Friday, January 30, 2009

Bread and Puppet’s “Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle”

Here is Bread and Puppet Theater rehearsing its “Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle” at the Boston Center for the Arts on Jan. 27, as photographed by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research’s food critic. The Glover, Vermont, company performs the show at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus a family-friendly circus at 3 p.m. each of those days.

Question: Will Brandeis close?

Could Brandeis be on the brink of closing?

I don’t mean to be alarmist here. But why is Brandeis being so weird about releasing info about its financial situation? And why do the numbers leaking out not add up to the drastic moves the school claims are needed?

Brandeis leaders could be overplaying their financial difficulties to make a better case for the trustees’ decision to shutter the Rose and pawn off its irreplaceable collection. But what if they’re underplaying the numbers to hide how bad they’ve let things get?

A doomsday scenario might explain why they’ve put a liquidation specialist in charge of the board of trustees.

“I would characterize it as serious, but not dire,” Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon insisted to me on Tuesday. “We face serious challenges, but we believe they are surmountable. … There isn’t a panic here.”

Tuesday, Nealon refused to be pinned down on even rudimentary financial information, like how big a deficit Brandeis estimates that it is facing. At first he disputed the $10 million number that has been reported by various news outlets. Then he said, “that would be one end of the spectrum. And the other end could be much higher over the next five years. … But we don’t know that. It all depends on what the economy is going to do, how is it going to rebound and when.”

When I continued to press him for a number he said, “I don’t know.” He added that he’d have to look into it. He hasn’t gotten back to me.

The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that Brandeis faces a “projected deficit of $79 million over the next six years.” In 2007, the most recent year for which tax filings are available, the school’s total expenses were $304.2 million.

So if the Beast is correct, that’s a $13.2 million shortfall per year. But put it into context: That’s only a 4.3 percent deficit per year.

Is that really what has Brandeis chief operating officer Peter French floating doomsday scenarios to the Beast: “Faced with the prospect of closing 40 percent of the university’s buildings, reducing staff by an additional 30 percent, or firing 200 of its 360 faculty members—any of which, French said, would drastically change the university’s mission and essentially cripple it—‘We’d rather use Rose.’”

Really? A 4.3 percent budget deficit means cuts of 30 to 55 percent across Brandeis departments? The numbers don’t add up.

Thus I’m back to the underplaying-the-numbers-to-hide-how-bad-they’ve-let-things-get theory.

What if Brandeis leaders pawn off the Rose collection and wind up closing the school anyway?

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Dear readers, please contact me here if you've got info to share about the Rose or Brandeis.

Our Brandeis and Rose reports:
Brandeis’s liquidator-in-chief.
The first painting Brandeis should pawn.
Question: Brandeis financial management?
Brandeis president’s e-mail on Rose.
AG on Brandeis's plans.
Brandeis’s money.
Update: Brandeis to close Rose, sell art.
Brandeis to close Rose.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Brandeis’s liquidator-in-chief

The chairman of Brandeis’s board of trustees since 2007 is Malcolm L. Sherman of Wellesley. He also happens to be chairman of Gordon Brothers Group LLC of Boston, which the school describes as “an advisory, restructuring and investment firm” and The New York Times calls “a leading retail liquidator.”

So why are we surprised that when Brandeis hits a financial rough patch, his Brandeis board of trustees decided Monday to shutter the school’s Rose Art Museum and liquidate its irreplaceable art collection?

Sherman has served on the boards of several local cultural organizations, but his career is marked by repeatedly being at the wrong place at the wrong time – when companies he ran sputtered, filed for bankruptcy, were gobbled up by competitors.

Sherman is a former overseer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a former chairman of the Museum of Science, where he remains a trustee, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He currently serves on the boards of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Museum of Science, Two Ten International Foundation, New England Medical Center, the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary, The Fourth of July Foundation, and the Molecular Cardiology Research Institute.

Biographical accounts of Sherman always note his time at the reins of Zayre. He began work with the discount retailer chain in 1968. He attained the rank of president of the Zayre Stores division of the Zayre Corporation before he left in 1987, which was shortly before the discount store chain announced it would shutter its automotive service business and expected a $10 million to $15 million net operating loss for the second fiscal quarter. In the company's fourth quarter of that year, the division posted an operating loss of $16.7 million. (That's $31.2 million in today's dollars, which makes Brandeis's $10 million shortfall this year look small.)

