The Arts at Brandeis

It’s been two weeks since Jason Gray made this call to the Brandeis community:

[T]oday, I challenge the University administration to engage the arts community in order to find tangible ways to invest in the long-term future of the arts at Brandeis. I call for a series of meetings between administrators and members of our artistic community to discuss ways to ensure that Brandeis remains a fertile ground for artistic creativity even amidst the financial situation.

I haven’t heard about any progress being made on this issue since the State of the Union, but I hope the Union (or some other party) is following up on it.  This is a tough time for everyone at Brandeis, but the art community has been particularly hard hit.  The closing of the Rose Art Museum is the most obvious reason, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Just as important is the way in which the decision was made and announced, the current uncertainty about the Rose’s exact status, and the various other cuts that the art department has faced.  Jason made the historical importance of the arts to the university very clear in his speech, and I know that there are many professors and students who need reassurance from the administration that they remain a priority.

The cuts outside of the Rose have not gotten nearly as much general publicity, but they have contributed to the sense that the arts just aren’t as important anymore.  One of Brandeis’s true jewels, the Lydian String Quartet, has been reduced to part-time status for next year, a move that violinist Daniel Stepner says may force a decreased concert schedule for next year.  The Hoot has more on the importance of the group and the effect of the reduction:

The quartet, founded in 1980, is an internationally acclaimed chamber ensemble dedicated to reinvigorating works from the classical canon while exploring contemporary pieces. The group has won ensemble prizes at important festivals in France, England, Canada and the United States, given performances in prestigious American and European concert halls, and released more than twenty musical recordings. Yet despite their worldly ambitions, the quartet feels most at home at Brandeis University, where all the members are part of the teaching faculty and regularly give performances.

Before the program began, the quartet announced that the university would be cutting back its position to half time for the following year, but that the ensemble would figure out a way to continue offering concerts to the Brandeis community and broader listening public. At a time when cutting back on the arts appears to define the university’s modus operandi, the announcement came as more troubling than shocking.*

It’s sad to see another world-renowned art institution handicapped by the budget crisis.  In addition, the Music Department has lost and not replaced three full professors in the past few years, and the graduate program suffered cuts even before the budget crisis hit.

Of course, the Rose has been the focal point for controversy this semester.  The official statement released by the Fine Arts Faculty shows how deep their surprise and disappointment at the initial announcement was:

In addition to despairing at the Trustees’ action, we wish to make clear that at no point in the decision making process was the Department of Fine Arts faculty consulted. Neither was there any communication regarding the decision with the Rose Board of Overseers on which a member of the faculty sits. Nor was any reference made to the museum at the university-wide faculty meeting last Thursday (January 22) when strategies to confront the current fiscal crisis were discussed.

The department faculty wishes to express our profound sadness at the consequences of this abrupt action for the liberal arts mission, cultural life, and intellectual legacy of the university…

As to the proposed future of the museum building, at no time before or after notification of the decision, have members of the Fine Arts Department expressed a desire to change the function of the Rose or reuse the building. There is no academic advantage to be salvaged from closing the museum and selling our art. It is a sad response to the current fiscal crisis that treasures left in trust for current and future students are now being sacrificed. The department remains committed to continuing the legacy of the intellectual and artistic practice here. We are losing an irreplaceable tool to fulfill that goal.

Since then, we’ve had a series of backtracking and vague, contradictory statements about what exactly will happen to the Rose, and its future remains very uncertain.  What we do know is that the Rose contains one of the best collections of modern art in the world, and it now appears very likely that we’re going to lose at least some of its masterpieces.

I know that many of these cuts may be necessary due to the state of our budget, and I think the administration has done a much better job of handling these situations in the past few months.  However, we cannot allow the arts community to feel marginalized and irrelevant in the decision-making process or in campus life.  Jason was absolutely right to call for meetings to remove these feelings and to plan a solid future for the arts at Brandeis, and I hope we can see his goal realized soon.

*The article I quoted was written by Max Price, the Diverse City editor and a great writer and good friend of mine.  His piece “Arts resources at Brandeis: Use them or lose them” is the best statement I’ve read on the importance of the arts in general and at Brandeis.  I highly recommend you check it out.