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Like most museums around the country, the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey is grappling with a dwindling endowment (a 25 percent decline since July) and rising operating costs. It has already cut the staff’s hours, reduced the head count to 44 from 57 and slashed total operating expenses by around $500,000.

But what the institution is doing that few others would dare is starting a capital campaign drive in anticipation of its centennial in 2014. It has also decided to begin aggressively deaccessioning — or selling from its collection — artwork, costumes, rugs and books that have rarely been seen by the public or are no longer consistent with the institution’s mission.

Deaccessioning is a hot-button topic these days. There was harsh criticism over the National Academy Museum’s sale of two Hudson River School paintings in December to shore up its finances.

And there has been a continuing uproar since Brandeis University announced in January a proposal to close its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection because of the large drop in its endowment. (The university has since sent conflicting signals, and the museum’s fate is still not clear.) But officials at Montclair were quick to say that the proceeds from any sale of art would go only toward purchasing other works, a practice that is consistent with the Association of Art Museum Directors policy.

Lora Urbanelli, the museum’s director, said the museum was looking carefully at its future. “We’re not just being reactive but proactive,” she said.

The museum has been evaluating collections methodically to see what it should part with and what it won’t. Some works will be sold at Christie’s spring auctions.

Perhaps among the most valuable items going on the block is a 1951 drawing by Jackson Pollock. The classic drip image is delicate, as well as light-sensitive, and therefore cannot be shown often. Among the factors the museum considered, Ms. Urbanelli said, was whether “it really matters if we have a Pollock drip when you can take a bus and be in the city in 20 minutes, where you can see lots of work by Pollock.”

What the museum hopes to buy in its place has yet to be decided. “We have to think about the community,” Ms. Urbanelli said. “We also hope to grow our endowment.”

Carol Vogel
New York Times

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Photo: Christopher Knight

When a snow storm barreled into Boston early last week, Brandeis University’s imperiled Rose Art Museum had to postpone an all-star literary symposium being convened to analyze the school’s headline-making decision to shutter the museum and sell all or part of its modern and contemporary art collection. Now that warmer weather has brought at least a momentary thaw (and plenty of slush), the symposium, “Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum Amidst Financial Crisis,” has been rescheduled for March 16…

One issue the panelists might want to discuss is the modest level of museum attendance. The low numbers — reportedly about 13,000 to 15,000 annual visitors — might suggest to some that losing the Rose and its art collection wouldn’t be so dire. That, however, would be a mistaken impression.

During a visit to the Rose on Sunday afternoon, I witnessed a fairly steady stream of people poking around the permanent collection and taking in several small shows, including a quirky presentation of paintings made in 1950 by German-born American Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. At 70, he had been hired to work on a mural project in Peru with Spanish-born American architect Josep Sert, who later ran the design program at Harvard. If the subject sounds a bit esoteric, it is — and what of it? Hofmann was an important painter and an influential teacher, but this is not a show designed to bring in crowds. Rather, it’s for the art-curious.

The university’s shocking announcement in January has no doubt generated an attendance spike. Friends in Waltham, Mass., who live not five minutes from the school accompanied me on their first-ever visit to the Rose, curious about the commotion they’d read about in the paper and heard about on the radio. I’d guess others were satisfying a similar urge.

But why should the state of the museum’s general popularity …

… have anything to do with its reason for being, never mind its fate? Unlike Brandeis, reports are that the Rose Art Museum is in pretty stable financial shape. Costs are covered, the collection (at just over 7,000 works) continues a steady if modest growth. The museum even pledges a percentage of its annual operating budget to the university. For the school it’s not a financial drain — just the opposite.

An average rate of about 50 visitors a day might imply that students with course requirements and area art-junkies are the only ones attending. If so, that’s OK. With costs covered, the quality of the experience, not the quantity, is what counts.

We have become so accustomed to using pop-culture yardsticks — profitability, celebrity, fashion — to measure the success or failure of art and art museums that it’s easy to lose sight of what matters. In fact, a degree of obscurity, relatively speaking, is one of the great charms of the Rose’s collection.