Zayre was sold to its competitor Ames in 1988. The Zayre name was abandoned by Ames a couple years later. (Ames itself went bust in 2002. New York Times: “Ames encountered its first significant financial difficulties after it acquired the struggling Zayre chain of discount stores in 1988.”)

Sherman became chairman of the ailing vacuum cleaner company Regina Corporation in 1988. He left the following year, after it filed for bankruptcy and was acquired by the Electrolux Corporation.

Sherman was hired as chief executive of Morse Shoe in Canton in June 1992. He was brought in to rescue the struggling company. But by January 1993, The Patiot Ledger reported, Morse was being sold, the new owner planned to cut staff, and Sherman was leaving with a severance package of a year’s salary of $400,000 and 18 months of benefits, including the lease of a luxury car.

He wound up at Ekco in 1993, and was named chairman of the board and CEO in 1996. He was running the company when it was acquired by Corning Consumer Products in 1999.

And so on.

It makes one wonder: Was Sherman named chairman of Brandeis’s board of trustees in May 2007 because the board thought him the perfect guy to lead the destructive actions it’s taking now? I’d ask him myself but he’s not responded to my attempts to reach him via the university and his home.

Dear readers, please contact me here if you've got info to share about the Rose or Brandeis.

Our previous reports:
The first painting Brandeis should pawn.
Question: Brandeis financial management?
Brandeis president’s e-mail on Rose.
AG on Brandeis's plans.
Brandeis’s money.
Update: Brandeis to close Rose, sell art.
Brandeis to close Rose.

The first painting Brandeis should pawn

If Brandeis really has to sell off the Rose’s art collection so that it can save the children or whatever, we nominate Andy Warhol’s portrait of Louis Brandeis from his 1980 series “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” as the first one to take to the pawn shop. It only got donated to the Rose in 2006, so we doubt that anybody at Brandeis really got that attached to it.

Question: Brandeis financial management?

Brandeis says it is in deep financial trouble, mainly because its endowment took a hit in the market crash, falling (according to the Globe) from $712 million to $549 million. (Which still seems to be better off than it was at the start of 2005.)

And Brandeis says its usual donors can’t come to the rescue because they got hit in the market and/or suckered by Madoff.

So the school announces a plan to sell off its irreplaceable art collection, and what? Put the proceeds into its endowment and invest it in the market?

In this week's Phoenix, my commentary on Brandeis's Rose decision.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Artist named to Creative Economy Council?

Cheryl Warrick, a 52-year-old painter from Jamaica Plain, tells me that she’s been appointed to the new Massachusetts Creative Economy Council, filling the spot dedicated to "an owner of a sole proprietorship in the creative economy."

Which would mean that artists will get direct representation on the landmark 25-member council, billed as the first such state-level creative economy council in the U.S. Yes!

However, Kofi Jones, a spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development which hosts the council, declined to confirm this. “The Council members will be announced at the meeting on the 29th,” she wrote to me. “We are not prepared to discuss the members until that time.” (Why is this a secret?)

The legislation creating the council was worded in a way that it did not require artists or designers to get a seat – so there was a worry that creative makers would not be directly represented.

The council is scheduled to hold its first meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday at Boston’s ICA.

“I’m hoping to be the voice for the independent artist creative person,” Warrick tells me. Noting the international economic crisis, she adds, “It’s a pretty daunting task right now, for everyone.”

“The creative economy is many things and we have to have a wide net,” she says, namely taping the skills and knowledge of people of diverse backgrounds and experience. “I think that is creative, that has a lot of potential. And that’s what we have to do in this economy.”

Warrick is known for her “landscape-based abstractions,” as she describes them, which have been seen at Gallery Naga in Boston and many other galleries. “They’re really about the search for wisdom, and how we make meaning.”

She graduated from MassArt in 1988, and chairs the Boston art college’s board. She says she worked for many years as a registered nurse, before being able to devote herself exclusively to her art in 1996. With the way the economy is these days, she’s also trying to develop a sideline as an illustrator.

Photo by Dana Salvo.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Brandeis president’s e-mail on Rose

Yesterday evening, Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz sent the following e-mail to staff at the Waltham University announcing the school’s plans to kill its Rose Art Museum:
Date: January 26, 2009 6:53:51 PM EST
Subject: Important Message Regarding the Rose Art Museum
Reply-To: "Office of the President"

The global financial crisis and deepening national economic recession require Brandeis to formulate and execute decisive plans that will position the university to emerge stronger for the benefit of our students. To this end, our response to the crisis is to focus and sustain our core academic mission. I am writing to tell you that the Board of Trustees met today and voted to close the Rose Art Museum.

