Monday, July 18, 2011

Greg Cook, of the awesome blog New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, and I have been chatting recently about the recent developments at the Rose Art Museum. We thought we'd share those comments with you; below is the first installment in what we hope will be a series of similar conversations on sundry art-related topics . . .

TG: So . . . here we are, two and a half years after Brandeis University first threatened to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off its collection - and the whole storm seems to have suddenly just . . . blown over. Brandeis still has the Rose, its gallery is being renovated, and they’re looking for a new director. Meanwhile the lawsuit filed to block the sale of the art has officially reached a settlement.  And as you can see from the below abbreviation of a key paragraph of the settlement (follow link to full statement, posted by "CultureGrrl"  Lee Rosenbaum), the plaintiffs seem to have gotten Brandeis to agree to just about all their terms:

The Parties agree that the Rose is - and will remain - a university art museum open to the public, professionally staffed, and dedicated to its primary purpose of collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting fine art . . . The Rose is and will remain an active and valued part of Brandeis, contributing to its broader educational mission . . . The programs of the Rose will continue to adhere to the overall mission of the University, embracing its values of academic excellence, social justice, and freedom of expression.  In keeping with these purposes, Brandeis will hire and employ a Director suitable and well qualified . . . the Director will have a particular expertise in modern and contemporary art . . . Brandeis fully intends to continue to maintain the Museum in accordance with these terms.  Brandeis has no aim, plan, design, strategy or intention to sell any artwork donated to or purchased by the University on behalf of the Museum.

So - mission accomplished, and for once in the art world we have what looks like a happy ending - happier than perhaps anyone might have thought possible two years ago. Indeed, I count as one of my major errors since I began writing The Hub Review the fact that I took too seriously (at first) the claims of the previous Brandeis administration. I thought the university could in fact be in such dire financial straits that selling off part of the Rose might be a necessity. I opposed the sale, of course, but it seemed to me that even floating the idea of selling the art was so crazy that any sane administration would only do it if their backs were literally against the wall. But you were always more skeptical of them – perhaps because you were following the case so closely!

GC: My sense from early on was that Brandeis administrators were panicking and threatening to sell off treasures to fill a short-term budget shortfall. It was a crazy time for everyone economically, so perhaps their panic was understandable. But it was still lousy leadership. Early on, I ran the numbers from tax filings and Brandeis's public statements, and the shortfall the adminstrators were talking about seemed to be roughly 5 percent per year. That's not the kind of financial trouble that forces you to pawn grandma's jewels to survive. And if they had hurried to sell some of their treasures then--like their Warhol--they would likely have gotten a bad deal in their fire-sale haste. (Though they probably would have gotten decent prices if they waited a bit, as the art market rebounded within a year or two.) Add it all together and the plan was so crazy that it did make me wonder, too, if their financial troubles were somehow worse than reported. Because otherwise the administrators' actions just didn't make much sense.

But I also came to suspect that when the administration talked of closing the Rose and selling the collection they were overstating things. In retrospect, I wonder if Brandeis administrators may have been floating the idea of "closing the Rose" so that they could skirt some museum etiquette, particularly concerning the sale of art from the collection, while in fact continuing to operate something relatively similar to the Rose. And I doubt they ever really planned to sell all the art - too much trouble! - just a handful of the major treasures, which would have gutted the heart of the collection, but still left a lot of art.

A Rose treasure: Willem de Kooning's Untitled
TG: Do you think the administration was surprised by the outspoken reaction to the announced sale? I’ve often wondered if they imagined the collection was more obscure than it actually proved to be. I don’t think it’s widely recognized by the public at large, but clearly within the professional arts sphere it had quite the profile.

GC: Yeah, Brandeis administrators probably thought they could get away with attacking the Rose because they sensed the museum's lack of public presence in the area. But Brandeis and the Rose has been a significant training ground for art folks who are now around the country, including Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg. Which gets me mulling the power of the art community. I keep thinking that the old Brandeis president, head finance guy, etc., might still have those jobs at Brandeis if they hadn't targeted the Rose. Look at all the other schools --including Harvard--that suffered major financial losses in the Great Recession. Pretty much all of their administrators remain in place. It seems Brandeis leaders didn't piss people off with their (mis)management of the school's finances -- but going after the Rose seemed to turn the tide against them; that was their undoing.

TG: Well, it seemed like such a philistine move to make – and so blatantly anti-intellectual! And so much of the criticism of post-war art is tied up with the Jewish intellectual tradition, it seemed in a deep sense like an attack on a certain segment of Jewish identity (even if many of the artists in question were not Jewish).

But it strikes me that the donor community at large may have ultimately had more influence over the administration than the arts community alone. Because I can’t believe this played well among potential Brandeis donors. Indeed, selling off the Rose collection betrayed and insulted the trust and intentions of precisely the kind of donors the university was simultaneously trying to woo! And if you couldn’t trust the administration in their intentions vis-à-vis the Rose, how could you trust them about anything?

GC: Yeah, you're dead on about this offending donors, and the repercussions of that. Just looking at the Rose lawsuit, what you see is a group of four donors fighting to preserve what they and their family members helped build at Brandeis. Jonathan Lee, who formerly ran the Rose board and was part of the group that successfully sued the school to prevent the closing of the Rose and sale of its collection, also helped talk James Rosenquist out of showing at the Rose last summer. Certainly, in the end, the lawsuit may have functioned more as a public protest than as a substantial legal case, but it helped sustain national pressure on Brandeis when the controversy could have faded away and allowed Brandeis to do whatever it wanted with the Rose. To reporters, the lawsuit represented serious, monied opposition, not just whiny art types without power, which kept the story in the Globe, New York Times, etc., and put pressure on Brandeis leaders and its pool of donors.

TG: Still, it did seem that the administration fairly quickly retreated from those initial proposals (they got the message to some degree); but then things seemed frozen in a kind of holding pattern for the last, oh, nearly two years – the kind of holding pattern you’d expect from a bureaucracy that had decided not to follow through on its plans, but was also unwilling to admit it had made a mistake. And the lawsuit likewise seemed to be floating in some sort of limbo – with many people questioning - on technical grounds - whether the plaintiffs really had a case. Then suddenly it was announced the lawsuit had been settled. What do you think made the difference?

Ellsworth Kelly's Blue White
GC: I spoke with Jonathan Lee when the settlement was announced and he argued, correctly I think, that what allowed the lawsuit to be settled was a new Brandeis administration replacing the previous one, which had stubbornly clung to its bad Rose plan, even as it became clearer and clearer how bad it was. Another sign of bad leadership. But I think that new Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, who started work at the school in January, was also correct when he recently told me that nearly two and a half years after this all began, Brandeis is in a much more stable financial situation, and that has allowed the school to back away from its threats to the Rose. The old Brandeis leaders probably had backed away from their threats to gut the Rose months and months ago, but who would trust them when they now said they'd changed their minds? The school needed to take concrete actions to show that it was actually committed to the Rose again. The first was the renovations to the Rose this summer. Then the settlement of the lawsuit.

TG: So a change of administration, and a general improvement in the economy, together are probably what saved the Rose. Somehow I don’t find that explanation entirely re-assuring. In the second of our conversations, Greg and I will discuss what steps could be taken to help ensure the Rose’s future existence.

(To be continued . . .)

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