Yale University Art Gallery

Cease and desist is the advice I give university administrators toying with thoughts of closing their campus museums and peddling the art, as Brandeis recently threatened to do. Just stop. Period. Bad way to go.

If it helps, consider your museum and its collection in purely materialistic terms, as a big chunk of capital, slowly and fortuitously accumulated. Once spent, it is irrecoverable. Your university can never be that rich in that way again. Or view the art in your care as something that doesn’t belong to you. Like any legacy it belongs to the future.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to campus museums and galleries at Yale University that have exceptional shows this winter. One, devoted to Picasso and writing, is drawn almost entirely from the university’s permanent collections. Another, on the role of tea in Japanese culture, is composed primarily of objects on loan from a single Yale alumnus. A third, imported from another university museum, brings together Degas, geology and gorillas to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. And they are supplemented by a tidy roundup of contemporary Indian artists.

All the shows are fairly small. All are, in different ways, beautiful. All are closely researched studies on fascinating subjects we know too little about. Yet each is just a shade too specialized or unglamorous or experimental to find a home in our public art institutions. If it weren’t for academic museums, these shows wouldn’t happen. And that would be a real loss…

One bad idea, that university museums are expendable commodities, remains alive in our collective system. Despite a lot of hemming and hawing in the face of protest, Brandeis still gives every indication of wanting to close its Rose Art Museum, opening the path to selling its art, as foolhardy as that would be in the present economy.

But at least one good idea seems to be gaining ground. In a bleak economy, when our big public museums threaten to sink under budget-busting excesses, the university museum offers a model for small, intensely researched, collection-based, convention-challenging exhibitions that could get museums through a bumpy present and carry them, lighter and brighter, into the future.

Holland Cotter
New York Times

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