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Brandeis to hire new Rose Museum director

Critics who filed suit unimpressed

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / September 21, 2010

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Brandeis University is launching a search for a new director at the Rose Art Museum, the latest step in an effort to move on from last year’s controversy over the campus museum. But Rose boosters who are suing the university say they are not impressed.

The formation of a search committee comes after two Rose exhibitions scheduled to open this autumn fell apart, with the artists in one show withdrawing because of the university’s continued refusal to rule out selling pieces from the Rose’s art collection to pay for Brandeis expenses.

University representatives say that they are working hard to avoid any sales and to rebuild the Rose staff and that they are committed to the museum’s future.

“I do think the fact that the university is launching a search is a good sign that we’re moving forward,’’ said Scott Edmiston, search committee chairman and director of the Brandeis Office of the Arts. “I feel like we’re really on the mend.’’

There is no timetable for hiring a new director, though Edmiston hopes to have the first committee meeting as early as next month.

So far, Marty Krauss, Brandeis provost, has appointed seven others to the group, all connected to the university: Dan Feldman, Brandeis vice president for planning and capital projects; Susan Lichtman, fine arts associate professor; John Lisman, biology professor; Robin Miller, Russian literature professor; Steven Reiner, chairman of the Rose board of overseers and member of the Brandeis board of trustees; Jonathan Unglaub, fine arts associate professor; and Michaele Whelan, vice provost.

A Brandeis student and a museum professional are likely to be added, said Edmiston.

It has been 20 months since Brandeis announced it would close the Rose and sell its collection, which has been valued at as much as $350 million. After a public backlash, the university said it would instead see whether it could rent out portions of the collection to raise funds.

But a group of Rose supporters has sued Brandeis as part of an effort to prevent any sales and wrestle control of the museum, and they said yesterday that they were unmoved by the start of a director search.

“If their intent is to have a real museum as opposed to a college art center, why did they get rid of all the people who worked there in the first place, and why did they let this museum run into the ground for a year and a half?’’ said Meryl Rose, a museum donor and longtime member of the museum board of overseers.

She was referring to former director Michael Rush, whose contract expired last year, and several other staffers who left.

“If you look at the people on the search committee, it’s all Brandeis employees, and they do what they’re told to do,’’ said Gerald Fineberg, another donor who is suing Brandeis. “I have no confidence at all.’’

Edmiston defended the makeup of the search group and noted that he was part of the Future of the Rose committee, which recommended last year that the museum remain open to the public.

“Our central recommendation was to better integrate the museum into the life of this university,’’ he said. “That’s reflected in the makeup of the committee. It is our university’s art museum, and I think we care a lot about its future and what type of leadership it will have.’’

Brandeis officials say they have made it clear that they have high hopes for the Rose. In March, trustees endorsed the Future of the Rose committee’s recommendations. In addition, Brandeis has hired a collections manager/registrar and a director of academic programming.

Roy Dawes, the lone holdover from the old Rose staff, has served as director of museum operations over the past year. He will remain at the museum after a new director is selected.

Lisman, of the search committee, said he understood why the university considered selling art.

“The situation was pretty complicated,’’ he said. “There was both an economic downturn and, secondly, a situation that particularly affected Brandeis, the [Bernard] Madoff affair.

“I agree if it comes down to protecting your core mission, the museum might have to suffer to preserve the core. Now, fortunately, it does not seem that the financial situation has been as bad as might have been expected. Now is an opportunity to not just preserve the Rose, but revitalize its mission.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com