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With the Rose Art Museum controversy behind him, Michael Rush moves on

Michael Rush, former director of the Rose Art Museum, curated 'Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde.' Michael Rush, former director of the Rose Art Museum, curated "Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde." (Mary Schwalm for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - The last time Michael Rush curated a show, he was barely able to enjoy it. Just 11 days after a Hans Hoffman painting exhibit opened at the Rose Art Museum last January, Brandeis University administrators announced a stunning plan to close the campus museum and sell its $350 million collection of art.

That never happened. An international backlash - led by an outraged Rush, director of the museum - convinced the administration to put its controversial idea on hold. But Rush’s contract was not renewed, leaving him without a job.

A year later, Rush is clearly enjoying himself. Shaking hands and hugging old friends in the lobby of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, he welcomed more than 100 people last week to the opening of “Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde.’’ He is the show’s guest curator.

On opening night, Rush looked very much like one of the characters he played back in the ’80s and ’90s on “Law and Order’’ and “Spencer: For Hire.’’ He wore a dark suit, no tie - a buttoned-up contrast to the show’s provocative array of videos and photographs depicting people in drag.

For his supporters, the night was bittersweet.

“It’s heartbreaking,’’ said Meryl Rose, whose family helped found the Rose but is now embroiled in a lawsuit to block Brandeis from selling any of the art in the museum’s collection - something the university has still not ruled out. “We should be doing these groundbreaking shows, and we were doing these groundbreaking shows.’’

Lisa Fischman, the new director of Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center, came to the List out of admiration for Rush. She watched the Brandeis drama from afar while serving as chief curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

“He handled it with aplomb and the right degree of indignation,’’ she said.

Mingling, Rush showed none of the wear of his last days in Waltham. Now based in New York, he is optimistic about his search for his next job. He seemed nonplussed to see his predecessor as Rose director, Joe Ketner, at the reception, as well as Roy Dawes, the Rose’s current director of operations.

“It’s great to see them,’’ said Rush. “To see we’re connected beyond a difficult situation.’’

Rush has been back to the Rose since he left. Last fall, he walked through a survey show co-curated by Dawes showcasing the museum’s collection - a collection that Rush had initiated an assessment of, filled with works by powerhouse names from Picasso to de Kooning and Lichtenstein.

Rush visited without drawing attention to himself and without letting the administration know. After all, he had been an outspoken critic of the school’s board of trustees and President Jehuda Reinharz over the decision to help solve the university’s budget crisis by selling the museum’s art. He had organized a symposium at the Rose, “Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum Amidst Financial Crisis.’’ Rush exited at the end of June, when his contract expired.

“It was a very miserable situation to be in,’’ said Rush, who acknowledges that in those days, he dreaded each workday as he entered the Brandeis campus. “Friendships were strained. People would sometimes walk the other way when they saw me coming. I had been friendly with the president and provost before this. One day later, I was their enemy. The upside of it was that I think anything I may have learned about leadership in my life was really called to the fore and tested. I had a great learning experience from it, which I’m oddly grateful for.’’

A winding road
Rush did not take a traditional path to a museum career. He grew up in Chatham, N.J., the son of the editor of the Newark Evening News. He studied to become a priest and was ordained in the ’70s, left to become an actor in the ’80s - his sister, Deborah, is a veteran actress once nominated for a Tony - and then started writing arts criticism mainly for the New Haven Register and Art New England. It was in the late ’80s and early ’90s that Rush discovered video art, largely through experimenting with projections during some of his own staged plays. Rush has no formal art history training; his doctorate, from Harvard University, is in psychology and religion. But since his first book, “New Media in Late 20th-Century Art,’’ was published in 1999, he has edited or written another dozen books.

“His books have been landmark books in the field,’’ said Ara Merjian, a New York University assistant professor of Italian and art history, who has worked with Rush. “They’ve helped galvanize a certain attention to the other shifting fields of new media.’’

