Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Rose Art Museum by Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

I stopped by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis last month to see what the fuss is all about. Brandeis University wants to close the museum and reopen it as a gallery and teaching site. That would seem to have as its principal purpose to get rid of the museum director, the museum board, and the museum code of ethics that the museum people say prevents Brandeis from selling any of the pieces in the museum collection. Times are tough indeed.

I am going to side with the university trustees on this. Museum directors are the Nurse Ratcheds of the art world. The museum directors’ code of ethics seems to be that once a work of art has been institutionalized, it can only be discharged to make room for another work of art deemed more worthy of their professional care.

That is, under their code, a museum can sell art to buy other art, but can’t sell it to cover operating deficits or other worthy projects in the very institution that owns the art. Indeed, even selling art to pay for the care and upkeep of other art in the collection or for buildings to house the art has become controversial. The core idea, that art once committed to a museum must remain in the museum forever, sounds wonderful, but merits a deeper examination.

The Rose has a collection of 8,000 objects, but a much smaller number were actually on view at the museum. Some of the objects may be on loan to other art institutions. But the vast majority are in storage. And that is the dirty little secret of the institutional museum art world. For every object on display, there are probably 20 in a box somewhere. A lot of art simply disappears into the museum system never to be seen by the public again. Indeed the count of art objects in the Rose collection is listed as 6,000 in some places and in other places as 8,000, suggesting they have more art in storage than they can keep track of.

Would it really be so wrong if objects 4001-8000 were freed from the institution and put back out into the world? In private hands, these objects could be treasured and enjoyed, and have a life more fitting to art than to sit in some forgotten room strapped into a canvas straight jacket.

Now, I do believe that the terms of gift should be observed. If a donor has given a work of art on the express condition that it be displayed in the museum or kept in its collection, and the university has accepted those terms, then the university should honor them. But I do not think such lofty intentions should be ascribed to every donor. Surely some donors just think that here I have an object of some value that I can give to the university. And running a museum is only one of the things of value that the university does.

I’m sure every donor hopes in their heart that their gift will be cherished and hang forever in the university museum, with a plaque underneath crediting the donor for their gift. But how many of these pieces were donated because the donor had found something new to hang in its place? Or are donated because the collector has passed away, and the family has no place for it. Yes, giving art to a university museum is a great way to find art a new home. But does it have to be the last home? Art doesn’t want to have limits and restrictions. Art wants to be free.

Brandeis has made some sales in the past (deaccession is the euphemism preferred by the museum people). In 1991, it sold 11 works at Christie’s auction house for $3.65 million. It was reported at that time that it had made previous sales in 1976 and 1979. In November 2007, it sold “Sunset at Sea” by Childe Hassam at Christie’s for $3.7 million.

So let me get this straight. It’s ethical to sell a Hassam to chase after new art that the museum director judges more fitting and wants to bring into the institution. But it is unethical sell art to fund scientific research, provide scholarships to disadvantaged students, avoid laying off valued faculty, or undertake any of the other worthwhile non-museum projects that universities do. No wonder the university trustees want to get out of the “museum” business.

One can imagine a small charity given an artwork many years ago that through the changing tastes of the art market would now fetch $100 million. You can’t just hang a work of art like that anywhere. You’re going to need to build a building to house it somewhere special. And you’re going to need to hire security guards and purchase insurance to protect it. Pretty soon the responsibilities of caring for that $100 million object may be costing the charity millions and diverting it from its original mission.

And what is the museum director answer to this dilemma? Well, Michael Rush, the Director of the Rose Art Museum, has rallied a long list of museum people to his side. And their general consensus is that Brandeis can get out of the museum business if it wants, but it has to transfer the artwork to another institution. In other words, they have to give it to another Nurse Ratched.

I do sympathize with Michael Rush, but only to a point. His first statement on the closure contained these fighting words, “No one wins here. Even the expected buyers of this dearly held art will be purchasing tainted goods marked with the blood of this ill begotten action.” So he has put on blood curse on every object in the Rose collection. Is that a love of art, or something else?

All of this has put Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz in the hot seat, and as the lightning rod for criticism and protest over the last several weeks he has been subjected to a series of electric shock treatments. He has been forced to back off from some of his original statement suggesting a sale of the collection next summer, to saying that there would be some sales over a longer period as part of a long-term strategy. I think he knows you can’t take on the Nurse Ratcheds of this world and expect to win, you can only hope to escape. He has been in the president’s job since 1994 and this year turns 65.

To find the Rose, I had to drive out through Watertown, turn right onto Main Street, stop and go through an endless series of stop lights leading into and through Waltham, then turn left and follow South Street to the Brandeis University campus. It is nestled in the wooded hills overlooking the Charles River. The Rose is located back and to the left, but I didn’t know that as the Rose wasn’t listed on any of the signs. I entered to the right, then circled back around through the rear of the campus. It was a delightful sunny day with the snow melting, the students coming out of their dorms, and a couple of bar mitzvahs in progress.

So how was the Rose? Admittance is usually $3 but was free, and the parking was also free. There were quite a number of people about. I enjoyed the work on display. It was worth the trip and then some. I hope Brandeis is able to keep most all of the better works for display under the auspices of either a museum or gallery.

I was a little shocked at the poor quality of the protest signs. They looked like they had been done by a kindergarten class. I would have expected better from the college art crowd. One sign remarked on a $150 million Picasso, $70 million Warhol, and $13 million Hoffman as being priceless. Another, on a large scroll of black paper pasted onto the plate glass windows, said “Transparency.” It seems Brandeis does need an art teaching site.

There was a wonderful piece by Roy Lichtenstein that sums up this whole affair. A dark-haired man turns his back on a pretty blonde woman. The cartoon caption has him or is it the woman saying, “Forget it! Forget Me! I’m fed up with your kind!”

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