Art for Gold

Feb 03, 2009 |  Glenn Ricketts, Peter Wood

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Art for Gold

Feb 03, 2009 | 

Glenn Ricketts, Peter Wood

             A tempest has arisen in the wake of last week’s decision by the trustees of Brandeis University to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its holdings, valued at more than $300 million. The collection focuses on post WWII American artists, and includes paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, as well as photography by Cindy Sherman. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Inside Higher Ed have all run prominent articles on the controversy. The school’s endowment, like many others, took a huge hit after the Wall Street meltdown last fall, probably even worse because several major donors to Brandeis such as the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation were injured by Bernard Madoff’s investment scam. The Shapiro Foundation lost a reported $545 million. Citing “extraordinary times,” Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz argued that the worsening financial crisis left no viable alternative, and that he and the trustees had been obliged to “act responsibly with the best interests of our students and their futures foremost in mind.”

            The decision has attracted vehement critics, one of whom characterized the move as “Philistine in the extreme.” Another declared, “It seems that Brandeis is going to rip out its heart to keep itself alive,” arguing that Brandeis had betrayed its mission as a cultural guardian for an easy quick fix. Still others denounced Brandeis for breach of ethics, since most of the Rose collection had been donated, with the understanding that such acquisitions could only be sold in order to purchase other art works. Some commentators sympathized with the university’s plight. The Monday New York Times editorialized that the sale of the artwork would “create a gaping hole in Brandeis’s mission and its reputation.”

            This isn’t the first time that a college has considered selling off its art treasures. In 2006, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia sold Thomas Eakin’s masterpiece, Gross Clinic, for $68 million. Fisk University in Tennessee spent several years trying to sell paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, and Pablo Picasso from its Stieglitz Collection, until blocked by a judge in February 2008. In 2007, Randolph College in Virginia sought to sell four works from the collection of its Maier Museum of Arts and likewise ran into legal obstacles. An auction for one of the works proceeded in April 2008, but the others, including paintings by George Bellows (Men of the Docks), Edward Hicks (A Peaceable Kingdom) are on hold at Christie’s awaiting an upturn in the art market. 

            The College Art Association sees a matter of deep principle whenever a college considers selling an artwork. CAA responded to Randolph College’s initial announcement by saying: 

            “The College Art Association understands that the sale of the Maier Museum of Art's collection is to provide operating revenue for Randolph College, and, as such, contravenes the Professional Practices for Art Museums policy outlined by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. This policy, which the College Art Association wholeheartedly endorses, states that art collections are held by museums as a public trust and that any decisions to sell objects from the collection should be based on donor intent and aesthetic quality. Any revenue gained from sales is solely to support future art acquisitions.”

            This position has a certain air of self-serving. The “public trust” seems to coincide almost miraculously with the professional interests of museum curators, and art works can be traded, in effect, only for more art.

            Notwithstanding all the thunder from The New York Times, the College Art Association, and other such bodies speaking for the public good, it is not entirely clear to us that colleges and universities have an obligation to keep their art collections eternally or, upon selling a work, to invest the proceeds in more art. A college’s first obligation is to provide a good education to students. If it can do so while maintaining a rich collection of artworks, so much the better.   But circumstances don’t always cooperate, and Brandeis may be in one of those circumstances. 

            Is this a Philistine position? We hope not. We suspect, rather, that those who equate a college’s commitment to the arts with its willingness to hang on to famous and expensive works are guilty of a little Philistinism of their own. 

            But what do you think? Is Brandeis so wedged between a rock and hard place that selling its lifeblood for hard cash is the only recourse? Or is the art collection, as critics argue, so basic to the mission of a university that it should remain where it is? Has Brandeis sold its soul? We’d like to hear your comments. And vote! (A, B, or C)

A) Brandeis should sell those Warhol soup cans or whatever. They call that art? 

B) It’s too bad, but when you weigh the financial needs of Brandeis against the educational and cultural value of the collection, it’s the right choice.

C) For shame Brandeis! The loss will leave a gaping hole in Brandeis’s reputation.

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