Friday, July 31, 2009

Key weaknesses in the Rose suit

The suit filed by three Rose Art Museum overseers Monday to protect the institution and its collection offers scant documentation of limits on how Brandeis University may use donations to the museum. In particular it seems to offer no evidence of restrictions on the heart of the museum’s collection – the work that many feel makes the Rose the Rose, the work that many consider the most valuable in the collection – art by Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns and Lichtenstein acquired shortly after the museum opened in 1961.

The 12-page suit (read it here) plus 142 pages of wills, letters, donation agreements and other supporting documents has two main goals: (1) to keep Brandeis from selling off some or all of the collection and (2) to keep the museum operating as a full fledged museum as it had before the Waltham university threatened in January to close it.

The suit documents note restrictions on certain gifts, requiring them, for example, only to be used for maintenance of the 2001 Foster addition or funding the Rose director’s salary. A June 1, 2009, letter from the attorney of Lois Foster, one of the three overseers filing the suit, to Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz states that “all endowments established by the Fosters at Brandeis University for the Rose Art Museum were predicated on the understanding that it would always be a full fledged art museum.” But this understanding appears nowhere in writing in the suit’s documents.

The overseers’ case could hinge on an Aug. 13, 1968, letter from the museum’s founding donor Edward Rose to Brandeis University, announcing his gift of $1,000 to establish the Bertha C. and Edward Rose Museum Endowment Fund A, with its “income only to be used to acquire additions to the collection” of the Rose Museum. “Net proceeds of sale of items from the Museum collection shall be treated in the same way as income from said Endowment Fund unless prohibited by the terms under which the items were acquired.” At the bottom, the letter reads “The foregoing is agreed to: Brandeis University” and signed by then president Abram L. Sachar.

Art journalist Lee Rosenbaum argues that “The university's lawyers may well try to argue that this signed contract only governs sales of art acquired from the relatively meager acquisition funds donated by the founders. But the language of the mutually accepted letter appears to restrict sales from the museum's entire collection. The litigants will need to thrash that out.”

For Rose backers, the best case scenario here is that one sentence in one one-page letter dictates that Brandeis may only sell works from the collection to acquire additions to the museum’s collection – not to benefit the university generally, as Brandeis administrators have sought. Not a lot to hang your hat on

And the letter is from 1968, seven years after the museum opened, and at least a few years after the heart of the Rose collection was acquired. “Soon after opening, the museum’s first director, Sam Hunter … initiated a vigorous and visionary collection campaign with a gift of $50,000 from Leon Mnuchin and his wife Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin,” the museum’s history explains. “Hunter purchased twenty-three art works, twenty-two of which have become iconic in the annals of late twentieth century art, including paintings by Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Alex Katz, and Roy Lichtenstein.”

So even if the 1968 letter does restrict sales from the collection – which is debatable – it post-dates the Mnuchin gift which funded the acquisition of the heart of the collection. So the letter many not protect that art at all. When I asked people connected with the Rose in May about the Mnuchin gift, I was told that no agreements had been found describing restrictions on it.

Su-Mei Tse

My review of Su-Mei Tse’s “Floating Memories” installation at Boston’s Gardner Museum:
Records are a path to memory in Luxembourg-raised, Berlin-based Su-Mei Tse's “Floating Memories” installation at the Gardner Museum. A wood platform framing a gold silk rug from China stands raised slightly off the floor. The wood is etched on two sides of the rug and filled with shiny green resin in a peacock and floral wallpaper pattern. Projected on the wall above is video of a record endlessly spinning as we hear the crackle and pop of the needle stuck at the end of the album.

Gardner exhibitions alternate between the sensual pleasures of old European and Asian masters and contemporary curator Pieranna Cavalchini's ambitiously difficult conceptual art shows, like this one. I couldn't connect the dots here until Tse herself explained them to me. The record is meant to reflect the way the Gardner feels frozen in time. The platform is inspired by the Gardner's Dutch Room, from which Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings were stolen in 1990. It imitates the look of the still empty frames and a silk damask that formerly covered the walls. "The whole idea is about how to translate the impression of absence," Tse told me. It's a good subject, but few will make the desired connections. And the sacrifice of looks to ideas in this sort of conceptual art makes it almost impossible to tap the emotions elicited by the sad, lonely aura of that looted gallery.
Su-Mei Tse spoke about her installation at a press preview on July 15:
About the rug, she said: “To me to conceive a monochrome was really a way of painting. The whole idea is about how to translate the impression of absence, these empty frames in the Dutch room that really give that strong impression.”
“Nothing is tangible, everything is floating, nothing is fixed.”
“It also has to do with time and loss. The strength of this absence for me had the power to inspire in me the memory of these paintings.”
“There are many inspiring things in the museum. But the fact that it is more abstract is more free to maybe to do something out of it.”
“It’s not about one particular of these absent paintings or objects. If you know which paintings were here, like Rembrandt or Vermeer, and you remember what they are, they are very famous paintings. Everybody has their personal attraction to these paintings. … I think the power of art is when it somehow leaves a trace. They were here and they have a role here.”
On the Gardner keeping on display the empty frames of the stolen paintings: “It’s really powerful I think. Because of course it’s a very sad thing for the museum. But at the same time they are somewhere. They are not dead.”

