Thursday, February 5, 2009
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:
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.