Yes, celebrated masterpieces by De Kooning, Johns, Lichtenstein, Hartley, Gris and others are impressive. But so is the weirdly erotic, metallic-hued 1916 Morton Schamberg machine-abstraction. And Florine Stettheimer’s delirious fantasy of drawing-room gentility, 1920′s “Music.” Bruce Conner’s big, lace-trimmed 1963 collage-assemblage of a faded, peeling attic wall is a poignant murmur of the ravages of time, so different in tone and feeling from Robert Rauschenberg’s nearby — and far more famous — 1961 Combine, “Second Time Painting,” with its flashy colors and actual, embedded clock.

The diversity and richness of the encounters are what make a museum distinctive. They strike a deep chord. In today’s vulnerable economic landscape, a bigger audience base might make the Rose more difficult to abuse. But, really, is a protection racket what art museums in America now require to get by?

Christopher Knight
Los Angeles Times

One of the under-discussed angles on the Brandeis-Rose controversy is this: Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz apparently doesn’t think that art contributes to human thought or societal progress as much as, say, the life sciences do. To Reinharz art is a mere Saturday discipline that doesn’t impact our understanding of the world around us, so why not just monetize it? [Image: Albert Obermayer, Atomisation of a 10 cm-long Iron Wire By a Strong Electric Current, 1893 or earlier.]

It’s hard to imagine a clearer argument against Reinharz’s worldview than curator Corey Keller’s recent SFMOMA show, “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible World 1840-1900.” In a December Q&A on SFMOMA’s blog, Keller talked about how important visual culture was to 19th-century scientists, and how they used photography to help build public support for progressive (read: religion-challenging) science:

The pictures were certainly not intended as art, but their aesthetic value was not discounted… [S]cientists then, like scientists now, always needed support for their work, whether it was government or private support. They used these pictures as a way to draw in the public. There was an enormous movement in the 19th century towards popular science, and a belief that to have a healthy citizenry you had to have a population that understood the most important ideas in modern science, and so they used photography and other kinds of materials as a way of bringing these ideas to the public. The pictures needed to be interesting as well as informational. The fact that they work on both levels is not a contemporary concept.

So, I’m not presenting them as art. I’m presenting them as part of the visual culture and that’s really, for me, what’s so interesting about photography. In fact, in the 19th century, the percentage of pictures that were made with the idea that they were art is very small. But photography remains the most important form of image-making in the 19th century, and it informed all areas of visual culture, including fine art practice. I’m not making a claim for them as art, because that really wouldn’t be correct. But it is not incorrect to think about them in relationship to art and to the other kinds of images that circulated at that time.

Keller’s argument doesn’t necessarily die out with the end of the 19thC: There is a continuting history and tradition of art interacting with other disciplines to as part of a broader societal examination of new ideas (as well as of art helping to make avant-garde ideas or technologies more palatable, understandable, accessible and so on). Example: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1967-71 Art and Technology Program. LACMA’s Howard Fox wrote an introduction to the e-publication of the catalogue that picks up where Keller leaves off.

So maybe someone should send Reinharz some catalogues — and then hope he doesn’t flip them on EBay.

Tyler Green
Modern Art Notes

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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

Many bloggers are spinning out the story of Brandeis University and its imperiled Rose Art Museum… In a nutshell, the university is desperately strapped for cash, and inelegantly floated the idea of ”repurposing” the art and assets of the Rose to balance the books.

I’ll let others explore and explain the complexities of deaccessioning/selling works of art — a juicy issue on its own. I’m struck, instead, by the related question of mission, process, and ”ownership” in the work of embedded institutions.

If you were to do a genuine census of arts venues and programs — performing and visual — you would find a good percentage of those were ”embedded” enterprises. Rather than separate nonprofits, these would be venues and programs completely contained within larger (generally nonprofit, predominantly higher education) institutions. The university presenter or museum, for example, may well have an independent advisory board that looks like a board of trustees. But often their actual authority to define mission and allocate resources is hazy, split, or complex.

Therein lies both the benefit and the rub:

Life as an embedded institution has benefits: You have access to a diversified parent institution that can help with cash flow, business services, purchasing, maintenance, and other central services. Many of the traditional expenses of a separate nonprofit are handled ”off book” as part of the larger enterprise. And many of your salary lines may be shared with other departments, programs, or functions.

