Late Monday afternoon, Brandeis University informed leaders of its Rose Art Museum that it would close the institution this summer and auction off the more than 6000 pieces in its renowned collection, which includes major works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. The news arrived like a punch in the gut.
Brandeis insists that it's the economy, stupid. But it feels like the Waltham school is selling off its inheritance to survive a short-term problem. (Not to mention the fact that, in these financially troubled times, and with a down art market, Brandeis may wind up selling its treasures for far less than they're worth.)
Most Boston art museums are actually lousy when it comes to 20th-century art. But Sam Hunter, the first director of the Rose, was a visionary. Soon after the museum opened in 1961, he bought works by the artists mentioned above, plus Ellsworth Kelly, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and other contemporary masters. This was when the stuff was brand new. Locally, the Rose's collection of post–World War II art is rivaled only by Harvard University and Phillips Academy's Addison Gallery.
And, because Brandeis says it is hard up for cash, it plans to sell off its collection, rather than donating it to another local institution, where at least it would continue to be publicly available. It's an irreplaceable loss to the community.
The Rose also has been a leader in global contemporary art, presenting in recent years such groundbreaking surveys as the works of San Francisco street-art pioneer Barry McGee and young New York star painter Dana Schutz — now that's over, too.
Why was Monday's fait-accompli announcement the first word of this plan? Perhaps I should have been more concerned when Brandeis told me in December that it had frozen its search for a lead curator, a position vacant since June 2007. Sure, our not-so-great depression is still just beginning, but how did it come to this?
A sit-in protest of Brandeis's decision to close the Rose Art Museum will take place on Thursday, January 29, at 1 pm. For more information, click here. Or sign a petition protesting the decision.