Reaction To Brandeis’ Proposal To Close Rose Art Museum

Some people who’ve donated art to Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum are trying to figure out ways they can stop Brandeis from closing the museum, and selling some of the art at auction.

The chairman of the museum’s board of overseers tells the Boston Globe he’ll appeal to the public charity division of the state attorney general’s office, to see if there’s a way to stop the move.

Brandeis officials say because of huge university budget problems, they have little choice but to sell.

They’ve already cut $10 million out of the school’s budget this year, and another six out of next year’s.

WBUR’s Fred Thys reports.

In the Boston area, the Rose is the place to go to see classic American artists of the modern age: abstract expressionists, conceptual artists, pop artists.

Emily Mello, the director of education at the museum, is standing in front of one of the museum’s star attractions: Roy Liechtenstein’s “Forget it, Forget me.” It looks like a blown-up comic-book image, but when you get to see it up close, you see the hand of the artist.

EMILY MELLO: It looks like something that’s been created by a machine, and he did use print-making techniques, but you also see where there’s pencil lines sketched in, and where the dots are all not perfect.

Since 1961, the Rose has also collected works by important contemporary artists. Mello hopes that whoever buys them will be able to preserve them the way the museum has. She says the news that the museum will close in June came as a shock.

EMILY MELLO: None of us had any warning. We were certainly not consulted or given a chance to help to find alternative solutions or argue against this being a wrong decision or what we feel is a wrong solution to financial hardship.

One of the trustees of the museum, who did not want to speak on the record, says he was also very surprised. This trustee, who himself collects art, says this is not an ideal time to dispose of an art collection. He says art is selling at fifty cents on the dollar these days. The director of the Rose, Michael Rush, says the Boston area is about to lose a unique cultural and academic institution.

MICHAEL RUSH: It’s an internationally significant place. We gave first museum exhibitions to artists like Kiki Smith, Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella. And for students, there’s what’s being called, now, a sort of Brandeis mafia in the art world. There’s museum directors, curators, chief curators, assistant curators everywhere went through the program at Brandeis, and all of them interned here at the museum. This was their training ground.

Students are divided about the merits of closing the museum. In the student center, linguistics major Denise Dubrowski and philosophy major Saghi Sofinzon find themselves arguing over the decision.

DENISE DUBROWSKI: It’s a difficult time right now, and I guess if there’s one thing that should be closed, I guess it’s the Rose. I guess it’s the best decision we should have made.

SAGHI SOFINZON: I don’t think so. I think the Rose Art was one of the greatest things that Brandeis University has, and it really had some wonderful works of art there, especially in the vault, had some hidden treasures.

The university will convert part of the museum to studio art space, thereby, it says, renewing its commitment to art, not reneging on it. The precipitous fall of the financial markets last year left the university’s endowment twenty per cent off its peak of $700 million. And donations are down, too. The President of Brandeis, Jehuda Reinharz, explains that many of the university’s major donors were invested with Bernard Madoff, the financier whose alleged Ponzi scheme collapsed late last year.

JEHUDA REINHARZ: In times of stress, we could have gone to them and said: “Look, we have a problem here, and this is what we need you to do. They don’t have the money right now, and so it’s not possible to talk to them at this point.

Reinharz says Brandeis is just among the first Boston to feel the pain inflicted by Madoff.

JEHUDA REINHARZ: Two weeks ago, I was in Palm Beach, where many of the victims of Madoff are, and I can tell you that there’s not been a single discussion on any topic whatsoever that did not start with Madoff. Everybody has been affected by this, and you’re going to see it’s not just Brandeis. You’re going to see, in Boston, institutions of higher learning and museums and symphonies and orchestras and all kinds of cultural institutions of great renown and of great importance to the city are going to be affected by this.

Reinharz says Brandeis does not intend to sell the entire art collection, just some of the works. He promises that the university will check the donors’ wishes before selling. And, he says Brandeis hopes to avoid dumping these works onto the art market at a time when prices are depressed. It intends, rather, to take its time selling them piecemeal at the best prices it can get. What it will get, he doesn’t know.

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