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.

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The point of that guideline is to push museums — or, in the case of campus museums, the schools that own them — to go to every other fundraising and budget-cutting option first. Otherwise the temptation for them to treat their collections as disposable assets would be constant and irresistible. A canvas by Picasso or Warhol could be some of the most valuable square footage in the world. (Valuable and portable. A university's cyclotron may also be worth quite a bit, but just try to load it on a truck.) And in times of trouble, the collections of campus museums are especially vulnerable, because they figure as just a part of the picture for university trustees who have a whole school to think about.

All the same, museum groups have few means by which to enforce their codes. They used to limit themselves mostly to motions of disapproval when members went astray. But last December, after the National Academy Museum in New York City sold two paintings from its collection to cover a chronic operating deficit, the Association of Art Museum Directors threw the place into art-world purgatory. It forbade its members from lending work to Academy exhibitions, which effectively prevents it from mounting the loan shows that are the lifeblood of the museum world.

But when a school attempts to liquidate part of its art collection, an option that it appears Brandeis is still considering, museum groups aren't the only bodies paying attention. Three years ago, Fisk University, facing a serious budget shortfall, attempted to sell two paintings from a collection donated to the school in 1949 by the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. A Tennessee chancery court turned down the deal, finding that it violated the terms of O'Keeffe's bequest. When Fisk then negotiated a $30 million deal to share its entire collection with the museum being built in Bentonville, Ark., by the Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, the court refused that too, for the same reason. Fisk is appealing that decision, but it still faces the opposition not only of the court but of Tennessee attorney general Dennis Cooper, who entered the case to oppose a sale on the grounds that it would deprive the people of Tennessee of an important cultural asset.

People who oppose any attempted sell-off by Brandeis are hoping that Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley can put some obstacles in the school's path. Her office has already announced that it will examine the intent of the donors of any work that Brandeis attempts to sell, to determine whether they placed restrictions on what uses the school could make of it. Jonathan Lee, chairman of the Rose's board of overseers, has also begun discussions with Coakley's office to see if there are other ways it might intervene. Meanwhile Brandeis has to embark on the complicated process of identifying just which works, if any, it wants to bring to market — a market that's getting worse by the day. "This is going to take a very long time," says Lee. "I don't believe the university will be in a position soon to sell anything." Did we mention that art isn't easy?

See TIME’s Top 10 Museum Exhibitions of 2008.

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