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The Rose Museum at Brandeis University reopened

Last night the previously disenfranchised and much beleaguered Rose Art Museum on the Brandeis campus reopened with much fanfare, a celebration being called The Rose Art Museum at fifty. In spite of a torrential rainstorm, the museum was chockablock with donors, students, artists, patrons and, specially introduced to the crowd, art luminary James Rosenquist. A DJ played music from the 50s while crowds milled through the newly renovated space, eating and drinking in a party tent assembled at the front of the museum.


Roy Dawes, new director of museum operations at the Rose, welcomes the crowd

That temporary facade at the face of the museum is not without significance. Clearly there are lots of reasons to want to start fresh after an extremely unbecoming chapter in the university’s history. Roy Dawes, the new director of museum operations, gave a short speech as did new Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence (who recently navigated closure for the lawsuits resulting from his predecessor Jehuda Reinharz‘ harebrained scheme to sell off the Rose art stash to cover the university’s operating shortfall.)

OK. I get the need to start new and unencumbered. And certainly I am grateful, as is the whole art loving Boston community, that this amazing, AMAZING collection of art is once again available to the public. But in the opening ceremony, no one spoke about or owned up to the crisis the museum has luckily survived. I have to ask: Is the best path to act as if nothing happened? For those of us who have followed this story closely, it doesn’t bring a sense of closure. A fancy brochure reprinting highlights from the Rose’s first director Sam Hunter‘s 2001 memoir is not adequate cover for the fact that it was the strong arm of lawsuits brought by museum patrons Meryl Rose, Jonathan Lee, Lois Foster and Gerald Fineberg that saved the day for all of us 99%ers.

There is however one spot in the current exhibit that owns up the true account, and hats off to the individual(s) who fought for this to be included in the (re)inaugural show. That spot is downstairs, in the last gallery. Steve Miller‘s piece, seen below, was accompanied by this commentary on the wall:

Following a January 2009 announcement that the Rose Art Museum was to be closed and the art sold to provide funds for Brandeis University’s operating costs during a budget crisis, Miller returned to campus to work with students protesting the decision. Together they created a large canvas ATM sign, which was installed above the museum’s main entrance, as well as a slew of signs…which students planted across campus. The entire project amounted to a mock advertisement, proclaiming the Rose a place to get quick cash. It also declared that Art Trumps Money (ATM). The highly engaged reaction of students expressed the extent to which the museum’s original mission—to communicate, to forge links, to give students direct access to the work of living artists—made an impact.

In the wake of the announcement, museum supporters brought a lawsuit against Brandeis University to prevent the closure of the museum and the sale of art. The suit was resolved during the summer 2011 with a renewed commitment between the universithy and its museum. The Rose is collecting art and planning new exhibitions. No works of art were sold during the crisis.


Wicked and right on: ATM (Art Trumps Money) indeed

So back to what really matters: The collection. It’s a feast. I know I will never take the Rose for granted again even though its caretakers often fall short.


Looking down from the top balcony onto the Sum of Days installation by Carlito Carvalhosa in the MOMA. It is just too big and sensual to not pay attention and be delighted at some level.

I just returned from five days in New York and Philadelphia. This was a working and a viewing trip. Since returning home I have been folding and unfolding, folding and unfolding, my thoughts and feelings about the de Kooning show at the MOMA. I’m not ready to articulate a response just yet. I want to find a way to capture both my joys and my frustrations with this sprawling, overwhelming, revelatory exhibit. But in a manner that is both meaningful and personal.

In the meantime I will to share the words of a friend, words that achieve that meaningful and personal goal. Carl Belz has been writing about individual paintings he was instrumental in acquiring for the Rose Art Museum during his years as its director (1974 through 1998) on the blog Left Bank Art Blog. These essays are compact, engaging, insightful and endearingly personal. I hope he does every work of art he had a hand in acquiring.

This excerpt is from his response to the work of David Ortins. Belz addresses some of the fads and fashions that have affected the art world. I lived through both of these so his words resonate particularly for me.

