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Brandeis to loan art to boost budget

Museum, Sotheby’s team up to ease crunch

Robert Cottingham’s “Discount Store’’ (left) and David Parrish’s “Yamaha’’ (right) are featured in the current exhibition, The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis: Works from the Collection. Robert Cottingham’s “Discount Store’’ (left) and David Parrish’s “Yamaha’’ (right) are featured in the current exhibition, The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis: Works from the Collection. (Charles Mayer for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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Brandeis University, which stirred controversy last year by proposing to close its Rose Art Museum, now plans to hire Sotheby’s auction house as a broker to raise money by loaning out artworks, the school confirmed yesterday.

Such loans from the Rose’s prized collection, if they take place, would help Brandeis avoid selling the works outright.

Founded in 1961, the Rose boasts a collection of 7,500 objects valued by some at more than $350 million, including works by such giants as Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. In January 2009, Brandeis proposed to close the museum and sell its artworks to help re solve a budget crisis.

“I have from the start looked at options other than sale,’’ said Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz, who was criticized by museum officials and arts advocates after the university announced its original plan. “My hope is that if in fact we’re able to arrive at some sort of a deal, all of this will be put to rest.’’

Typically, art loans take place between museums for roughly the cost of transporting and insuring the works. But there have been times when museums have used their collections to boost budgets.

In the 1990s, the Whitney Museum of American Art was paid $4.4 million to provide works to the San Jose Museum of Art, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts signed a 20-year deal to provide exhibitions to an MFA branch in Nagoya, Japan, for $50 million. More recently, the High Museum in Atlanta paid $7 million to borrow works from the Louvre in Paris for a three-year period ending in 2009.

In general, the museum world holds that art should only be sold to further strengthen a museum’s collection, and it frowns upon unconventional loans, particularly those that bring in more than standard fees or that involve deals with for-profit galleries. In 2004, the MFA agreed to lend more than half its Monet collection to a for-profit Las Vegas gallery in a casino for a payment of at least $1 million. That angered members of the American Association of Museum Directors.

“People just went berserk,’’ said Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “All they were doing was sending it to Las Vegas to make some money. Members wanted to censor Boston.’’

David Ross, the former director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art who led the Whitney Museum when it worked out its deal with the San Jose Museum of Art, said he was intrigued by Brandeis’s deal with Sotheby’s. He said he would be concerned, however, that loans might be made to wealthy art collectors for private use or to corporations that don’t have conservationists on staff who know how to properly treat art.

“If the idea is that Joe Smith would rent that Andy Warhol for five years and will pay to have it in his home and promise to take good care of it, that’s a terrible idea,’’ said Ross. “The best of ideas would be to find somewhere in the world where they have more money and space than art.’’

But Lisa Dennison, the former director of the Guggenheim Museum who serves as Sotheby’s chairman, said the Brandeis arrangement is more likely to be modeled on loans made to other museums. “We’re not looking for Joe Smith to start renting individual pictures,’’ she said.

Dennison said it is too early to speculate publicly on just what kind of arrangements Sotheby’s will propose to Brandeis. But she said the Rose’s collection is very marketable.

“It’s a special collection that has some illustrious provenance attached to it,’’ she said. “There’s a story to be told here. And how many people have been to Waltham, Mass., to see the Brandeis collection? Not many.’’

The Sotheby’s announcement comes 17 months after Brandeis first announced the plan, voted on by its board of trustees, to close the Rose and sell art in its collection. A backlash followed as museum leaders, arts advocates, and Brandeis students and faculty members spoke out in opposition. A group of museum supporters sued the university to try to prevent it from selling artworks and to get it to return money pledged for a since-abandoned museum expansion project.

In response, the university has held off on selling any art and kept the museum doors open. But the Rose does not have a director or curator, the lawsuit remains alive, and Brandeis has refused to rule out the sale of artwork. The university has a deal in place, if it decides to sell art, to put the works up for auction through Christie’s.

Andrew Gully, a Brandeis spokesman, said that much has changed since the original board vote. The stock market has stabilized, helping the university’s endowment rebound. In addition, Brandeis has developed a plan to create a balanced general operating budget by 2014.

Still, financial needs remain. The university has an annual structural deficit of between $10 million and $15 million. To erase a deficit of $10 million, the school would have to raise about $200 million in endowment funds, Gully said. Officials said they don’t know how much of that sum they would hope to raise through the Rose’s collection.

Sotheby’s approached the university about a year ago suggesting the new plan. The university will sign a contract with the auction house sometime next month and hopes to begin fielding specific proposals as soon as this fall.

When asked whether the Brandeis trustees might consider reversing their early vote to consider selling works, Reinharz reiterated that the board voted twice to keep the option open.

“[They’ve said] let’s try to have an orderly sale or find another way,’’ he said. “I’ve never pursued the sale option. Now it’s looking as if [the alternative] is becoming a real possibility.’’

Even if Brandeis and Sotheby’s go forward with the new plan, it is unlikely to please the museum community, cautions Houston’s Marzio.

“They will be against anything except the status quo,’’ he said. “But Brandeis has to set its priorities and decide how the museum fits into the long-term purpose of the university. They would be fools not to explore this.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.