Tuesday, January 27, 2009

...And the ARt went First

Struggling to recover from falling victim to the nearly $50 million Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts has made the decision to sell its entire art collection at the Rose Art Museum. The collection at the Rose is one of the largest collections of post-war art in New England. The move to sell the art has come as the school struggles to find balance in the recession, as its nearly $700 million endowment is all but gone. The collection includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Stuart Davis, Milton Avery and many other American artists. The museum's collections is valued at between $350 to $400 million. The case is currently under review by the office of the Massachusetts attorney-general. The closing is significant because it does not only jeopardize the study of arts at the University but also the jobs of the museum's employees, some of whom heard about the school's decision through the media.

The Rose Art Museum opened it doors 48 years ago, and 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the museum. The museum was the dream of Brandeis University President Abram Sachar and two generous donors, Edward and Bertha Rose for whom the museum is named. Lacking an acquisition budget when it first opened in 1961, the museum was able to acquire a major part of its collection largely in part by a donation by collectors Leon Mnuchin and his wife Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin. The Mnuchins donated $50,000 with the specification that the money be used to purchase only contemporary art. According to the museum's website, the Mnuchins' gift back in 1961 is comparable to Bill and Melinda Gates making a donation of $150,000,000 million today. The Rose Museum has a great collection that has been loaned to museums from Paris to Spain and around the United States.

But now the 7,000 strong collection at the museum is about to be sold, some of the works for less than their current market value. It should be noted that Brandeis' move to sell gifts of art work is not a first. In 2005 and then in 2007 Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and Randolph College in Lynchburg Virginia respectively both made attempts at selling paintings that were part of their collection. Fisk was stopped while Randolph made a sale and has plans for more sales in the future.

As a student who attended a University with an exceptional art museum the decision by Brandeis is deplorable. There should be other means to raise money for an academic institution beset by hard times besides selling works of art that have become part of the fabric of the institution. By selling the paintings in the collection, the University is not only making an unsound economic decision, but selling what I believe is a huge piece of academia. The works of art have as much a stake in providing a wholesome learning experience for the students and the Waltham community as the books in the library. I would be appalled to learn that any school is selling historic documents and I am no less so with Brandeis's decision.

While Brandeis will not be setting precedent, if they are allowed to carry on with their intentions of selling almost 7,000 works of art valued at almost $400 milion they will be sending the message that a price tag can be put on knowledge. The repercussions will be significant and may open up an avenue for other institutions in similar financial circumstances to auction off or either sell relics of their institution. Will Emory University move next to sell the papers of Seamus Heaney, Flannery O'Connor or Alice Walker? Regardless of how dire the circumstances are at Brandeis, the University should be strongly condemned and should not be allowed to continue with their decision. Would New York City ever consider selling the Statue of Liberty?

On the website of The Rose Museum there is still no word of the closing or the impending sale of works in the collection. Soon, "the dream of the Rose to honor its unique and inestimable collection...and enhancing it with the inexhaustible generosity of donors and the keen, experienced eyes of its caretakers," will soon be all but forgotten.

Photograph courtesy of the New York Times

1 comment:

  1. Not to digress from the topic but your writing is on point :)
    Madoff's scheme has ruined so many people's lives and so many businesses. Its such a shame.