About the record video: “I see it as a horizon and as a landscape.”
“I like to link things with personal experiences, maybe with personal experiences that everyone knows.”
“For me that’s my very first thing that I have in mind from my [childhood] memory.”
“I saw it from this height.”
“Here it’s more the end, because I feel this museum is kind of on stand by, but looped it continues. … It’s not important what it [the album] is. It should stay open.”
“For me the sound evokes what I could feel in the museum, really the standby of time. … This is really like a time stop, but it still turns, the end still turns.”
Su-Mei Tse, “Floating Memories,” Gardner Museum, 280 the Fenway, Boston, July 16 to October 18, 2009.

Photos by Jean-Lou Majerus.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baume leaving ICA

Nicholas Baume, the chief curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, is leaving the museum to become director of New York's Public Art Fund in September, The New York Times reports.

Baume is expected to begin work in New York on Sept. 21, 2009.

“There were a number of exceptional candidates, but the selection committee and I recognized in Nicholas the key qualities that make for a successful director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund: bold curatorial vision, strong artist relationships, superb leadership skills, as well as a passion for New York City and public art,” Public Art Fund President Susan Freedman said in a Public Art Fund press release.

Baume arrived at the ICA in 2003 after curatorial work in his native Australia and at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. In Boston, he oversaw a staff of eight while organizing theme shows like "Super Vision,” which opened the new ICA in 2006, and "Getting Emotional" at the old Back Bay ICA in 2005 that were often baggy and unfocused. But his talent shined as he curated major, critically-acclaimed solo surveys by Tara Donovan (with curator Jen Mergel) in 2008, Anish Kapoor in 2008, and Thomas Hirschhorn in 2005.

“New York City has always fired the artistic imagination. From Andy Warhol to Francis Alys, from Keith Haring to Jeff Koons, artists have found both inspiration and opportunity in this extraordinary place. Public Art Fund has played a key role in making the city itself a platform for contemporary artists,” Baume said in the press release. “ I’m thrilled to have the chance to build on that legacy, connecting new art and diverse audiences to harness the creative energy of our moment.”

Another update:
"After an illustrious six years at the ICA, Nicholas Baume is leaving the ICA to join the Public Art Fund in New York effective August 21," ICA director Jill Medvedow said in an ICA press release. "This is a wonderful opportunity for Nicholas and we are very happy for him and proud of his contributions to the ICA. He led the curatorial transition into our new building, including organizing 'Super Vision,' 'Anish Kapoor: Past Present, Future,' and co-organizing Tara Donovan, as well as the Momentum exhibitions, including Kader Attia, and Gerard Byrne, Rodney McMillian; and the building of the ICA collection. Nicholas’ elegant prose, keen eye and clear focus on art, artists and ideas have made an enormous contribution to the success of the ICA. We wish him well in his new post."

“Collective Access” at 5 Traverse

From my review of “Collective Access” at 5 Traverse Gallery in Providence:
Meg Turner steals the show in 5 Traverse gallery's new exhibit with her installation “Santa's Worst Nightmare.” Climb up a few stairs, step into a closet-sized box wallpapered with etchings of bricks, and close the old weathered door behind you. An orange light flickers on and it looks like the floor's dropped out and you're standing on thin air in a chimney shaft. It's a fun (if not very meaty) special effect.

The exhibit in question is "Collective Access" at 5 Traverse. The title refers to how AS220's public-access print shop is collectively managed by the 10 Providence artists featured here. In addition to the exhibit's fine art and funhouse tricks, the gallery will host a pancake brunch that artists will screenprint with chocolate on Saturday, August 14, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

5 Traverse, without announcing it, seems to be quietly mapping the Providence art scene…
Read the rest here.

“Collective Access” at 5 Traverse Gallery, 5 Traverse St., Providence, July 10 to Aug. 16, 2009.

