Monday, January 26, 2009

Brandeis: Art Not "Core Academic Mission"

Maurizio Cattelan, Daddy Daddy, 2008 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

"I don't like to sell paintings to museums because then I can't get them back."  
- Larry Gagosian, quoted in The New York Times, 1991

Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum (RAM) was founded in 1961.  This summer it will cease to exist.  The university announced today that they would be closing the museum and selling off the 8,000 pieces in its permanent collection to help close what is reported to be a $10 million budget deficit.  

University President Jehuda Reinharz shared his peculiar logic with the Globe:
"This is not a happy day.... The Rose is a jewel. But for the most part it's a hidden jewel.  It does not have great foot traffic and most of the great works we have, we are just not able to exhibit."
Public attention is a questionable measure of value for any cultural institution devoted to education and preservation, but it seems particularly bizarre when judging a university art museum.  Also, even accepting that line of argument, I find it hard to believe that the Rose Art Museum receives less "foot traffic" than many other departments at Brandeis.  

You might think that a university that owned works by de Kooning, Johns, Hofmann, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Goldin, Judd, Serra, and Sherman, among numerous others, would want to highlight and embrace that collection.  Instead, Reinharz and the trustees decided to do exactly the opposite, reasoning that closing the museum was actually a sound academic decision in a letter to the Brandeis community: "[O]ur response to the crisis is to focus and sustain our core academic mission."

Exchanging its art collection for cash, Brandeis should easily get the money it needs.  (As Paddy Johnson points out, the gap could probably be closed by one of a few works in the collection.)  In doing so, it will liquidate nearly half a century of public trust.  Suddenly it's hard to get too excited about the National Academy controversy.


Anonymous said...

Boy, is this a thinly-researched comment.

Brandeis has, in fact, spent years trying to figure out what to do with its incredibly rich collection. It has launched aggressive marketing and membership campaigns. Attempted to raise funds for a building large enough to actually display its treasures. Worked to integrate the collection into the curriculum.

Unfortunately, it turns out that simply having it isn't enough to make them come. The Rose's annual attendance is a disgrace. Its membership is tiny. Its shows reach the art world, but rarely beyond. And it almost never has the opportunity to exhibit its priceless works of art; what little gallery space it has is (rightly) devoted to showcasing emerging artists.

It's a mismatch. A collection of donated works, most of which were worth relatively little when they were freely given by artists and collectors, intended to enrich the life of the university - but which have become immensely valuable. Meanwhile, the university itself is effectively broke, and laying off staff and faculty, while trying to enroll more undergrads and slashing grad school admissions.

I don't think anyone wanted this. But you've got to pause to consider the alternative. Brandeis isn't organized or chartered as a museum. It's supposed to be a university. The next step - already in the process of approval - is to axe graduate programs and less popular majors. And yes, the arts probably would've been among the first to go.

Instead, Brandeis will vastly increase the size of its endowment, and use the proceeds of these sales to bridge its budget gap until it can again gain access to temporarily frozen funds. (The art should bring more than $300 million.) The building will be converted to art studios and art education space - bolstering the very programs that would otherwise have been cut, and reinforcing the institution's commitment to them.

I'm not applauding the need for this. I don't think anyone is. But it's not that art isn't core; just the opposite. Art education is a core mission; art exhibition is not. And if something had to be cut, better to deaccession seldom-viewed paintings gathering dust in the vaults.

Anonymous said...

If I have to pay a credit card, bill do I sell my house? This wholesale deaccession is short-sighted. The previous comment points out that works "which were worth relatively little when they were freely given by artists and collectors, intended to enrich the life of the university - but which have become immensely valuable." To me the operative words are "intended to enrich the life of the university." Access to works of art is part of art education, that's no doubt why the artists freely gave, and that's why this is an abrogation of trust. - Roshi

Sixteen Miles of String said...


Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your added insight into the history of the Rose Art Museum.

If Brandeis has been historically unable to build an audience for their impressive collection, then it should be working to place their works with institutions that can show those works. That's fine if art exhibition is not a "core mission" of the Brandeis, but then the works should have been given to another institution (from what you're saying) a long time ago.

The donations that were made to RAM were given for a lot of different reasons. I doubt that any of the donors intended for them to be capitalized and sold off to meet short-term budgetary needs.

At the very least, one would hope that Brandeis could find some sort of middle ground, arranging sales to institutions that will keep the work on display. Instead, the Trustees will be using a "top auction house" and many of the works will disappear completely from public view.