What is the value of art in bad economic times? Brandeis University discovered an answer this week when its president, Jehuda Reinharz, announced plans to close the esteemed Rose Art Museum and sell its collection. Faced with a severe budget crisis, the university’s board of trustees voted unanimously to close the museum late this summer. A public outpouring of opposition, however, is causing Reinharz to rethink the decision, keeping open the possibility of closing the museum but retaining the collection.
“It’s sad given…the role the Rose Art Museum has had in the presentation of contemporary art programs in the Boston area. It really was a leader,” said Michael Conforti, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.
Museum Director Michael Rush declined to comment Monday but admitted he learned of the decision only hours after the board’s vote.
Founded in 1961, the Rose Art Museum houses more than 6,000 works, with an impressive number of post-1960s American pieces by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. The collection, valued at $350 million, is a who’s who of American modernism and social realism, post-war American, abstract expressionism and surrealism. In recent years the museum acquired more contemporary and multimedia works, including those by Nam June Paik, William Kentridge and Matthew Barney. An additional wing designed by Graham Gund Architects was added in 2001.
After meeting with about 200 students Wednesday morning, Reinharz stayed firm on closing the museum and converting it into a teaching, studio and gallery space for students and faculty. Since Brandeis’ endowment has fallen roughly 25 percent, from $712 million to $549 million according to administrators, the art collection is a viable source of income in today’s troubled economic times. “If in fact there is a miracle tomorrow morning and the economy turns around and the stock market is up by 45 percent, nothing impels me, nothing impels us, to do anything,” said Reinharz, reported the Boston Globe.
Brandeis isn’t the only institution to look at its art as a financial lifeline. The National Academy Museum in New York sold two important Hudson River School paintings from its collection in December to pay bills, a decision reprimanded by the Association of Art Museum Directors. But the situation at the Rose is different, maintains Conforti. “It’s sad because an undergrad curriculum, which goes well beyond art, will not benefit from the opportunity of utilizing this collection….They can give students experiences beyond those in the classroom.”
It’s a sentiment resonating with many former students. “While nearly every American institution seems to be imploding, the arts are there to remind us that we are defined by more than our account balances,” said Jordan Karney, a gallery associate at the Mary Ryan Gallery in New York and a 2006 graduate of Brandeis. “Our art is our legacy.”