, there is no guarantee of any particular outcome in the judicial system.

The library’s funding problems dictate that the library cannot wait up to another twenty-four months to sell the art collection. The library board voted to accept the settlement proposal with the Attorney General allowing the library to sell the art but only through an auction house. The library board’s fiduciary duty is to the James Prendergast Library and not to other organizations.

The library will now proceed to sell its art collection through an auction house that can successfully handle a collection of this size and quality.

The bright spot is the future income that the proceeds from the auction will generate. The library board will place the auction proceeds in our endowment with a realistic goal of generating $35,000 to $40,000 per year in new income.

Selling the art collection is a key part of keeping the library open for years to come and, I believe, reflects the consensus of our community.

R. Thomas Rankin is president of the James Prendergast Library Association board.


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