(February 12, 2009) In a live Ustream webcast on February 11, faculty and alumni from Brandeis University hosted an emotional town meeting about the future of their Waltham, Massachusetts, institution’s 48-year-old Rose Art Museum. The self-described financially-flailing university started the new year with a Board of Trustees decision to raise funds through the closing of the musuem, an important New England repsository of post-war artwork. Facing an uncertain future is a collection of about 7,000 modern and contemporary works of art—from Picasso to Warhol---valued at around $350 to $400 million, according to a New York Times report.
The visibly shaken Rose Director Michael Rush told the assembled audience and online viewers that about 80% of the art was gifted to the museum and 20% was purchased from endowment funds. A series of speakers voiced their strong opposition at the meeting, calling the museum “a sacred space” and not a disposable financial asset.
In his opening remarks, Rush emphatically stated, “If universities could cash in their art collections during trying times, every university art collection would be threatened.” Indeed, the intention to sell the Rose collection has been publicly denounced by the College Art Association and, of course, by many of the donors to the Rose. Rush was quick to state, “At the moment, these artworks are not for sale.”
Selling artwork is certainly not a new tactic for financially-strapped institutions to cover operating costs. De-accessioning just one painting from the Rose collection---say a Warhol---could generate a ten figure sum.
The shocker first was delivered on Jan. 26 when Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz issued a statement that the Board of Trustees had voted to close the museum in order to “replenish our assets.” In a NPR interview explaining his position, Reinharz said the university had a “$10 million hole” that was “taken care of.” Yet, like most every institutions today, Brandeis saw its endowment plummet about 25% in value as stocks have lost ground in recent months. It went from $712 million in June to about $530 million today.
Still, a half billion dollars sounds like a good sum of money to keep the institution afloat on the short term. The caveat emptor: Brandeis officials maintain Massachusetts laws prohibits them from delving into the endowment capital; they can only spend gains.
Brandeis COO Peter French told the Daily Beast that the university faced a projected $13 million a year deficit for the next six years that could not be replenished by the endowment or a $820 million (so far) capital campaign earmarked for new buildings.
Fundraising is in a depressed state, too, Reinharz lamented, and may not recover for years. Alas, Reinharz did not blame the crisis on Bernard L. Madoff, the man behind the Ponzi scheme claiming $50 billion of investors’ money. Reinharz said it was “too early to speculate” if Madoff’s shenanigans affected Brandeis donors. However, there have been rumors that Brandeis was expecting a large bequest from 95-year-old clothing entrepreneur Carl Shapiro of Boston whose money (perhaps $400 million of it) allegedly went pouf under Madoff. (Shapiro has already given Brandeis $80 million in past donations, Boston Magazine reports.)
“This is not a happy day,” Rush said of the museum controversy. He went on to sympathize with the angry students, alumni, and museum supporters. Some donors, such as Brandeis alum and Los Angeles art dealer Jonathan Novak, are trying to block any sales of artwork, reports the Boston Globe. On the other end of the spectrum, the university has said that alumni and supporters have also called in favor of the Board’s decision, seen as a necessesary evil in bad economic times.
In the town meeting, Rush was delighted that “support has been pouring in from all over the world” to keep the Rose open. People from Iceland to Israel have been contacting the museum with their support, joining the Save the Rose Art Museum Facebook group, and signing online petitions by the thousands.
But could this fiasco actually turn into a happy day for the Rose? Perhaps. The sheer amount of publicity given this controversy of sacrificial art, including extensive coverage online and in many major newspapers, should generate giving to the cause. Microdonations can add up.
Nevertheless, with the global economy in a tailspin and donors/supporters more skittish than ever about giving, will this publicity-generated fundraising be enough? And if the Rose survives, will art collectors ever be able to trust Brandeis again to hold on to their donations---de Koonigs and Stellas and Lichtensteins---and not liquidate their gifts into quick cash?
Save the Rose Art Museum Facebook Group
Petition to Save the Rose Art Museum