Pictured from top to bottom:
Jay Zehngebot and Liz Lake, “To Listen With Our Feet (To Hear with Our Hands),” 2009, 14-color screenprint on paper, edition of 35, available as book or as as shown flat; Agata Michalowska, “favorite shades of yellow,” 2009, intaglio with chine colé on kozo and mulberry backing, edition of 3, and “learning to write,” 2009, intaglio with chine colé and pen, one of a kind series 1-1; detail of Stephanie McGuinness’s “Untitled (Triptych),” 2009, screenprint collage on mixed media, one of a kind (3 parts); Meg Turner, “A moment of solitude (or Santa’s Worst Nightmare),” 2009, mixed media installation with Chine-collé etchings and found door; Morgan Calderini, “Balloon Installation,” 2009, hand-dyed silk, balloons, string, 3 slide viewers, slides; Victoria Lockard, “Mermaid with Parasol,” 2009, linocut, edition of 4; and Meredith Younger, “now we're heartbird free,” 2009, ceramic and gouache.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Joshua Touster

From my review of Watertown photographer Joshua Touster’s “On the Road with Michael” exhibit at Boston’s Panopticon Gallery:
After Michael Jackson's death on June 25, Panopticon Gallery quickly assembled a show of Joshua Touster's photos of Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour. The Watertown photographer focuses on the fans and the commerce surrounding Jackson, then at the peak of his success after his 1982 album “Thriller.” The most memorable of the 10 photos here shows two boys in Jacksonville wearing matching sunglasses, studded wristbands, Jackson gloves, and T-shirts saying, "Michaelized in Jacksonville." It's their expressions, their postures: defiant, laid-back, cool.
Read the rest here, at the end.

Joshua Touster, “On the Road with Michael,” Panopticon Gallery, Hotel Commonwealth, 502c Commonwealth Ave., Boston, July 6 to September 14, 2009.

Pictured from top to bottom: Joshua Touster, “Two Fans,” Jacksonville, FL, July 21, 1984; “Selling Unauthorized Gloves,” Parking lot, Jacksonville, FL, July 22, 1984; “Michael Fan,” Dallas, TX, July 14, 1984; “Souvenier Stand,” Arrowhead Stadium, KC, MO, July 7, 1984; and “Michael Fans,” Arrowhead Stadium, KC, MO, July 8, 1984.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rose overseers sue to preserve museum, stop sale of art

If museum can’t be saved, they say give art to new Rose Preservation Fund

Three overseers of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum filed a suit today aiming to force the school to not sell the museum’s treasured collection, and to keep the museum open and functioning as it was until administrators announced plans to close it in January. If that cannot be done, they ask the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to seize the Rose’s collection and endowments from Brandeis and put it in the hands of the overseers’ newly formed nonprofit Rose Preservation Fund for continued “public art museum use.”

The suit (read it here) claims that Rose artwork that “will start to be sold by or before the fall of this year.” It adds that “In the last few weeks, Brandeis has greatly accelerated the process of getting works of art ready for sale,” but provides no supporting evidence.

“We believe that this lawsuit is frivolous and without merit,” says a statement by the attorney (and former Massachusetts attorney general) representing Brandeis, Thomas F. Reilly of Cooley Manion, and Jones, which was provided to The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research by a spokesman for the university.

“We could have walked away, but all of us have a psychological investment in the place,” Jonathan Lee of Brookline, one of three filing the suit tells The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. His mother, Mildred Schiff Lee, who died in May, donated more than 500 artworks to the Rose. The family has also made significant financial contributions to the Rose. “This is a values question and it’s a public values question. We think what the Brandeis Administration is doing is patently wrong.”

Brandeis administrators announced Jan. 26 that they would shutter the museum and sell off the more than 6,000 works in its collection. 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.” The announcement provoked international condemnation. Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz and other school administrators have since softened their rhetoric, but not explicitly contradicted their initial announcement.

For many Rose supporters, the museum, as it had operated since it opened in 1961, died when its spring exhibitions closed on May 17. At the end of June most of its staff left, either fired like director Michael Rush, or not wishing to stay on. A skeleton crew of two – including Roy Dawes, the Rose’s assistant director of operations for six years, who has become the head of the museum as director of museum operations – reopened the museum with an exhibition of works from the collection on July 22.

