Brandeis' Attempt to Turn Art into Assets

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Erik Jacobs / The New York Times / Redux

Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.

There's a Stephen Sondheim lyric that says it all: "Art isn't easy." Last week Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., stunned both the academic and art worlds when it announced that it would shut down its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection. The reason was an institutional budget crisis — not at the museum, which is largely self-sufficient, but at the university. Since June, Brandeis has seen its endowment fall from $712 million to $530 million. Over the next six years it projects a budget shortfall totaling $79 million. And the collapse of Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme has taken a toll on important Brandeis donors. Two of the biggest, Carl and Ruth Shapiro, lost $400 million in family money and half the assets — $145 million — of their philanthropic foundation.

Meanwhile there was the Rose, with its collection of more than 7,100 objects, including works by major American artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. In 2007 the collection was assessed by the auction house Christie's to be worth around $350 million. The downturn in the art market since last fall makes its value today anybody's guess, but it would still command a sizable sum. Brandeis trustees insist that if they can't raise money by selling art, they will have to reduce staff by 30% — there were already cuts last year — or eliminate 200 of the school's 360 faculty members. (Read Richard Lacayo on earlier cases involved protested sales by museums.)

That Christie's appraisal of the Rose collection was ordered up by the museum's now thoroughly traumatized director, Michael Rush, who did not learn that Brandeis had plans for his museum until the day the school made its initial announcement. He wanted to arrive at a dollar figure for the collection, he says, for insurance purposes, but also to raise the profile of the museum in the eyes of campus administrators. "I thought that the more information they had about how great this place was, the better it would be," he says. "That may have backfired." But as the days went on the story kept changing. A few days after the initial announcement, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz told an interviewer for a Boston public radio station that his school didn't intend to sell the entire collection, just some of it. And one day after that, Reinharz said the school would not have to sell anything in the unlikely event that the stock market recovered. All the same, he added, the Rose Museum would be closed and its building converted into an art study and research center with a gallery space.

Then this week Reinharz sent a letter to Brandeis students and faculty to apologize for his confusing mishandling of the whole affair. "The statements [from the university ]gave the misleading impression that we were selling the entire collection immediately," he wrote, "which is not true. The University may have the option, subject to applicable legal requirements and procedures, to sell some artworks if necessary, but I assure you that other options will also be considered." In his letter Reinharz also said that "the museum will remain open," but as an arts study center, "more fully integrated into the university's central educational mission."

Reinharz issued his letter after receiving one signed by more than 60 faculty members complaining that they had not been consulted on the future of the Rose and urging him to suspend any decisions on the matter. Last week a group of Brandeis students also staged a sit-in to protest the closing.

So just why is Brandeis so intent on repurposing the Rose, in whatever way? For a university with a considerable art-history program, which Brandeis is, to remake its museum into something other than a museum is like an agriculture school selling off its livestock. It means eliminating an important teaching resource.

As for liquidating even part of the collection, that's a good way to alienate potential future donors — assuming that Brandeis sees a place in its future at all for displaying art. Marlene Persky, who chairs the collections committee of the Rose, had been planning to give the school a work by Vik Muniz, an artist who is represented in the collections of most major American museums. Not anymore. "The things in my collection are objects I've loved and lived with," she says. "If I'm donating them to a museum, I expect that to be a place that I trust, where the objects will be treated with the care I give them in my own home. That's true of any collector giving pieces to a museum."

But if Brandeis remains intent on selling part of its collection, there may be a certain logic in getting out of the museum business first. The school may be hoping that if the Rose is transformed into something other than a museum — or just into something that doesn't call itself a museum — it can circumvent the code of ethics that governs the sale of art by museums. No museum means no rules to observe, especially the most inconvenient one — that museums should not sell art from their permanent collections for any purpose other than to raise funds to purchase more art. By the guidelines of the several associations that represent American museums, emergency sell-offs to pay the bills are forbidden.

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