Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Voices from the Rose

A number of people connected to Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum were kind enough to speak to me as part of my essay on the museum’s future. I was unable to include much from these interviews in my article, so here’s some more of what they told me.

Outgoing Rose Director Michael Rush: “As far as I’m concerned, the historical Rose Museum as we have known it closes May 17 because that’s the end of the curated exhibitions and public programs that we’ve had for the past 48 years. At the end of June is when the majority of the staff leaves.”

Jerry Samet, a Brandeis philosophy professor for nearly 25 years, who chairs the 11-member Future of the Rose Committee: “The university made a series of terrible blunders since January. I see that there’s almost universal agreement to that.”

Samet: “The Board of Trustees has authorized the administration to sell paintings if it absolutely comes to that to solve a liquidity crisis or close a budget gap. But I think, as we say in the report, that the administration has stepped back from the precipice which was the [Jan. 26] announcement that we will close the Rose and liquidate the art collection. … The Rose will stay open as far as we can tell as a museum and the collection will not be liquidated and will continue to be shown. … But the administration has behaved so badly in the past, and the breakdown of trust is such, that there are a lot of people who are unconvinced that this isn’t just some complicated set of maneuvers meant to deflect attention from some other plan. I don’t see it that way. I have no reason to be that suspicious of the administration. I think they just made horrible blunders as opposed having some venal purpose. I think they thought that this is like a patient that has a gangrenous limb. If you do it drip, drip, drip, drip it’s just going to extend the torture that the whole community can’t take. So let’s just do it all at once and get it over with. And that was completely tone-deaf misreading of the community-wide sentiment.”

Jonathan Lee, chairman of the Rose’s board of directors: “I feel that I must speak out to try to protect this art collection first and foremost. I feel this art collection was given by people and the university is the steward for future generations. It was given by people who thought they were giving to a museum that would behave as a museum and therefore hold it as a steward for future generations of students and the general public. Because that’s what museums do. So I feel that I have to speak up to try to preserve this collection in New England, first and foremost.”

Roy Dawes, the Rose’s assistant director of operations for six years and a member of the Future of the Rose Committee, will become the new leader of the Rose as director of museum operations after other staff depart at the end of June: “It was a jaw-dropping moment when he [Michael Rush] said the university has decided to close the museum and sell the collection. Of course that isn’t the case anymore. And I think anybody in the administration would be the first to say it was a mistake to come out with that kind of announcement.”

Lee: “On Jan. 26, Jehuda Reinharz, the school president, said to me: ‘Jon I can sell the art or I have to fire 200 out of the 360 faculty. What would you do?’ He said to another overseer, ‘I can save the art museum but I will have to close the university.’”

Samet on Brandeis: “We’re not facing a life or death situation.”

Rush: “The thrust of the decision, which was to get money from the sale of key artworks, I think remains the same. I don’t think much is going to change that.”

Charles Giuliano, Brandeis class of 1963, who went on to become a Boston-area art critic, teacher and curator, on how Sam Hunter built the Rose’s core collection: “They did that through courage and imagination and through risk taking. That was the Brandeis lesson: risk taking.”

Giuliano: “Jehuda Reinharz is the heart and soul of Brandeis today. … I will never set foot on that campus again.”

Rush: “I think this decision, which is about the sale of artwork, is connected to the sorry exaggerated monetizing of art that has gone on since the 1980s. I would say that this is part and parcel of the intensely inflated market and concern about money which has gone to the core of the art world. In terms of the current economic moment in the world I think it goes to how panic is a part of the response that people are having. I think this decision was made in panic. I think it was thought that is was sort of clever and smart, look what we’re doing to help save Brandeis. But I think it was a panic-based decision. It was totally unthought out. The process of making the decision was utterly disastrous.”

Rush: “They want the money. This whole story is about money. … This is perceived as the university’s solution to their budget problems. So if they’re saying now that they may only sell a couple works, well all they have to do is sell two works to get about 100 million bucks. Even in the current environment they could probably get close to $100 million with a couple of artworks. Probably. And then you have totally compromised the mission, destroyed it, forever. Because you can never get them back. And the greatness of the collection is based precisely on those key, key works, largely from mid 20th century American art, like the Andy Warhol, the Lichtenstein, de Kooning.”

Dawes on the threatened sale of Rose art: “I don’t think we’re going to know about that for at least a year. It’s still a possibility. I hope in my heart of hearts that it doesn’t happen at all. If it does happen it going to be a very, very small number of pieces. And it will only happen if this economy continues to decline and the endowments continue to decline.”

Dawes: “The threat of that [sale] changes anything. The term we’ve been using in the committee is the museum would be off the grid. Via the AAMD [Association of Art Museum Directors], we would not be able to borrow [art] and we would not be able to lend, which is huge. But I can tell you that the university still wants to have a museum that’s open to the public .. that will remain no matter if there’s a sale or not.”

Dawes: “I’m right in the middle of this in a number of ways. I’m in a position where I have to believe that they’re [Brandeis administrators] being genuine in their desire to have this museum open to the public beginning on July 22 and going forward. That’s my plan. And that’s my charge. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Samet: “We have suffered a public relations nightmare. It’s not clear what effect it will have on the bottom-line aspects of the university. In the end I’d be surprised if our donations were be more down than other universities. We have the general economic crisis, the Rose crisis, the Madoff crisis which affects more of our donors than perhaps other university donors. So who knows which of these factors is really the operative one.”


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