Innovative techniques and new materials occasionally appear in art and quickly gain widespread usage, as collage did in the 1910s, or as acrylics did in the late 1950s, and their usage can initially seem to transform even the most ordinary pictures into objects of wonder. With acrylics, for instance, staining in the manner of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland quickly became a dominant painting technique, and by the middle of the 1960s we were surrounded by acres of Color Field pictures, each of them seeming more glorious than the last. Such was their allure, and it was irresistible; their surfaces were everywhere soft and inviting, their color effortlessly spread and glowed, and light breathed life into them as generously as in nature itself. You probably think I’m exaggerating in saying these things, but that’s the way it really was. At least for a while. By the time the 1970s were under way, stain painting had lost a lot of its original freshness and become routine and predictable—like collage, which at this point has been so thoroughly academicized that even school children practice it with ease. Which is not to deny the significance of Color Field painting as a whole, let alone the significance of its major practitioners. I mean only to suggest that new techniques and materials can sometimes infatuate you on impact, only to then cloy the appetite on which they feed.

The 1990s counterpart to acrylic staining in the 1960s is wax. Though wax has for centuries been available to painting in the form of encaustic, it took on new meaning with the highly personalized and autobiographic art that has proliferated during the past decade or so. Pick up a canvas or board, sketch upon it an image of a figure or paste upon it an old photograph, then pour on a coat of translucent wax and bingo, you’ve instantly got a visual metaphor for memory or some related emotional effect. In studio after studio I observed that practice, and I was at first as seduced by it as anyone else; remembering the sixties, however, I soon began to look harder at sure-fire effects that often failed to go beyond mere sentimentality, and I became wary whenever I encountered pictures incorporating wax…We were fortunate in being able to purchase one of those paintings for the permanent collection, and I especially enjoyed installing it once or twice in the company of our Louis stripe painting, because they communicated so meaningfully with one another, but also as reminders that the uses of new techniques and materials don’t always become cloying—in the right hands, they can actually make hungry where most they satisfy.

Read his posts in their entirety here and here. Also included in Belz’s two pieces are responses to the work of Alex Katz, Jo Ann Rothschild, Tina Finegold, Linda Etcoff and John Salt. Read ’em all.


Frank Stella, Chocorua IV, 1966, Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas, 120 x 128 x 4 in., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Abuses of power and money, decisions made by self serving Philistines, the infuriatingly short sighted policies that have ramifications way beyond the bounds of the elite board room—nothing new in any of these themes. But the stories that touch my interest, art, still stick in the caw and won’t dislodge that easily. I am forced to ask the existential question of how should we respond to these flagrant travesties, especially given how many of them take place under wraps and are never really exposed?

My friend (and favorite curator) Carl Belz recently published an account that looks back to a Frank Stella acquisition that never happened during his last few months at the Rose Art Museum. (His account is here on the blog Left Bank.) His story will infuriate you if having access to works by an important artist within reach of Boston matters to you. The bad spin around Brandeis and the Rose (Battle of the Roses?) continues and Belz’s account is just one more peek into the complexity of doing the right thing in any environment—art, academia or politics—where doing good work and operating with high minded intentions are rarely rewarded.

Watching The Art of the Steal, the recently released documentary about the highly controversial move of the Barnes Foundation art collection into Philadelphia, is yet another example. Yes, critics of the film have pointed to its highly biased telling of a complex and extremely arcane tale that tracks the fate of an art collection valued at billions of dollars. But the villainy is profligate and plentiful no matter how much you skew for bias. When there is that much money at stake, you can’t keep treacherous vultures away for long.

The stoic’s stance. Is that the optimal response for any of us to take in the face of shenanigans this large in scope? Both of these accounts make me hot under the collar, but it is a heat that has nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do.

OK. That’s my rant. I’ll move on to something more positive tomorrow, I promise.

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Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University in Waltham MA (Photo, Boston Globe)

Thanks to the ever-resourceful blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski at Real Clear Arts for this update on the much-discussed issue of universities and the visual arts. As the title of her posting suggests, Take That, Brandeis! Dartmouth Gets $50 Million for a Visual Arts Center, Dartmouth is playing out a very different storyline from the one we have watched out in Waltham with the untimely demise of the Rose Art Museum.

Here’s an excerpt from Judith’s report:

Dartmouth College has just announced that it has received a $50 million gift, the largest in DartmouthVAC.jpgits history, to build a new visual arts center on campus.

What a contrast from Brandeis, in Waltham, MA, which has grown infamous for its announcement earlier this year that it planned to shut its Rose Art Museum. Brandeis lies only 135 miles from Dartmouth, in Hanover, N.H. Worse, in announcing the gift, which was made anonymously, Dartmouth President James Wright said:

Arts are at the heart of a liberal arts education, and have always been vital to the Dartmouth experience, empowering students to think creatively, challenge assumptions, and wrestle with demanding and often unfamiliar media.