Lee, Meryl Rose of Swampscott and Lois Foster of Boston filed the 12-page suit (plus 142 pages of supporting materials) against Brandeis in Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. They seek a court order prohibiting Brandeis from closing the Rose, selling any of its artwork (“except in its normal course of the museum’s operation and pursuant to American museum ethical codes and guidelines – that is, for the purpose of purchasing new artwork”) or using any of the Rose endowments “for any purpose other than the continued benefit of the Rose Art Museum.”

Lee says Brandeis administrators see sales from the Rose collection “as portfolio balancing.” The suit charges that the transformation of the museum’s operations and sale of its collection would violate the understanding Rose donors had that they were giving to a permanent, public art museum. Lee argues that if Brandeis is allowed to go forward it will threaten the system of donations that supports all museums as well as Massachusetts’s great universities, hospitals and other nonprofits.

Brandeis leaders, the suit alleges, have tried to pack the Rose’s board of overseers to get their way:
“In late June 2009, Brandeis’s real plan became obvious, namely, to change the make-up of the overseers, packing it with new members friendly to Brandeis’s administration, to convince those members of the overseers with whom the president had strong personal relationships to give up their opposition, to threaten to sell off some donors’ artwork while protecting the donations of others, and to arm-twist in order to try to remove any opposition to Brandeis’s plan to sell off valuable artwork.”
According to the suit, Lee, Rose and Foster lean toward having the court seize the Rose collection and endowments from Brandeis and turn them over to their new nonprofit or another appropriate organization that could fulfill the intent of Rose donors:
“Continuation of the collection and the public art museum, including its endowments, under Brandeis’s aegis has become impracticable. Because it has so often stated its unwillingness to continue ‘in the public art business,’ the plaintiffs have formed a non-profit corporation called the Rose Preservation Fund, Inc., … for the purpose of preserving the museum’s collection for public art museum use, operated under the appropriate ethical guidelines and codes of conduct.”
On Brandeis’s behalf, attorney Reilly writes:
“Like every other major University in the country, Brandeis has taken aggressive steps to protect its core educational mission, which means providing its students with a first class education and ensuring that Brandeis continues to provide financial assistance to needy students. The debate here does highlight a difference between Brandeis and these three Rose overseers. That is, that the university has a responsibility to provide the very best education and faculty to fulfill its higher educational agenda. Apparently, these three overseers are oblivious to the Brandeis mission.

“The Rose Art Museum is a part of Brandeis University and represents four tenths of one percent of the university budget. Their endowment is part of the Brandeis endowment, its presence is on the Brandeis campus, and its major fundraising over the past dozen years has been done by the Brandeis president.

“We look forward to aggressively defending our position in court.”

Dec. 23: Rose freezes curator search
Jan. 26: Brandeis to close Rose
Jan. 27: Update: Brandeis to close Rose, sell art
Jan. 27: Brandeis president’s e-mail on Rose
Jan. 27: Brandeis’s money
Jan. 27: AG on Brandeis's plans
Jan. 29: Brandeis’s liquidator-in-chief
Jan. 29: The first painting Brandeis should pawn
Jan. 29: Question: Brandeis financial management?
Feb. 5: Brandeis won’t close Rose?
Feb. 5: Will defunct Rose replace defunct Safra Center plan?
Feb. 9: Open discussion at the Rose tomorrow
Feb. 11: How do you solve Brandeis’s budget crisis?
March 16: Rose family objects to closing Rose museum
March 16: What is the Rose family saying?
May 15: The end of the Rose?
May 20: Voices from the Rose.
May 20: Rose collection treasures.

Liv Kristin Robinson

When photographer Liv Kristin Robinson first moved from New York City to Belfast, Maine, in 1986, what grabbed her eye was the town’s 19th century houses. But two years later, she bumped into photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), who had done major work in New York and Boston before settling in Maine in the 1960s. At a local gallery opening, Robinson writes, Abbott encouraged her to photograph “what was really important: Belfast’s vanishing industrial waterfront."

Robinson’s exhibit "Evolving Waterfronts of Belfast, Rockland & Portland” at the Belfast Free Library this month shows how she took Abbott’s suggestion to heart. She photographed the changing harbor in black and white silver prints that she hand-colored, until she switched to digital photography in 2004 and expanded her territory.

"I found rich subjects and history again disappearing from view," Robinson writes. " And I soon discovered that with some small adjustments—such as subtly tweaking hues and saturations, brightness and contrasts even adding brush-strokes and carefully choosing weather conditions and times to shoot – I could continue to emotionally color my images while taking advantage of digital image-making."

Liv Kristin Robinson, "Evolving Waterfronts of Belfast, Rockland & Portland” at the Belfast Free Library, 106 High St., Belfast, Maine, July 2009.