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Paradise Lost (Again)
by Robert Moeller
 
The car companies, the banks and their sullied side-ventures, your investment portfolio, the galleries, your neighbors; all are suffering. Welcome to the economics of despair. And one imagines that if despair were publicly traded, it would be in trouble too.

So it comes as no surprise, however unpalatable, to come to find that everything is up for grabs.

On Jan. 26, 2009, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., announced that its trustee board had voted to close the school’s Rose Art Museum and sell off its collection, which amounts to over 7,000 artworks, with a core holding of Pop Art formed in the early 1960s by founding director Sam Hunter. (The museum collection was last appraised in 2006 at $600 million.) According to the university administration, the museum is to be closed later this year and turned into a "teaching center" with both studio space and an exhibition gallery.

The reasons that Brandeis gave for the sale were economic. "These are extraordinary times," said Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz. "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."

Wait, back up, he said what?

"The Rose is a jewel," Reinharz told the Boston Globe, "but for the most part it's a hidden jewel. It does not have great foot traffic, and most of the great works we have, we are just not able to exhibit. We felt that, at this point given the recession and the financial crisis, we had no choice."

The news was greeted with a certain amount of disbelief, which quickly turned to anger, demonstrations, and censure, which rained down from Brandeis alumni, faculty and students, the College Art Association, the editorial page of the New York Times and elsewhere. Once the news broke that the museum would be closing, hundreds of people arrived to see what the fuss was about, and one assumes, have a last look around. This rise in attendance must have startled the Brandeis administration, even if it could only be attributed to morbid curiosity.

As Laura Hoptman, senior curator at the New Museum, who organized what might be one of the last exhibitions at the Rose Museum, said to me when I asked her about the closing, "There is a Jewish word for such a move; Shonda. Roughly, it connotes an act that is so counter to Jewish values that it bestows a deep shame on both the perpetrators and all those associated with them."

Michael Rush, the museum’s director, seemed shell-shocked by the news, and waited several days before posting a fairly wan statement on the museum’s website, calling the decision shameful and shortsighted. An open letter released last week by a trio of museum professionals (Nasher Museum director Kimerly Rorschach, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Gary Tinterow and Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg) put the issue with considerably more clarity and force: Brandeis has "shaken confidence in its educational mission, threatened a covenant established with thousands of donors, and set a sad and troubling example to other institutions."

As the controversy deepened, Reinharz, with that imperial clumsiness that seems hard-wired into the DNA of university presidents, stumbled through a series of interviews defending the proposed sale until, perhaps prompted by the backlash, he claimed several days later that maybe the collection wouldn’t be sold after all. 

Savvy onlookers might be excused for thinking that this backtracking on Reinharz’s part is just an artful dodge. Barring some action on the part of the Massachusetts attorney general, after all, Brandeis is quite capable of forging ahead with its plan to cash in on its arts assets, regardless of any opposition. 

Earlier this month, Reinharz issued an apology, admitting that he had "screwed up." What he didn’t say was the apology was part of a newly minted strategy constructed by a recently hired PR firm that specialized in crisis management. Here, one can only marvel at the university’s cynicism and sit back, expecting the worst.

The art historian Martha Buskirk noted, with a touch of cynicism, that "this generation of financial speculators, whether officially criminal or not, could almost make one nostalgic for the 19th-century robber barons. They may have been rapacious and violent, but at least they left the American public with some rather nice museums."

In this case, her cynicism doesn’t seem to be at all misplaced.


ROBERT MOELLER is a writer and painter living in Cambridge, Mass.