NEW YORK—On Jan. 26, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., took the art world by surprise when it announced that its board of trustees had voted unanimously to close the prestigious Rose Art Museum and sell its entire collection in order to shore up the school’s finances. Brandeis faces a reported budget deficit of as much as $10million over five years. In a statement, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz said, “These are extraordinary times. We cannot control or fix the nation’s economic problems.”
The museum, which was opened in 1961, has a permanent collection comprising more than 6,000 objects, with particular strengths in American art from the 1960s and ’70s, including work by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol. More recent acquisitions have included contemporary work by Matthew Barney, Helen Frankenthaler, Nan Goldin, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith.
The university plans to close the museum by late summer. “After necessary legal approvals and working with a top auction house, the university will publicly sell the art collection,” the Brandeis statement continues. “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.”
The university’s decision to sell the collection, which museum director Michael Rush said was appraised for $350million in 2007, raises complicated issues, such as compliance with restrictions on artworks that were donated on the condition they not be sold or transferred. Furthermore, major museum associations are strongly opposed to the notion of selling artworks to raise operating funds.
Similar efforts to deaccession artworks at other schools, including the University of Iowa; Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn.; and Randolph College, Lynchburg, Va., have sparked controversy and drawn the censure of staff, alumni and museum associations.
Brandeis’s executive director of media and public affairs, Dennis Nealon, told ARTnewsletter that the since the process is at a very early stage, there are many important aspects of a sale which have not yet been decided. He would not say whether a particular auction house has been chosen to sell the collection; representatives of Christie’s and Sotheby’s declined to comment on the matter. Nealon said that whether the entire collection would be sold together or broken up and offered over the course of several auctions is “to be determined.”
Asked about donor restrictions and objections to the sale, including the possibility of lawsuits to retrieve works or halt sales, Nealon told ARTnewsletter that the school is “in contact with people who have been benefactors, to work through any issues that might be there. That is part of this process, going about the business of who it is we need to contact for legal approval.”
Rush, who has served as director of the museum for the past three years, said he was informed of the decision late in the afternoon on Jan. 26, when he was called into provost Marty Wyngaarden Krauss’s office and given the news. “I was utterly silent for a beat,” he told ARTnewsletter. “It’s stunning, and I was shocked.”
Noting that about 80 percent of the works in the collection are gifts and donations, Rush said Brandeis is potentially “facing a huge nightmare” in the number of donors or heirs who could come forward to prohibit a sale or demand that their artworks be returned altogether. However, Rush says the planning for this decision has been going on for some time and was “rolled out expertly,” so he is “not confident of any reversal.”
State Attorney General to Weigh In On Sale
Massachusetts State Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office released the following statement: “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.” State attorneys general are responsible for overseeing philanthropic giving in their respective states.
Rush said he has received “an outpouring of support from all over the country” from people who object to Brandeis’s decision to sell its collection.
David Alan Robertson, director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., and president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries (ACUMG), issued the following statement via e-mail: “The ACUMG is actively protesting the closure of the Rose Art Museum and the sale of its collection in the strongest and most unequivocal terms possible both publicly and privately.” Robertson added that the association had established contact with Rush to offer its assistance.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, which had just opened its midwinter conference in San Diego, Cal., said in a statement, “AAMD is shocked and dismayed to learn of Brandeis University’s plans to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its collection. This is a sad day for the students of Brandeis, the University, and its community. The Rose Art Museum plays a vital role in bringing modern and contemporary art to the public and increasing understanding of the art of our time. AAMD’s mid-winter meeting begins tomorrow and its members will discuss the ramifications of Brandeis’ decision and any actions the Association may take in response to these regrettable plans.”
Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums (AAM), said his organization is “alarmed and dismayed” by the university’s decision. “By selling its art collection for cash to the highest bidder to erase a temporary deficit, Brandeis University is in fundamental violation of the public trust responsibilities it accepted the day it founded the Rose Museum. Such a sale is also a betrayal of the donors, who generously gave art for the benefit of the students and the public, not for paying bills,” he wrote in a statement.
As ARTnewsletter went to press, an online petition sponsored by a group called “Concerned Alumni of Brandeis University” had amassed more than 3,600 signatures submitted by those opposed to the sale. “We find unacceptable both the decision to close the Rose Art Museum and the manner in which the process was conducted,” the petition reads. “Therefore, the undersigned pledge to withhold our support of Brandeis University until our concerns are addressed and the decision to shut the Rose Art Museum is reversed.” A Facebook group called “Save the Rose Art Museum” listed 4,869 members as ARTnewsletter went to press.
In the announcement of the museum closure, Brandeis board members “stressed that the museum decision will not alter the university’s commitment to the arts and the teaching of the arts.”
Said Nealon, “We understand that this is a hard decision for people to accept in some quarters. This is not a happy thing for the university. However the board that governs the university made this decision for some very solid and sound reasons.”