The decision was difficult and was reached after a painstaking assessment of the university’s need to mobilize for the future and initiate a strategy to replenish our financial assets.

The Rose has been a marvelous addition to the Fine Arts program, and we are grateful to everyone who expressed their love for art and admiration for Brandeis’s academic mission by helping to create, build, and support the museum. Choosing between and among important and valued university assets is terrible, but our priority in the face of hard choices will always be the university’s core teaching and research mission. Today’s decision will set in motion a long-term plan to sell the art collection and convert the professional art facility to a teaching, studio, and gallery space for undergraduate and graduate students and faculty.

Attached you will find the university’s public statement. I will be writing to the community shortly to update you on other initiatives currently under discussion by the faculty and the administration.


Jehuda Reinharz

AG on Brandeis's plans

Statement from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office:

“Brandeis University notified us Monday afternoon of their interest in selling art that the university owns. We have not yet offered an opinion on any aspect of these proposed sales. We will review Brandeis’ plan as it evolves, however at this time, we expect this to be a lengthy process.”

John Updike dies

John Updike of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, died of lung cancer today, the AP reports.

Brandeis’s money

Brandeis is saying it is taking drastic measures, including shuttering its Rose Art Museum and selling its art collection, because it is facing a $10 million budget shortfall.

How did the Waltham university get here? Brandeis did well financially between 2005 and 2007, the most recent year for which tax filings are available, reporting a combined budget surplus of $175.7 million for those three years. In 2007, expenses totaled $304.2 million and the school posted a $58.6 million surplus.

And the school’s investments grew. In 2005, the school reported dividends and interest from securities totaling $14. 2 million, by 2007 that had climbed to $18.6 million. It’s investments grew from $495.4 million at the start of 2005 to $734.7 million at the end of 2007.

Also, a spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s Office tells me: “It’s fair to say that our office learned of this yesterday and has not signed off on it, as the Globe reported today.”

If you have information about this Rose stuff, please contact me here.

Brandeis to close Rose, sell art.

Arning leaving MIT for Houston

Bill Arning, the curator at the MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, is leaving the Cambridge institution to become director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Texas museum has announced (pdf). He is expected to begin the new job on April 6.

Arning co-curated major contemporary exhibits like “America Starts Here—Ericson and Ziegler—1985-1995” and “Sensorium.” His departure is another major loss for the community.

Lumas to close tomorrow

Lumas, which opened on Boston’s Newbury Street on June 14, will close tomorrow “due to the economic crisis,” the store says. Lumas, a chain specializing in limited-edition photographs often in a flashy fashion photo style, represented a minor ray of hope for the Boston gallery scene at a time when many galleries were closing last year. But now it will be gone too.

Lumas’s full press release:

Lumas Boston Closes Doors

Dear friends of LUMAS,

Much to our regret, the doors of LUMAS Boston are going to close this Wednesday due to the economic crisis. All pending orders will be dispatched directly to the address on file at no extra charge. Stephanie Yovino, Alexandra Tayne and Lauren Colonna of our New York gallery team will be more than happy to help you out with any questions you may have in the future. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this inevitable change. New orders can be placed either with the gallery in New York or around the clock at We appreciate your continuous loyalty and interest in our growing portfolio. We will continue to keep you posted on all news in the future.

Best regards,

Kelly Yount
Gallery Director LUMAS Boston

Update: Brandeis to close Rose, sell art

Brandeis University’s board of trustees voted unanimously Monday to close the school’s Rose Art Museum, according to the school. Brandeis says it plans to shutter the museum late this summer, “publicly sell” off the more than 6,000 works in its collection via a “top auction house,” and convert the facility into “a fine arts teaching center with studio space and an exhibition gallery.”

The decision was described by the school “as part of a campus-wide effort to preserve the university’s educational mission in the face of the historic economic recession and financial crisis.”

“These are extraordinary times,” Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz said in a press release. “We cannot control or fix the nation’s economic problems. We can only do what we have been entrusted to do —act responsibly with the best interests of our students and their futures foremost in mind.”

Rose Director Michael Rush could not be reached tonight for comment.

The decision to close the Rose, which opened in 1961, came as a shock to the Boston art community. In the past few years, the Rose has floated plans for expanding – going so far as exhibiting draft plans in the museum. And the museum was in the process of producing a major catalogue of its collection with Abrams Books.

