BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 04 APR 09
Featured in
Issue 122

Injury and Insult

The scandalous closure of Brandeis University’s famed Rose Art Museum

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 04 APR 09

The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts. 2008.

Eighty years on from the Great Crash we watch our own house of cards fall and hope with fingers crossed that we will not make history to the same degree. Well actually, very little of what was lost at the outset belonged to ‘us’. Until jobs evaporated, people lost their pensions, their health insurance and their houses, most of what vanished into thin air had only existed on paper in the first place, and most of the paper was in the brief cases, file drawers and vaults of people who do financial origami for fun and profit. Which is why one could enjoy the collapse of Neo-Conman Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme with daily dollops of Schadenfreude. After all, we thought, he had only snookered the greedy and his melodrama promised a tabloid mini-series of thieves falling out. But, as quickly became obvious, that was only half the story. Among ‘Made-off’s’ casualties were a number of foundations, of which several, including Elie Wiesel’s Foundation for Humanity, seem to have been wiped out entirely. It takes a man of special qualities to prey on a Nobel Prize winning Holocaust survivor and philanthropist.

Now the spotlight is shifting to the sudden demise of Brandeis University’s famed Rose Art Museum near Boston, in Waltham, Massachusetts. In this case, however, mention of the Madoff’s villainous name is a convenient distraction from the real culprits, Brandeis’s President and Board who, without consulting the museum’s director, met in secret, and voted to shut down this gem of 1960s art love so that they could cash in on its trove of New York School painting and sculpture and other prize possessions.

Word has it that Madoff’s chicanery cost several of Brandeis’s patrons a bundle, but the Rose costs the university nothing – much of its collection was bought for a song but is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars due to the market bubble Madoff helped to inflate. It is separately endowed, in the main self-supporting and even contributes to the larger institution’s budget. So what drove the trustees to make this catastrophic decision was not their inability to maintain the Rose; it was sheer opportunism. With the same money crisis confronting them that stares all colleges and universities down – but without any respect whatsoever for their predecessors who had created a model museum of contemporary art that put Brandeis on the cultural map nationally and internationally – the current stewards of its long-standing, now grievously compromised excellence looked at the Rose’s art holdings and saw a quick fix. In essence it would seem that the collection shimmered in the cash-strapped trustees’ eyes like grandmother’s bejeweled necklace; an expensive bauble that would be easy to liquidate. And so, while she slept, they euthanized Rose.

Among the alibis offered for this shameful act was the museum’s supposedly low visitor statistics, as if it was only a campus amenity and is if it could only justify its existence by drawing big city crowds to the small town where it is located. Indeed it is unclear whether the numbers offered – around 15,000 people annually – included students, faculty and alumni or was just the tabulated ‘gate’ of outsiders, but the logic behind this excuse speaks volumes about the bean-counting mentality of cultural politics today since nothing at all is said about the quality of the experience those visitors had. Moreover in a period when art is constantly being called upon to prove its usefulness by educational standards, it is bizarre in the extreme to read that a specifically educational entity has shut up so remarkable a library of visual culture because it lacked bigger box office.

In the lengthening digital days of Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ the Rose stood out with museums at Berkeley, Harvard, Oberlin, Princeton and Smith as one of the rare places where it was possible to teach students from original objects, and one of a handful that focus on late modern or post-modern art. Henceforth, Brandeis students will join the legions whose crucial first encounter with complex works is second hand at best. But, aside from the supreme wastefulness of deciding to sell its treasure off during a market slump, the trustees’ simultaneous capitalizing on and discounting of art goes deeper. As one dejected sophomore told a reporter from the New York Times, ‘It’s like the school telling [studio art and art history graduates] that their degree is fluff.’

That message makes what Brandeis has done on the sly so appalling. In tough times, it proclaims, the tough – i.e. pragmatic leaders of society – sell art down the river. And they showed how by setting a precedent for other troubled institutions to dump the artistic wealth that is their long-term raison d’etre like excess stock portfolio assets – and all for the sake of short-term, bottom-line advantages. A scoundrel, Madoff, gambled and lost other people’s money. A tax-exempt place of higher learning, Brandeis, has squandered our cultural commonwealth and lost its soul.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.