Then Dartmouth’s Dean of Faculty Carol Folt chimed in:

Dartmouth faculty view the arts as a powerful way to understand human culture and history, and when practiced, to stimulate creativity, flexibility, and leadership. This gift will have an immediate impact on Dartmouth’s intellectual and cultural environment. It will galvanize the talented faculty we already have and attract others, create new opportunities for innovative teaching, and offer more students the chance to experience the creative process first-hand.

Click here to read the entire posting.

I’ve been following the Rose Art Museum’s undoing here and on Slow Painting. Over the weekend London-based The Guardian ran an article about this unfortunate state of affairs as well. Reading about the Rose from that Eurocentric point of view brought on another layer of frustration for me.

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Funding crisis … Visitors tour the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, January 2009. Photograph: Essdras M Suarez/AP

Facing what has been described as a potential $79m (£52.5m) deficit over the next six years, a dwindling endowment and a near-exhausted reserve fund, Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced earlier this year that it had no other choice but to close its prestigious Rose Art Museum and sell the 8,000-piece collection. Prior to releasing the statement, it made a last-ditch effort to solicit funds from donors, but many had lost money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the university came to the conclusion that it was out of options.

Economic hardship or not, this didn’t go down well within the art world. For one, these were not the financial problems of the museum – which is largely self-sufficient – but those of the university. Secondly, the loss would simply be too great. Established in 1961, the museum’s world-renowned collection includes early works by masters such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. It also has a long history of hosting extremely significant exhibitions, from Joseph Cornell’s solo show at the Rose in 1968 to Dana Schutz’s first solo show in 2006, which ran concurrently with a Matthew Barney exhibition.

Deciding to shut down a museum of such stature and sell off its works is an extreme option. Brandeis should have tapped the Rose’s fundraising expertise instead. After all, internationally recognised art institutions don’t achieve their reputation without the best development staff in the country. Moreover, as a means of protecting valuable public resources, the ethical code of the Association of Art Museum Directors prevents the sale of objects for purposes other than acquisition. The ensuing debate gets complicated very quickly. In response to public criticism, Brandeis now claims the museum will remain open as an educational centre, with studio and exhibition space. University president Jehuda Reinharz went so far as to describe this as a demonstration of the institution’s commitment to the creative and visual arts community. The statement was understandably poorly received; a learning office is not equivalent to a world-class art institution.

Brandeis also created a new panel to explore further options for the future of the Rose, and last week announced the museum would be staffed for the summer, while it continued to look for alternative sources of funding to support the university. But the Rose already has an independent administrative body designed to direct the museum’s future – its board of overseers. And the mere fact that the Rose employs staff now is not evidence of Brandeis’s support: due to a failure to renew contracts as of June the Rose will have no director, no curator, no education director, no administrator, no funding stream and no programme.

If these actions look ugly now, they will only get worse: a statement on the museum’s website insists that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has insisted the Rose remains open in some capacity, and that it will weigh in should the university attempt to sell the collection. The Rose also now employs a lawyer and is looking for legal documents relative to the trust of the museum. It has all the makings of a long and very messy legal battle. But if the university’s financial situation is as dire as it claims, gambling what money it does have on a court case to legalise the sale of the art collection doesn’t look like a particularly safe bet. It could take years to win – if they win at all.

This, from the New York Times:

Three prominent museum-world figures who are Brandeis University graduates spoke out vigorously on Tuesday against the school’s plans to close its Rose Art Museum and sell off artworks to raise money. In an open letter posted at the Rose’s Web site, Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Gary Tinterow, chairman of the department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Kimerly Rorschach, director of Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, wrote that Brandeis had “shaken confidence in its educational mission, threatened a covenant established with thousands of donors, and set a sad and troubling example to other institutions.’’ They said of the Rose: “This was where an extraordinary collection kindled our passion for art and art history. This was where we decided to devote our professional lives to studying art, and to helping others feel the excitement we had discovered in these galleries.’’ The three added: “We can only hope that Brandeis will now revisit its decision. If not, we all stand to lose.’’

