Deaccessioning Controversies USA

Brandeis does the right thing

For now, there is cause for celebration. Speaking truth to power by this small museum with a mighty collection and even mightier supporters has yielded a milestone decision for museums everywhere

The Rose's collection is safe--for now

With the settlement of Meryl Rose, et al, vs. Brandeis University, et al, this June in Suffolk Probate and Family Court, Massachusetts, Brandeis University reversed its January 2009 announcement that it was going to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its collection, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The university now agrees to keep the Rose Art Museum open as a fully functioning public museum and says it has “no aim, plan, design, strategy or intention to sell any artwork donated to or purchased by the University on behalf of the museum.” Short of a binding statement that it will not sell, the settlement is nonetheless indicative of Brandeis’s new president Frederick M. Lawrence’s desire to put this dark controversy to rest and get on with his presidency. This decision has enormous implications not only for university art museums but all public institutions that hold objects in the public trust. Thanks to the indefatigable determination of the claimants, Rose Museum board members Jonathan Lee, Lois Foster, Meryl Rose and Gerald Fineberg, with the support of the Massachusetts Attorney General, Brandeis acknowledges that they cannot simply “close” a museum and sell off its art collection for monetary gain aimed at easing budgetary difficulties. It is astonishing that they thought they could do so in 2009.

Controversies still rage around other university museums, most notably at Randolph College and Fisk University, but no other case has galvanised the international art world more than the Rose’s. What Brandeis didn’t count on in their ill advised decision to sell the Rose collection was the outcry that ensued from all corners; not only with pointed statements of condemnation from all major arts leadership institutions (from the American Association of Museums, Association of Art Museum Directors, the International Committee on Museums and on and on); but, most pointedly, from students, parents, alumni and donors. With this settlement a collective sigh of relief can be heard. But let this not yield shortness of breath in the future. There are lessons to be learned here.

First, the Rose controversy can be summarised as fundamentally a failure of leadership. A very bad decision was made by a president and a board of trustees who saw in an art collection a potential quick fix to an economically dire situation, though how dire was never fully clear. Even in a down art market, their reasoning went, the sale of one or two objects from the collection could have cleared many millions of dollars (Andy Warhol’s Saturday Disaster; Willem de Kooning’s Untitled, for example). Done. Budget gap solved. Panic over. Knowing that this might not be so easy due to the inconvenient fact that the Rose was a public institution and the collection was held in the public trust (which would become glaringly evident in a short time), the decision was also made to close the museum, so Brandeis would be “out of the museum business”, a stunning claim, publicly stated, that would enable them to be free of any professional museum ethics. Presidents come and go, but they and the boards they create can reap havoc on an institution during their tenure. New leadership can go far toward correcting abuses, but they, too will go as they came.

Museums need binding assurances that their collections will remain protected. This is not to say that art should never be sold, but museums, especially those who are part of a larger entity, like a university, need to be bound by the well established guidelines for the sale of art spelled out by the Association of Art Museum Directors. If the university does not agree, their museum should not be admitted to the professional company of museum associations; and, I daresay, should not be considered valid repositories for gifts of art from donors. Brandeis, which was previously embroiled in another deaccessioning mess in 1991 (in which major impressionist works were involved), needs to be more explicit in its commitment to this principle. One university museum, the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, went so far in the 1980s as to legally have its collection (a great one, similar to the Rose’s) incorporated as a separate non-profit entity to protect it from the brutal censorings of the Jesse Helms era. Brandeis’s language in the lawsuit resolution may be intended to keep the door open for future sales. Having no “aim, plan, sell any artwork…” could be translated as their having no “aim, plan, design” to sell any artwork today. Why didn’t they say “Brandeis agrees not to sell artwork?”

Another lesson, loudly proclaimed during this entire time of the Rose debacle, is that the art world is a real and genuine community. Despite the high stakes so often involved in museum controversies (bruised donor relations; loss of funding; directors’ heads rolling) there are some fundamental values which, when attacked, result in hugely meaningful outcries. Some might argue that we didn’t protest enough when Ai Weiwei was imprisoned, but we did organise; and, I assure you, Brandeis would not have been led to this moment of reawakening without the loud and constant clamour from all corners of the globe (dozens of countries were represented daily in Facebook and other online protests) against the University’s decision to sell the art and close the museum. The world saw through their ersatz statements about “commitment to the arts” and attempts at back-pedalling (“We’re not really going to sell the art, maybe only rent it”). Those who keep watch on these matters will keep paying attention to Brandeis’s moves. Brandeis is a first rate university, with extraordinary faculty and students. The Rose, as it is so often said, is a jewel in its crown.

For now, there is cause for celebration. Speaking truth to power by this small museum with a mighty collection and even mightier supporters has yielded a milestone decision for museums everywhere.

The writer was director of the Rose Art Museum from 2005-2009. He is now the founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

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