The art blog-sphere is abuzz with the news of Brandeis University’s decision to close its Rose Art Museum, and sell off all 6,000 works in their collection to raise capital for the university. Understandably, there is a fair amount of vitriol in the air swirling around this announcement. Here are the facts via Artnet News:
PROTESTS, RUMORS SWIRL IN ROSE CLOSING
Art lovers and professionals alike were stunned by the news that Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., was set to shutter its Rose Art Museum by the end of summer 2009, with plans to liquidate the entirety of its 6,000-piece collection. The decision was made unilaterally by the university board of trustees, and announced with no warning — not even Michael Rush, the Rose’s director, was briefed in advance. “I’m in shock,” Rush wrote Artnet Magazine. “We didn’t know anything about this.”
The reaction so far is anger, to say the least. The head of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries announced that the sell-off “puts all of our roles at our institutions in jeopardy,” referring to college gallery directors who depend on the largesse and good will of private donors. The Rose has been built primarily through gifts. As recently as March 2008, it was touting donations from illustrious patrons valued at $2 million, including works by Marcel Dzama, Mike Kelley, Robert Motherwell, Vic Muniz, James Rosenquist, Joel Shapiro and Jessica Stockholder.
On campus, meanwhile, an editorial in the Justice, a student paper, compared the decision to “a junkie pawning his wedding ring,” and called for students to “fight back.” A student sit-in is already planned at the Rose for Thursday at 1 p.m. Such turmoil is likely to make any auction house nervous about taking on the sale. Public outcry caused a headache for Christie’s when Virginia’s Randolph College decided to use the New York auctioneer to deaccession some major works from the Maier Museum; in that scandal, too, the university employed heavy-handed tactics to avoid consulting with faculty, students and museum staff. Those sales were modest compared to the wholesale liquidation proposed by Brandeis.
Founded in 1961, the Rose is the source of considerable pride on campus. It contains notable works by Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Morris Louis, among others. Among the pieces that might be particularly coveted by the art market, according to those familiar with the collection, are Robert Raushenberg’s Second Time Painting, and Andy Warhol’s early-career Saturday Disaster. Brandeis said that it plans to replace the museum with a “fine arts teaching center with studio space and an exhibition gallery.” University reps said that an unnamed “major art dealer” would oversee the fire sale from the school’s end.
Brandeis has said that it faces an annual budget shortfall of $10 million, and has already proposed slashing staff and increasing enrollment (great combination, that!), as well as other exotic endeavors like moving from individual majors to a system of “meta-majors.” More important, perhaps, is the role that the Bernard Madoff swindle may be playing in Brandeis’ radical move. The largest patrons to the university were Carl and Ruth Shapiro, key figures in the Madoff scam, whose foundation has lost big [see Artnet News, Dec. 16, 2008]. The Shapiros are notable museum supporters; one unconfirmed report has the museum holding many works from the Shapiros as “promised gifts.”
One auction-house insider contacted by Artnet Magazine noted that just one of the better works from the Rose collection might fill the $10-million budget gap, adding, “There must be a bigger picture there” — a sentiment shared by many. While Brandeis has an immediate funding short-fall, and is looking for gap-fillers to get it through the recession, officials note that the process of selling the art “could take up to about a couple of years, minimum.” There is no precedent for selling off a university collection of this size.
If anyone needed proof that we’re in an economic recession, I would say that this is it. The supreme irony here is that even if the University does decide to sell the collection, they’ve probably picked the absolute worst time to do so.
I can’t help but think that Brandeis’s initial attempt to spin the news into some sort of proof that they have renewed their commitment to their students was unwise, and has contributed significantly to the outcry. Given their 10 million dollar budget shortfall and 350 million dollar collection, that explanation rings a little hollow, and from what I’m reading, folks aren’t buying it. Indeed, if the budget shortfall is a drop in the bucket compared to the value of the collection, why close the entire museum and liquidate the entire collection? Is the function of the university museum so undervalued there that an entire institution can be cast away so easily? No matter what will go in its place, the loss of the Rose Museum, and the students easy, ready access to such a stellar collection is a tragedy. And an unprecedented one, at that.
For a few more perspectives on the story check out our own Duke Chronicle Blog – The Playground, Edward Winkelman, the Boston Globe, an excellent article on Art Fag City, and a full roundup of the most recent articles on NEWSgrist. Finally check out this very interesting interview with the Rose Art Museum’s director, Michael Rush, on Modern Art Notes.