Brandeis and the Rose Art Museum: should a university not sell its collection?

The art world is loudly complaining about the decision of the trustees of Brandeis University to face the financial crisis by, among other measures, selling the modern and contemporary art collection housed in the university’s Rose Art Museum. Reactions so far call the decision “astonishing”, “a shame”, “unprincipled”, “a complete wrong message to donors“, and “bad economics” (because art, like other asset classes, is likely to fetch less now than it would have in the good times). The Association of Art Museum Directors said it is “shocked and dismayed” by plans to close the Rose.

It doesn’t end here. The Massachussetts Attorney General is to conduct a detailed review of the decision. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office said: “They are saying that civilization doesn’t matter in the name of some kind of bottom line.”

Readers, you know how much I love modern and contemporary art. You know how passionate I am about it. Yet, I have to wonder: have all these people been living with their heads under the sand for the last year or so? I told you months ago that there was going to be less money for art. The writing was on the wall. It is not that civilization doesn’t matter – it matters enourmously, indeed. But in a crisis, you do what you gotta do.

So, let me come out and say it. I think the Brandeis trustees made the right decision. It is indeed a pity that the Rose has become a luxury that the university can no longer afford to keep, but if the alternatives are worse (freezing faculty hiring, cutting back on financial aid for students), then it is the right decision. If Stanford President John Hennessy wrote me another letter, saying this time that the trustees have decided to sell off the university’s art holdings, I would be saddened, but I would not complain. Let alone call the decision “unprincipled”.

The Attorney General’s spokeswoman also said: “It’s essential that students have access to real works of art […] By subtracting the works of art from a college environment, you are betraying an enormous trust.” With all due respect, this is ridiculous. College fees are high, but do not include the permanent guarantee that you will have an art museum in your backyard, for your convenience. (Annual visitor numbers at the Rose were 13,000-15,000: a tiny number. The archeological digs at Venosa, near Potenza in Southern Italy, pull in more than that, according to 2007 data from the Italian Culture Ministry). For centuries, art students have been used to traveling, to go and study art where the art is. That’s how one becomes an artist (or a curator, or a critic, or whatever). Do we really want a generation of couch potato art students?

Collections are built and dispersed; at the end of February, the collection built up by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé will be auctioned off by Christie’s, in what is likely to be the largest sale of a private collection ever. Sure, those pieces were bought and not donated. But how many donor’s grants to the Rose stipulated that the works could never be sold under any circumstances, including a global financial crisis that shrinks the university endowment at unprecedented speeds? and what does “never” mean? until the donor’s last descendant has died? until the artist’s work has gone out of fashion – and lost value? until the end of the universe? And if you were a donor, would you make such a draconian stipulation? If you were a museum, would you accept it?

Sure, the university could have sought students’ opinions before the trustees had to decide. Yet the students’ protest sounds disingenuous, as they know perfectly well that they would have protested a lot more if the university had decided to save the Rose but cut back on, say, student dorms and have students sleep in tents out there in the snow. The decision-making process could, and probably should, have been more participative. But at the end of the day, students are there to study, and administrators are there to administer: somebody has to make decisions. And Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz and the trustees, in this case, made the right one.

One thought on “Brandeis and the Rose Art Museum: should a university not sell its collection?

  1. It’s come to pass that post-modernism is the aesthetic equivalent of the head in the sand, over intellectualized
    sophistry that passed for economic theory on wall street.
    I believe cultures always have the right to determine values for themselves regardless of entrenched interests such as museums, collectors and Arts Managers. Much of the work that has been much touted in the recent past reflects more on the interests of those arts managers, Marcia Tucker, Alana Heiss Robert Pincus-Witten than on any clearly defined concepts.

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