More Info on the Rose’s Future: Art for Auction, but Not for Sale (Yet)

Two days ago, I wrote about the exciting news that the Rose Art Museum was named one of 1,000 Great Places in Massachusetts.  That, however, will be cold comfort if the Museum is later disbanded or if its collection is devalued by the sale of some of its major works.  Unfortunately, the latest updates in the Rose saga show that such an outcome is still very possible.

The Boston Herald reports that Brandeis has just signed a contract with Sotheby’s, a famous auction house, to explore options for raising funds by leasing artwork from the Rose.  Does that mean we’ve finally dodged the bullet of selling off the collection it took us decades to acquire?

The vote by Reinharz and Brandeis trustees Jan. 26, 2009, to sell the art remains in force. Asked whether selling the art remains a possibility for the Waltham-based university, [Brandeis spokesman Andrew] Gully said: “Yes, because the vote remains. But the intent is clearly at this point to explore nonsale options. Clearly you wouldn’t be selling anything while we were exploring those options.”

Why are we still considering selling artwork?  Didn’t we hear in March that the University had already developed a plan to balance its operating budget by 2014?  Board of Trustees Chair Malcolm Sherman certainly seems to think so.  In a letter to the Herald published on July 19th, Sherman reaffirms the 2014 plan and assigns a different purpose to the potential art transactions:

Now we are exploring options we hope will allow the university to retain ownership of the Rose collection while generating funds for: financial aid; state-of-the-art academic, research and residential facilities; faculty compensation that long ensure excellence in teaching.

Sherman’s letter is disingenuous from the beginning.  He claims that the original Herald story “presents an unfair picture of the university’s fiscal situation”, then goes on to recite the exact same facts that the article mentioned.  The question that Sherman needs to answer is: Has the value of artwork from the Rose been calculated as part of our plan to balance our operating budget or relieve our structural deficit?  If the answer is yes, than Brandeis’s financial solvency is based on leases or sales in an uncertain market that may be illegal anyway.  Our financial future is much more shaky than the administration or Board of Trustees would have us believe, and it is really Sherman and Jehuda Reinharz who are guilty of stretching the truth, not only to the Herald but to the entire Brandeis community.  If the answer is no, then our continued attempts to seek profit from art prove that we’re just as poor caretakers as we’ve been accused of, and no rational art aficionado should have any reason to give us so much as a preschool watercolor painting ever again.

Art expert Raymond Liddell sure isn’t buying what Sherman and Gully are selling.  In his letter to the Herald from July 21st, the former museum administrator and university professor raises some tough questions:

The Rose Art Museum story gets curiouser and curiouser (“Thorny situation for Rose Museum,” July 11). It’s clear that Brandeis has not disavowed its decision to sell the Rose collection which has made it a pariah. It’s clear that Brandeis is trying to buy time and hoping the story will go away. It won’t. It’s not clear why Sotheby’s, whose primary business is selling art, is involved. It’s not clear what sort of museum Brandeis envisions for the future without a director. If it walks and talks like a duck . . .

Liddell has the credentials to know what he’s talking about (and not only because he borrows the language I used to describe Brandeis last week).  He clearly believes that Brandeis is already planning on selling artwork or even completely getting rid of the Rose, and I have to admit he makes a persuasive case.  The worst part for Brandeis is that the people who are suing us think so too:

“Lending art is something museum directors do, and Brandeis fired theirs,” said Jonathan Lee, chairman of the Rose Board of Overseers, who filed suit July 27, 2009, to block the initial sell-off plan. “So it seems a little wacky to have a sales agent do this for you. The kind of revenue expected for lending art is quite small.”

Meryl Rose, representing the Rose family in the lawsuit, said: “Well, it’s ridiculous. It’s just obfuscation so people will think they’re not selling art. But they haven’t taken that off the table.”

Maybe if we sell enough art, we’ll eventually be able to recoup our legal fees!

Last year, a report from a university committee prompted me to write the following:

“BRANDEIS IS NOT CLOSING THE ROSE AND SELLING ALL THE ARTWORK.” Words and italics from them, bold and caps from yours truly.  If you’re going to take anything from the interim report of the Future of the Rose Committee, make it that.  We’ve sat and listened as the Rose first was closed, then open for the semester, then for part of the summer, then the whole summer, then open indefinitely.  Finally, we have an absolutely definitive statement from a body that’s spent lots of time researching this very issue that the Rose is not going anywhere, and, in fact, that we’re bound by donor agreements to keep the Rose Art Museum open by that very name.

After hearing so much spin and backtracking over the course of just that one semester, I now realize I was naive to take any statement on the future of the Rose at face value.  I’d say that it’s time for the University to be completely forthright with us, with the donors, and with the public on the future of the Museum, but even if they did tell the full truth, how could we believe them?  We’ve spent such a long time with last week’s innuendo becoming next week’s policy that I’m not even sure it’s worth trying to ask for answers anymore.  My only advice those concerned about the Rose’s future is to visit the Museum and to do it as soon as possible.  You don’t know when your last chance will come.