On Dec. 17, the museum confirmed to me that it had frozen its search for a new curator, a position that had been open since Raphaela Platow left the Rose for Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center in June 2007. The move was described then as part of an effort to reduce costs during the current international economic meltdown.

But Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon insisted in December that
"No, the university is not in an official, institution-wide hiring freeze. We are in the initial phases of a wide-ranging review of revenues and expenditures, involving input from all segments of the university community – from students to faculty to staff members – that is intended to get ideas and suggestions on how non-academic spending can be curtailed, and how Brandeis can best deal with the nationwide economic situation facing all colleges and universities. Individual departments are faced with having to make budget decisions of their own, and about freezing things etc., and it sounds like that is what Michael Rush has done with the position at the Rose. That's fine. That's his call. The university won't know for some months what the real, overall budget picture here is, once ideas and suggestions percolate up and the various committees at work here are done reviewing things. Then the board of trustees late this winter or so will make the real decisions.”
Apparently, things moved faster than expected.

Perhaps the decision to close the Rose and sell off the collection is Brandeis’s only option for survival, but it feels like the school is selling off its inheritance to survive a short-term problem. Plus, a down art market could mean that Brandeis may wind up selling its treasures for far less than they’re worth.

“The Rose Art Museum houses an outstanding collection of modern and contemporary art widely recognized as the finest of such collections in New England,” the institution’s website proclaims. In the region, only Harvard and Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery’s collections of post World War II art rival it.

The nucleus of that collection was acquired by Sam Hunter, the museum’s visionary first director. Early on he bought major works by Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Alex Katz, and Roy Lichtenstein.

The New York Times reports that Brandeis faces a budget shortfall that could reach $10 million. Among the treasures of the Rose’s collection is Warhol’s “Saturday Disaster” (1964), two stacked black and white screenprinted images of a fatal car crash. Christie’s auctioned off a 1963 Warhol car crash painting for a record price of $71.7 million in 2007, but the auction market collapsed in recent months. In November, the auction house failed to find a buyer for a 1973 Warhol portrait of Mao.

* * * * * *

Brandeis’s entire press release:

With vote to close art museum, Brandeis renews ‘unwavering’ commitment to students, research and academic mission

WALTHAM, Mass., Jan. 26, 2009 — Brandeis University’s Board of Trustees today voted unanimously to close the Rose Art Museum as part of a campus-wide effort to preserve the university’s educational mission in the face of the historic economic recession and financial crisis.

Board members stressed that the museum decision will not alter the university’s commitment to the arts and the teaching of the arts.

“These are extraordinary times,” said Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz. “We cannot control or fix the nation’s economic problems. We can only do what we have been entrusted to do — act responsibly with the best interests of our students and their futures foremost in mind.”

Opened in 1961, the Rose Art Museum houses a large amount of modern and Contemporary art. Plans call for the museum to close in late summer 2009, and transition into a fine arts teaching center with studio space and an exhibition gallery.

After necessary legal approvals and working with a top auction house, the university will publicly sell the art collection. Proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the university to combat the far-reaching effects of the economic crisis, and fortify the university’s position for the future. Brandeis officials said the decision to close the museum is part of an emerging new vision for the university aimed at streamlining it for the future while bolstering its focus on undergraduates, the liberal arts and research.

In recent months, the university has been reviewing expenditures and discussing new initiatives to meet the serious economic challenges. Belt tightening has already brought substantial decreases in administrative budgets.

In a special session on Jan. 22, the Brandeis faculty voted unanimously to support the president and trustees as they combat the effects of the economic recession and work to make Brandeis stronger academically and fiscally for the 21st century. Faculty members agreed that the university should maintain the strengths that have helped position Brandeis among the nation’s top liberal arts and research institutions.

Brandeis officials have estimated that the economic recession will continue to adversely affect operating expenses, performance of the endowment, financial aid and scholarships. At Brandeis and schools around the country, fund-raising revenue is declining and families are looking for more financial aid to help them cope with their own unenviable economic straits.

Reinharz said the Rose Museum decision was very difficult. But he characterized it as an important step in the ongoing resource management and allocation process on the school’s campus. “I am satisfied that our commitment is unwavering; that someday we will look back and say that when the quality of education and student services was at stake, we made hard choices so that Brandeis could emerge even stronger.”

* * * * * *

Dear readers, please contact me here if you've got info to share about the Rose or Brandeis.

