Brandeis: Selling is not always the solution

The New York Times reported that Brandeis University has decided to close its Rose Art Museum, and sell off it entire collection to raise funds for the school, which potentially faces a $10 million budget deficit. Jehuda Reinharz, the university’s president issued a statement about the decision:

These are extraordinary times We cannot control or fix the nation’s economic problems. We can only do what we have been entrusted to do — act responsibly with the best interests of our students and their futures foremost in mind.

In a previous posting, I advocated that LA MOCA, also in financial crisis, sell off works from its permanent collection in order to raise revenue. The decision to sell the Rose Art Museum’s collection, however, is an entirely different scenario, one which will have lasting effects on the university, the student body it attracts, and the cultural education that its students receive.

First, Brandeis University is located in Waltham, MA, 9 miles outside of Boston. This is certainly a manageable driving distance, but many undergraduate students come to the university without a car. For them, the museum offers a more convenient opportunity to see many of the works they’ve read about in their art history textbooks. The collection includes paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol. It also has a valuable contemporary collection, with works by Kiki Smith, Matthew Barney, Richard Serra, and Judy Pfaff, among others. Indeed, for many students, viewing the collection at the Rose is their first experience seeing a Modern masterpiece in person, their first time seeing challenging contemporary art. Eliminating the collection also eliminates this opportunity.

What’s more, the museum is world renowned. Not only do scholars travel to Waltham, MA to study works in the collection, but many of the works have travelled to exhibitions throughout the world. Among the museums that artworks from the Rose have been exhibited in are MoMA, Guggenheim, The Met, and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s not simply the student population at Brandeis that is affected; millions of people have seen some of the 6000 works included in the Rose’s collection.

Finally, and most importantly, the reflects a value shift for the university. It says that art is not important; it is not valued as more than an indulgence; it is not integral to a liberal arts education. The Rose is a draw for both art students and artist lecturers, who are again, in turn, a draw for art students. I can only imagine that Brandeis’ prestigious studio art, art history, and post-bac programs will wither and decline with the news of the Rose’s demise.

Brandeis, however, does not seem concerned about losing this cultural-minded student population. In fact, the university is currently undergoing discussions about changes to its curriculum. Proposals include the addition of business and engineering programs as well as finding a way to simultaneously expand undergraduate enrollment while reducing the number of faculty. Dennis Nealon, the executive director of media and public relations at Brandeis, said closing the museum will not damage Brandeis’ reputation as “one of the nation’s consistently highest ranked educational institutions.”

“It’s a university first,” he said. “It’s a university that has a museum, not a museum that has a university. It’s not an end to anything. It’s a beginning.” Indeed– a beginning of a frightening new value set for Brandeis.

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