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Bravo to Roberta Smith, the New York Times art critic who journeyed to Boston this weekend to see firsthand just what was at stake with Brandeis’ decision to close the Rose Art Museum. Her report is a devastating one, revealing a process that is more egregious than I had previously realized. (You can read her article on Slow Painting as well as the Times site.)

Here are a few of her well placed barbs:

The Brandeis vote was an act of breathtaking stealth and presumption: a raid on a museum that supports itself, raises its own funds and has consistently planned wisely for its own future without leaning on the university. The trustees treated it nonetheless as a disposable asset.

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It is hard to know how anyone could destroy this museum, but that’s what Brandeis announced it would do last Monday. It’s hard to think of a comparably destructive — and self-destructive — move in the art world today.

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The outcry in the art world was also fast and furious, with more than a few people noting that the rapidly sinking art market made this an idiotic time to sell art. By week’s end Mr. Reinharz was backpedaling on the sale, saying it was not clear what would be sold or when. He was nonetheless adamant that the museum would be closed.

Of course he was. What better way to avoid the messy legalities of deaccessioning artworks, with the attendant denunciations from Association of Art Museum Directors and other professional organizations that monitor and weigh in on sales of individual works of art? (The association’s guidelines say that art works can be sold only to finance acquisitions.) If there is no museum, there are no guidelines to violate.

It’s a cynical view but I think Smith is fair in pointing out the game plan here. It was poignantly contrasted to her reminder of the larger issues at stake here:

On Friday the only signs of any disturbance were on the exterior of the Rose’s dainty, cast-concrete building, which opened in 1961, just 13 years after the university itself was founded. The museum’s glass front was festooned with posters that exclaimed, “Don’t Close the Rose” and “Fire Sale,” the remnants of a student sit-in the day before.

But inside, the art was, as usual, doing what art is always trying to do, speak to people directly about pleasure and beauty, about personal capacity and freedom, about how individuals acting on their own can find themselves, express those findings and make a difference.

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The greater the art, the greater number of people “own” it. The greater its power, the more it expands our lives. In a just and moral society, art is crucial to our understanding of freedom, difference and individual agency.

The message out of Brandeis University last week — to its own students and to the world — was that when the going gets tough, none of this matters. Art is dispensable.

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I’m still reeling from the news that Brandeis University has announced the closing of the Rose Art Museum. Once a bastion of painterly painting under Carl Belz’s visionary directorship, the Rose has been a cherished art destination for me for many years. The building, designed by Philip Johnson, is small and not one of Johnson’s best works by any means. But the sensibility Belz brought to the place was exemplary. Judy Pfaff, Joan Snyder and a number of other important women artists were championed by Belz early in that particular visibility curve.

The outcry has been overwhelming. From the New York Times today:

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum, one of the most important collections of postwar art in New England.

The decision to close the 48-year-old museum in Waltham, Mass., and disperse the collection as a way to shore up the university’s struggling finances was denounced by the museum’s board, its director and a wide range of art experts, who warned that the university was cannibalizing its cultural heritage to pay its bills.

“This is one of the artistic and cultural legacies of American Jewry,” said Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the museum’s board of overseers, who said that “nobody at the museum — neither the director nor myself nor anyone else — was informed of this or had any idea what was going on.”

This account from the Wall Street Journal (with an excerpt posted on Slow Painting), also caught me:

The National Academy and MOCA did come perilously close to “going away,” due to financial circumstances specific to them that predated the general economic collapse.

The academy clawed its way back from the edge by selling two Hudson River School paintings — its most important Frederic Church and its only Sanford Gifford — to raise about $13.5 million for operations. By the time its desperation-driven plan to sell came to light on Dec. 5…the paintings were already gone — withdrawn from the public domain by an unidentified private foundation.

In making this risky move, the museum forfeited not only AAMD membership but also art loans from and collaborations with institutions that obey the strong recommendation of the association’s board. “These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets,” Mr. Conforti [president of the Association of Art Museum Directors] declared.

“These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets.”

Is that true?

My son, ever the devil’s advocate, wants to know details about the collection being sold before he mourns its loss. He’s young and iconoclastic, very distrustful about how art institutions and their collusive insider taste makers determine what is valuable and what is not.

Yeah, I’m cynical too. But I do know some of the holdings at the Rose. And the thought that those works will be gone is crushing to me.

What’s the answer? As the financial infrastructures needed to keep our culturecraft afloat continue to disintegrate, the solution is not simple. But I still feel bereft.