Our Brandeis and Rose reports:
Brandeis’s liquidator-in-chief.
The first painting Brandeis should pawn.
Question: Brandeis financial management?
Brandeis president’s e-mail on Rose.
AG on Brandeis's plans.
Brandeis’s money.
Update: Brandeis to close Rose, sell art.
Brandeis to close Rose.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Beck steps down at Revolving Museum

Jerry Beck, who founded the Revolving Museum nearly 25 years ago, has decided to step down from his position of artistic director, the Lowell institution has announced (pdf). He plans “to concentrate on his own artwork, teaching and new creative directions.”

“The Revolving Museum and I have grown-up together, and I am deeply proud and humbled by this organization’s amazing accomplishments,” Beck said in a press release. “We’ve come a long way from our first public art show in 12 abandoned railroad cars in Boston. I know people love The Revolving Museum and the Museum loves people. It has been an extraordinary journey and I want to give my heartfelt thanks to all those who I have had the privilege to work with and who have supported me and The Revolving Museum.”

Beck is expected to serve on the museum’s advisory board of directors. Diane Testa, a long-time employee and former administrative director, will become executive director.

Beck founded the Revolving Museum in 1984. The name described its nomadic habits – producing installations and public art in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, Roxbury in a Civil War fort in Boston Harbor, and, well, all over the place – before the institution settled down in Lowell in 2002.

Brandeis to close Rose

Brandeis University plans to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off its collection, Brandeis spokeswoman Marsha MacEachern tells me.

This is terrible news, a huge loss for the community, a tragedy.

More details to come.

Yokelist Manifesto Number 1

Preamble: I hope to spend time this year thinking deeply about locally-made art and how we can better support it in Boston. This essay, along with the 2008 Boston Art Awards, are part of this project. I hope, dear readers, that you’ll join in the discussion.

The Future: Boston lacks alternative spaces?

A month back, Matt Nash of Big Red & Shiny wrote an essay lamenting that in Boston the “alternative gallery scene is non-existent.” It struck a cord with thinking I’ve been doing about what we as a community can do to incubate a more lively local art scene.

Much of the exciting stuff that happens in art happens because people felt left out or got fed up with the existing system and insisted on starting their own thing. Art people are attracted to new things, and so if these new things make a big enough splash or survive for any length of time, they often lead where the next things go.

But the Boston scene suffers from a lack of do-it-yourself energy – and impish humor – and thus has a lack of people striking out on their own. We need more artists to organize shows in their apartments and garages and vans. What about web-only galleries? Someone should rent a truck for a Friday night, fill it with art and (double)park it on Harrison Avenue. Someone should hack the ICA’s Mediatheque computers – since the ICA isn’t using them – and fill them with crazy digital art. That’s how you get on the evening news – and make your name.

But on a more, uh, sober note, the lives of alternative spaces in Boston that nurture locally-made art are complicated by our wealth of excellent school spaces, which occupy and often crowd out the alternative space here. So those schools – plus museums – need to take up the slack, particularly in this lousy economic moment. I’m talking about giving a wall here or there to locally-made art, including locally-made art in group shows, turning closets into “project spaces,” organizing focused solo shows, mounting mid-career retrospectives. This would be a start.

Before this can happen in any steady way we probably all need to admit that we have an “issue” with locally-made art. One of the salient characteristics of Boston’s second-city syndrome is that everyone here is convinced that everyone else here sucks. Because if they didn’t suck, they’d be in New York.

We need to change that thinking. We need to be proudly provincial. (New York isn’t shy about filling its institutions with locally-made art.) The next, harder step is producing awesome art. To do that we all must seek the promise in messy, half-baked, embarrassing locally-made art, and nurture that promise so that it can maybe, sorta, possibly, hopefully grow into something awesome. When we do actually produce awesome stuff, we need to showcase it. And we need tell everyone everywhere about how awesome it is. We need to convince everyone of its awesomeness – and that’s going to take a lot of effort because everyone agrees with us that we suck. These are pieces of an idea – dare I say a movement – that I call Yokelism.

For the past decade, the art world has been focused on Chelsea plus a handful of jet-set biennials and art fairs. Call it the Circuit. It’s grown stale and everybody’s tired of it – and with the economy tanking, the dollars that are its lifeblood are disappearing. As the Circuit frays, I dream of a decentralized moment – like the decentralization of the Web – when voices from the hinterlands may be heard as the next new thing. It’s the Yokels’ moment.