Thursday, February 5, 2009

Selling Off Brandeis' Art Collection for Filthy Lucre Might Be the Right Thing
Gail Heriot

If the New York Times is an accurate indicator, much of the art world is aghast, simply aghast over Brandeis University's decision to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its holdings.  In contrast, my friends Peter Wood and Glenn Ricketts have a more sober comment on the controversy.

I feel bad for Brandeis.  Like all endowed colleges and universities, they have taken it on the chin of late.  But Brandeis has been hit harder than most, since Bernie Madoff has ... uh .... made off with the fortunes of several of its most loyal donors.  In the judgment of its president, the best way to deal with the crisis is to sell off the museum's holdings, which are valued at more than $300 million and which include works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.  The money from that sale will allow Brandeis to continue its core mission, which is education, not the collection of art.  I'm not inclined to second guess him on that.  If you are, well ... have fun.

What's curious is that some people see this as a moral issue--or at least they claim to.  The NYT reports that the Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines actually prohibit museums from selling art unless it is being used to finance the acquisition of other art.  The College Art Association evidently agrees with the AAMD.  A year ago it issued a statement in connection with Randolph College's decision to auction off four of the paintings from its Maier Museum of Art: 

The College Art Association understands that the sale of the Maier Museum of Art's collection is to provide operating revenue for Randolph College, and, as such, contravenes the Professional Practices for Art Museums policy outlined by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. This policy, which the College Art Association wholeheartedly endorses, states that art collections are held by museums as a public trust and that any decisions to sell objects from the collection should be based on donor intent and aesthetic quality. Any revenue gained from sales is solely to support future art acquisitions.
As Wood and Ricketts point out, this position is a bit self-serving.   "The 'public trust'", they note, "seems to coincide almost miraculously with the professional interests of museum curators, and art works can be traded, in effect, only for more art."  It's also a little odd.  Is there any other asset of colleges and universities that must be treated this way?  If I donate land to a college or university, does it have to be sold for other land?

My experience is that some artsy folks can be remarkably lacking in self-awareness.  Most of the rest of us at least wince when we make a self-serving argument.

BTW, I helped draft an agreement between USD School of Law and one of our donors a few months ago.  The agreement is structured to allow USD flexibility in case USD finds itself in a dire financial situation.   The donor was perfectly happy with that, and I suspect that Brandeis donors would also prefer that Brandeis attend to its core mission first in times of financial crisis.  I do not believe that anyone is claiming in the Brandeis case that the sale of the art contravenes any explicit agreement with any donor.

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Gail Heriot


Gee I thought that museums were for art and colleges for education- not real estate investing, world junkets, oversees campuses, ridiculously expensive teams, museum art, gruesome tenures. Perhaps this is why it costs so much to educate our young. It isnt because the colleges lack for money-- it is because the system is bloated with too much money- just like our healthcare system, and have been inflated out of sight.

Posted by: athena | Feb 6, 2009 5:22:54 AM

Thanks for this note. It expresses my feelings, but much better than I can. I'll use your phrasing when next discussing the situation.

Posted by: Terry Cloth | Mar 30, 2009 10:23:37 AM

seek information about what the college and I need to submit my academic and social expectations and economic, thanks for sharing the information. I think new york has large global institutions and from there my interest from schools in one of these.

Posted by: ring toy | Apr 21, 2010 9:10:40 AM

Isn't all art and beauty in the eye of the beholder? If I think Magritte, Dix, Van Gogh, Monet, and Raphael are great and Harring, Pollock, and Warhol are totally over-rated, how is my opinion worth any less than someone who has taken lots of art appreciating and art history classes?
Who gets to determine what is great and important art and what isn't?

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