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Best of Boston 2009

It's a shandeh!

For Brandeis, there must be a better way
By EDITORIAL  |  January 29, 2009

* - shame, disgrace

The news that Brandeis University plans to shutter its highly regarded Rose Art Museum and sell its exemplary collection of American art from the 1960s and '70s in order to resolve its budget crisis not only shocked the world of elite higher education, it also stunned the local, national, and international arts communities. Unless this dreadful decision is reversed — or in some way mitigated — it seems destined to go down in cultural history under the chapter heading: How Bad Times Spawn Bad Ideas.

There is little doubt that this is going to be the toughest economic period our nation has confronted since the Great Depression. And yes, in order to survive the still-accelerating crisis, enormously difficult and often cold-blooded financial decisions must be made — by government, corporations, and nonprofit institutions.

But unless Brandeis has received a death-notice margin call — meaning, if the university doesn't immediately pony up mountains of cash it will be forced to close its doors at once — then the shuttering of the Rose and the liquidation of its collection is an act worthy of only the Philistines.

This sell-off defiles the stature of the university. By cutting away a piece of its soul, Brandeis proclaims to the world that art is an afterthought, a bauble, a plaything that sits at the bottom of the intellectual pecking order. There is, of course, an irony in all of this. The very collection that Brandeis's Board of Trustees unanimously voted to dispatch with such abandon is, nevertheless, Brandeis's single largest asset.

As David Robertson, a Northwestern University professor and president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, observed when asked to comment on the Rose fire sale: "Clearly, what's happening with Brandeis now is that they decided the easiest way is to look around the campus and find things that can be capitalized. . . . It's always art that goes first."

Brandeis's decision should be an outrage to the collectors who contributed to the Rose either works of art or cash, only to have their intentions betrayed. Ethical questions aside, this could well turn out to be a boneheaded financial decision, too. The distressed sale in a down market of a huge collection such as the Rose's is bound to be (get ready for a riot of understatement) problematic, maybe even (more understatement) disastrously disappointing.

The Phoenix may not sit with the Brandeis budget and balance sheet, but it is difficult to believe that there are no other ways to generate savings and revenue than to sell off an asset that is irreplaceable, both for its monetary and cultural value.

Brandeis shutters art museum: Bloom off the Rose. By Greg Cook.
How much could be saved if every employee, except perhaps the lowest-paid, took a five or 10 percent pay cut? How much revenue would be generated if every non-fully-subsidized student were assessed an additional $500? Is there a way for the university to borrow funds using the art as collateral? What about a government loan? Or a bond issue of some type? Or, or, or?

Before making this monumental decision (and a monumentally bad one at that) behind closed doors, how could university leaders have not, at minimum, issued a specific "Save the Rose" appeal to its faculty, student body, alumni, and donor base?

Brandeis's failure to publicly explore options such as these — coupled with the fact that university brass failed to notify the Rose's museum director of its intentions until after the board of trustees had approved the closure — raises questions about the university's transparency and accountability. The art that lives under the sheltering auspices of the Rose, belongs — in spirit, at least — to the world. Brandeis is merely its trustee.

For a university brimming with brainpower, situated in a region where brainpower is, in effect, its greatest natural resource, to resort to a good-art-for-sale strategy for the future is simply unacceptable, so unimaginative, so . . . mediocre. The Brandeis community should demand more from its stewards.

  Topics: The Editorial Page , Boston art museums, Brandeis University, Colleges and Universities,  More more >
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