Louis Brandeis’ Great-Niece Speaks Out

Louis Brandeis’s ex-niece has sent out an open letter to Jehuda and the administration. She quotes Louis Brandeis to show that in his work building the University of Louisville, he absolutely considered an art museum essential.

Second. The beginning of an art collection. Living among things of beauty is a help toward culture and the life worthwhile. But the function of a university in respect to the fine arts is not limited to promoting understanding and appreciation. It should strive to awaken the slumbering creative instinct, to encourage its exercise and development, to stimulate production. …

Here’s Michael Rush reading out the whole of her letter:

The conclusion:

I hope the above makes apparent, by assessing the art collection as merely a disposable financial asset rather than as the culturally and intellectually valuable ensemble that it is, your university’s trustees and your administration have proposed to act not only without full appreciation of core objectives of any university, but against those that Justice Brandeis himself most actively fostered. I therefore urge you to abandon any plans of selling any portion whatsoever of the art collection of the Rose Museum, or of diminishing its role.

Louis Brandeis would be ashamed of any University selling art in his name. What a sad sight.

Dear Prof. Reinharz,

I am writing to you both as a member of the Brandeis family and as an historian of medieval Europe who has also served as a Faculty Senate President at my university. I hope to offer you both a viewpoint not hitherto considered and a suggestion for help with Brandeis University’s funding.

First, the point of view. As you know, Louis Dembitz Brandeis’s closest friend (in addition to his wife, Alice) throughout his life remained his brother, Alfred, who, along with his wife, four daughters, and numerous Dembitz, Wehle, Brandeis, and Tachau cousins, remained in Louisville after Louis left for Boston. All remained in close contact with the Justice, through nearly daily letters and frequent visits. This was the clan among whom my younger sibblings and I, the great-grandchildren of Alfred Brandeis, grew up. My sister, Susan McKee Tachau, my brother, David Brandeis Tachau, and I were enculturated by Alfred’s daughters (our great-aunts and grandmother), our grandfather (Louis’ and Alfred’s cousin), and our father, to adopt the values that Louis and Alfred Brandeis had inherited from their family. And we learned from the generation who had known the Justice about the ways that he “gave back” to the community in which he had grown up.

It is well known that Justice Brandeis assisted the law school in Louisville, and that he and Alice are buried there. But the law school was not the initial focus of his efforts. Instead, at the top of his agenda were the fine arts. He articulated the centrality in an academic context of the arts and their study in correspondence to several family members in the 1920s. These letters reveal his orchestration of a campaign to assist the small University of Louisville to grow into a serious institution of higher learning. By 1924, he was raising money, donating books and possessions, and commissioning his brother, Alfred Brandeis, his nieces and nephews, and at least two cousins, to help create the necessary resources for faculty and students.

On October 20, 1924, he wrote to Alfred’s daughter, Fannie Brandeis, about the responsibilities he hoped she would assume: “Dear Fannie,” he began, “until the University of Louisville shall be equipped to promote the study of the fine arts and music, one of its important functions must remain unperformed. Doubtless many years will elapse before adequate provision for this can be made. But it is not too early to begin, now, to dream what might be; and to plan what shall be. Moreover, any concrete steps toward realization taken now, however modest they be, will, as overt acts, manifest the purpose of the University, and may be the means of securing from others needed cooperation. I hope you will care to do some of this planning and will undertake the small beginnings which I want to suggest.”

“First. The beginning of a departmental library. … Obviously, the earlier civilizations cannot be understood without full appreciation of their contributions to the fine arts. … Thus, books on ancient arts and archaeology are primal needs of instructors who seek to awaken in students an interest in the achievements of a great past and to feed the hope for a greater future. …”

“Second. The beginning of an art collection. Living among things of beauty is a help toward culture and the life worthwhile. But the function of a university in respect to the fine arts is not limited to promoting understanding and appreciation. It should strive to awaken the slumbering creative instinct, to encourage its exercise and development, to stimulate production. …” (I am quoting from The Family Letters of Louis D. Brandeis edited by Melvin I. Urofsky and David W. Levy [University of Oklahoma Press: 2002]).

Louis Brandeis worked behind the scenes to encourage Hattie Speed of Louisville to create an Art Museum in memory of her husband for the University of Louisville. Two of the earliest donations to the resulting Speed Art Museum were from Louis and Alice Brandeis: an extraordinary antique Japanese lacquer box and a painting that had been given to them by the Speeds.

Thus, as I hope the above makes apparent, by assessing the art collection as merely a disposable financial asset rather than as the culturally and intellectually valuable ensemble that it is, your university’s trustees and your administration have proposed to act not only without full appreciation of core objectives of any university, but against those that Justice Brandeis himself most actively fostered. I therefore urge you to abandon any plans of selling any portion whatsoever of the art collection of the Rose Museum, or of diminishing its role.

Now for the suggestion. The financial pressures that Brandeis University faces, that have led you and your Board of Trustees to this juncture, are widely shared in academe. Your situation illustrates the dire straits into which universities are being propelled – an accelerating catastrophe that an increase in Pell Grants (important as that is) does almost nothing to slow, because students’ tuition does not cover the cost of their education. Of course, senators, representatives, their staffs, and members of the Obama administration, are rarely if ever equipped by their experience to understand the complexities of building and retaining excellent faculty in the entire range of complementary subjects in Colleges of Liberal Arts that make it possible for our students to live what Louis Brandeis termed “the life worthwhile.” I wonder, therefore, if you could turn the controversy over the Rose Museum to the advantage of all colleges and universities, private and public. Your very public financial constraints could be the beginning point for obtaining a true “stimulus package” from Congress that makes it possible to save and improve them. If automobile manufacturers and banks merit such help, why not higher education?

Leading such an effort, I think, would repair much of the damage done to Brandeis University’s reputation by the overhasty decision to deaccession the Rose Museum. … I would be happy to help in other ways,

Yours sincerely,
Katherine H. Tachau
Professor of History and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Fellow
University of Iowa