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Museum overseers sue to halt Rose closure

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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Three members of the Rose Art Museum’s board of overseers filed a lawsuit yesterday to prevent Brandeis University from closing the museum, selling artwork, or using any of the Rose endowment for other purposes - a surprising move that a university lawyer called “frivolous and without merit.’’

The suit, unusual in that it was filed in the state’s highest court, is the first legal challenge since Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz announced in January that the 48-year-old museum would close and some of its collection would be sold to help the financially troubled school ride out its budget woes.

The plaintiffs - prominent museum benefactors Meryl Rose, Jon athan Lee, and Lois Foster - have asked the Supreme Judicial Court to issue a preliminary injunction to keep art from being sold and an order declaring that Brandeis may not shut the Rose. The overseers want the court to order Brandeis to turn over the artwork and endowment funds to another organization committed to displaying the modern and contemporary works in a permanent, public art museum.

“The purpose of the lawsuit is to say, ‘Guess what? The art is not yours to sell,’ ’’ said Lee, chairman of the museum’s overseers, whose late mother donated more than 500 works of art to the Rose. “The university looks at this from a business perspective. This is a valuable asset, and they are going to rebalance their portfolio, as if they owned a timber stand in North Carolina. It is wrong to sell off a long-term cultural asset when you have a short-term financial problem.’’

University officials learned of the lawsuit late yesterday afternoon. Thomas Reilly, the former Massachusetts attorney general and outside counsel for Brandeis, said the university, like others around the country, has taken aggressive cost-cutting steps to preserve the quality of education and money for financial aid for needy students.

“The university has a responsibility to provide the very best education and faculty to fulfill its higher educational agenda,’’ Reilly wrote in a statement. “Apparently, these three overseers are oblivious to the Brandeis mission.’’

The Rose houses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in New England, Lee said - 7,000 objects valued at $350 million.

After critics voiced their objections to the museum’s closure and Brandeis was thrust into the international spotlight for the dramatic move, Reinharz retreated from his original statement that the museum would close. Instead, he said the university would convert the Rose from an art museum open to the public into an educational arts center for Brandeis students and faculty.

The university also appointed a committee to examine the Rose’s future; it is slated to release a final report in the fall. In the meantime, the contract for the museum’s director, Michael Rush, was not renewed when it expired in June, and most of his staff was released.

Lee said the museum’s transition into an arts center is a technicality that will pave the way for artwork to be sold. Museum ethical codes require proceeds from any sale of artwork be used only to purchase new acquisitions. The lawsuit contends that Brandeis has accelerated the process of preparing works for sale in recent weeks, and that artwork will start to be sold by the fall, which the university denies.

“At this point in time, that allegation is premature,’’ Reilly said in an e-mail.

The overseers entered the suit in the SJC to make a larger point about honoring donor intent, Lee said. His mother, Mildred Schiff Lee, who died in May, began collecting American Expressionist art in the 1940s and started donating to the Rose shortly after its founding in 1961 because of the museum’s commitment to exhibit the works to the public.

Should the Rose cease to function as a public art museum, the artwork should revert to her estate to be donated to other museum purposes, the court documents said.

“If you undermine that, who’s going to give to art museums?’’ Lee said. “It’s a terrible precedent. It isn’t a question of fact, it’s a question of value.’’

Reilly said the university will “aggressively defend’’ its position in court. The Rose endowment “is part of the Brandeis endowment, its presence is on the Brandeis campus, and its major fund-raising over the past dozen years has been done by the Brandeis president.’’