Is one of New England's great regional museums about to bite the dust, its storied collection scattered to parts unknown? Back on January 26, Brandeis University administrators provoked international outrage when they announced their intention to close the Rose Museum and sell its art in order to bridge university budget deficits stemming from the worldwide economic crisis. That deadline is now upon us, with the current exhibitions scheduled to end this Sunday, May 17. But the future of the Rose — and its collection, which includes a blue-chip roster of post–World War II American art by the likes of Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol — is still murky.
"As far as I'm concerned," says Rose director Michael Rush, "the historical Rose Museum as we have known it closes May 17." With it will go a tradition of groundbreaking programming that was launched when the museum opened 48 years ago.
Museums sell off art all the time, but professional standards dictate that the proceeds be used to build the collection — not to cover institutional operating costs. Institutions of higher learning — especially at the Brandeis level — are supposed to be above sacrificing their academic reputations for ready cash. And they're expected to observe the spirit of the agreements by which they receive donations of valuable art.
Brandeis administrators have since made noises about not closing the Rose. Shows from the collection are in the works for July and the fall. Then, who knows? The administrators say they're awaiting recommendations from the Future of the Rose Committee; those are expected this fall. But Rush and museum administrator Jay Knox will definitely be leaving, and parts of the collection may yet be sold, though it's unclear what or how much.
We Americans are still having trouble understanding the scope of our financial crisis. As layoffs mount, as newspapers shut down, as major banks and auto manufacturers collapse, as even Harvard makes cuts because its $36.9 billion endowment has lost a third of its value, we still tend to view what's happening as a recession (difficult but manageable) rather than something scarier (bedrock institutions croak). The Brandeis decision may be an early sign of panic.
"I feel that I must speak out to try to protect this art collection first and foremost," says Jonathan Lee, who chairs the Rose's board of directors. "It was given by people who thought they were giving to a museum that would behave as a museum and therefore hold it as a steward for future generations of students and the general public."
Brandeis was founded in 1948 by Jews who were regrouping after the unspeakable horrors of World War II. They set out to compete with the top universities in the country, and they succeeded. The Rose is a symbol of that success. Now, Brandeis's leaders are threatening to pawn that legacy, and by example to encourage other institutions to divest their collections.
Of course, when the entire economy is crumbling, there are no easy solutions. Some will argue that the sacrifice of the Rose is the only way to save Brandeis's legacy. But that just underlines the point that in the current climate, everything is subject to fire sale — including the very legacy by which an institution identifies itself.
“JOHN ARMLEDER: TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH” Will programming like this 2007 show become a relic of Brandeis’s past?
On January 26, Brandeis issued a press release headed: "With vote to close art museum, Brandeis renews 'unwavering' commitment to students, research and academic mission." Brandeis trustees had "voted unanimously to close the Rose Art Museum" and "publicly sell the art collection. . . . Plans call for the museum to close in late summer 2009, and transition into a fine-arts teaching center with studio space and an exhibition gallery." The decision was a fait accompli, made without input from the Rose or the broader Brandeis community. Rose staff received word only that afternoon.
Lee says, "On January 26, Jehuda Reinharz, the school president, said to me: 'Jon, I can sell the art or I have to fire 200 out of the 360 faculty. What would you do?' He said to another overseer, 'I can save the art museum, but I will have to close the university.' "
Reinharz, Brandeis executive vice-president and chief operating officer Peter French, provost Marty Wyngaarden Krauss, and board of trustees chairman Malcolm Sherman declined to answer questions for this article. But French has told news outlets and various Brandeis committees that the school faces an $80 million deficit over the next five to six years. In 2007, the most recent year for which tax filings are available, the school's total expenses were $304 million. So that's a $13 million shortfall per year, about a five percent annual deficit. Even if Brandeis had to cut its budget by $20 million a year, it would be able to spend about what it did in 2006 — some $286 million, according to tax records.