In 2000, Rush took a job as director of the upstart Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art. Then in 2005, Brandeis hired him to replace Ketner. At the time, Brandeis provost Marty Krauss called Rush “a visionary and innovative leader who will bring the Rose to the next level of excellence.’’ Last January, it was Krauss who called Rush into her office and told him the trustees had voted to close the Rose. That night, he had a drink with a close friend, List director Jane Farver. Today, she says she marvels at Rush’s grace in handling the Brandeis situation.

“He was never bitter,’’ said Farver. “I think I still feel a lot more anger about it than he does.’’

Even as the Rose remained in limbo, Rush held out hope he could patch up his relationship with Reinharz. He finally worked his way into the president’s office in February.

“When I got to his office, there was somebody there to take notes,’’ remembered Rush. “I was clearly walking into a situation that was being perceived as part of a legal situation. I had wanted a human situation. I had been in his office a week before [the announcement], with a bottle of champagne to toast the new year. We were very friendly, and all of a sudden we were enemies. I wanted to say, We’re two adults, can’t we just talk? There was none of that. He wasn’t saying anything. I finally said, ‘Jehuda, this isn’t going anywhere.’ I extended a hand. Jehuda didn’t reach out. After several beats, he did, reluctantly.’’

Reinharz and Krauss were not available for comment, according to Andrew Gully, a Brandeis spokesman. “Michael Rush is engaged in another endeavor, and the Rose Art museum is open and featuring a highly acclaimed exhibit of its permanent collection,’’ Gully said.

Still, the last months at the Rose weren’t only about that sick feeling in his stomach, Rush says. He also enjoyed the surge of attention from the public, which had for so long taken the museum for granted but now streamed in to see its rich collection of modern and contemporary works. Leading an institution in turmoil reminded him that he loves being a museum director. That’s why he remains on unemployment. He doesn’t want to be a curator. He wants to run a museum.

Creating ‘Illusion’
It was Farver who got Rush back into the galleries. Farver had long known Rush’s books on video art, and they collaborated when Rush was in Palm Beach. Then while Rush was at the Rose, he and Farver started talking about a show involving video art and cross-dressing. After List curator Bill Arning left the museum last February to become director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, she found herself with an open slot for a show.

Walking through the gallery on a recent afternoon, Rush talked of how he started thinking about the idea of “Virtual Illusion’’ while still at Brandeis. In fact, one of the pieces in the show, a color portrait by Yasumasa Morimura, is borrowed from the Rose.

“I was just observing video art,’’ said Rush, “and I would notice that in the best video art I was seeing, cross-dressing was a part of it.’’

For the List show, Rush has focused on how media artists have used cross-dressing as a strategy to create avant-garde work, from Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp through Andy Warhol, Charles Atlas, Matthew Barney, John Kelly, and Ryan Trecartin.

The latter artist’s “K-Corea INC. K (Section A)’’ is a fast-paced, quick-cutting spoof of a commercial for a travel agency. Trecartin plays a blond woman, one of many characters in the manic piece.

“It’s the most energetic, crazy exploration of the digital world,’’ Rush said. “It’s as if you’re stepping into somebody else’s computer and somebody else’s life in that computer.’’

Rush points out that much of the exhibition features artists more concerned with playing characters than using cross-dressing to explore issues of sexuality.

“Somebody was asking me about how does this compare to RuPaul or Dame Edna,’’ said Rush. “It’s obvious that these characters in Trecartin’s films are guys. It’s not some studied thing where they really take great care to be done up as females. It’s so casual. The issue of male-female identity stuff is something that was important in the ’90s, but not for them. The discussion around cross-dressing or drag has now entered into a new phase of sexual indeterminacy, really. It’s not a matter of a guy wanting to explore his femininity. It’s more another aspect of a conceptual language.’’

After the List exhibition, Rush will curate a survey of the collection of the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

But for now, he’s focusing on this show. On opening night, Rush was approached by Samantha Marder, whose company, “The Changing Room,’’ caters to men who want help learning how to properly dress as women. She came because of the cross-dressing theme.

“I would like to make you over,’’ she told Rush. “I think you should experience it sometime.’’

“You want me to try drag?’’ He laughed, and then politely declined her offer.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com