IN MAKING and announcing its decision this week to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off renowned holdings, Brandeis University showed all the grace of a trash can bumping down a flight of stairs. Now, in addition to its shrinking endowment, Brandeis must cope with a diminishing reputation among art lovers, philanthropists, and many students, faculty, and staff.
The ill-considered decision by the Brandeis board of trustees was made without opportunity for the museum's director or overseers to formulate a rescue plan for the Rose or defend the collection, which includes paintings by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and other luminaries of 20th-century art. The move was especially disappointing given recent efforts by the Rose to provide the campus and the public with a strong balance of shows by new artists and exhibits from the permanent collection.
Like many college officials, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz and the trustees are being forced to set priorities amid limited resources. The Brandeis endowment has fallen roughly 25 percent, from $712 million to $549 million, due, in part, to the economy's chilling effect on fund-raising. Putting part of the Rose's $350 million collection to auction may be necessary to maintain the overall fiscal health of the university. "If Brandeis doesn't survive," Reinharz says, "there won't be a Rose anyhow."
But to formulate a drastic sell-off without the knowledge and input of the college community comes across as dark and desperate.
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," said Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom the college was named. It's hard to imagine that Brandeis, the "people's lawyer" who championed workers' rights, would look proudly on a mass sale of artwork to private collectors.
The potential sales raise legal questions as well as public relations problems for the university. Some of the works were given with no conditions, but others could include restrictions on their sale or use, such as ensuring that the paintings remain available for public viewing. In such contested cases, the university would have to petition the state Supreme Judicial Court to change the terms of the donation. Again, it is hard to imagine that Justice Brandeis would have approved of an institution imposing its will on an individual giver in such a manner.
Attorney General Martha Coakley's office will be studying these donor agreements with the same attention that art examiners apply to brushstrokes. The AG should also look at the wider issue of whether closing the Rose Museum is consistent with the university's nonprofit mission. Museums, after all, aren't just buildings. They're a crucial part of the culture that educational institutions are supposed to foster.