But there’s a downside, as well. It can be a challenge to know exactly what gains you gather and what costs you incur, since your work is done through a hundred different channels and accounts. And, at the end of the day, you are a sub-contractor for someone else’s mission. When resources get tight, and the parent institution gets hungry, your programming and even your existence could become subject to increasing scrutiny.

Says Felix Simon in this rather gruesome discussion of the Brandeis and the Rose:

Up until now, we’ve lived in a world where parents implicitly promise to support their children, and not to murder them or amputate key limbs. But now that Brandeis and Iowa are starting to eat their own, the topology has changed in a radical way.

Precisely because parents like Brandeis have an obligation to do what they think is best for the university, they can no longer be trusted to do what is best for the museum.

Over the past many years, the arts industries have come to rely on embedded institutions to bear more of the risk required of a healthy ecosystem. University presenters are among the few remaining commissioners of new work. University cultural institutions have taken the lead in artist residencies and exploration. And a dual mission can make them ideal ”farm league” for young artists, technicians, and support personnel.

The Rose reminds us that risk-aversion and bottom-line analysis are alive and well in higher education, and will be a growing threat to those cultural organizations who live and die as subsidiaries to a larger corporation.

Andrew Taylor
The Artful Manager

Theaters and orchestras are shuttering. Media coverage of the arts is decreasing. Brandeis is closing the Rose and possibly selling off its paintings. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing when it comes to the arts in America. The good news is that President Obama wants to include the arts in his bailout package. Conservatives, however, are up in arms.

The one constant in all this is that art in America has come to be seen as a frill, by everyone from right-wing talk-show hosts to the trustees of Brandeis. It may seem, after the Mapplethorpe controversy or the never-ending bickering about National Endowment for the Arts and Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding, that it has always been thus. But it really wasn’t all that long ago that artists graced the covers of every magazine from Time to Life, that NBC and CBS had symphony orchestras, or that Exxon and Mobil competed with each other to present the most sophisticated television they could find.

What happened? There are any number of reasons, from the economic crisis to the Reagan revolution and the merger of companies like, well, Exxon and Mobil. And perhaps the biggest factor was the growth of a social order in which entertainers are held in higher esteem than artists or intellectuals. It’s ironic to see so many artists at the Rose celebrate the same pop culture mentality that often deems museums as superfluous.

But the bigger question is, why should we care? There will always be those who tell the story of their tribe, their country, or their world whether they do it on the walls of caves or on the wall-screens of our private homes. Some people would say that the writers and producers of “Lost” or “Big Love” do that job as well as any playwright or painter.

Even if that were true, there’s something different about the Rose, or an Irish play at the lamentably lost Sugan Theatre Company. Art creates a kind of sanctuary that, even at its most topical, takes us outside of such everyday concerns as the economic downturn, whether anyone has texted us recently, or how the Patriots could have blown the Super Bowl last year. (Sorry, the Steelers winning in the last minute brought back unpleasant memories.)

The idea isn’t to escape those concerns, it’s to give us the wherewithal to put all those other matters in perspective. That’s as true of a Lichtenstein painting as much as a Beethoven quartet.

I can’t prove it, but my bet is that those wall drawings were as important as the invention of fire to getting out of those caves. That’s why we talk about arts and sciences in the same breath. No person is complete without a grounding in both creativity and logic, which is one of the primary lessons anyone learns in college.

Which brings us to a less-discussed aspect of Brandeis’s decision. I’m not a big fan of tribalism, but I’m as proud of the tradition that has produced so much art, and so much philanthropy that’s gone to supporting that art, as any other aspect of being Jewish. The knowledge that we aren’t complete human beings without art is as important as anything in the Torah.

That the president and the trustees of a Jewish-supported university have turned their back on that lesson and are planning to shut down the Rose should be as shocking as if they closed the Berlin Chapel (the Jewish house of worship on campus). These days, the arts need all the help they can get, and if they can’t get it at a university like Brandeis, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel for arts in America.

But we won’t, of course. Those who’ve tasted what a great work of art can provide will keep looking for it, wherever they can find it, on cave walls or in museums that aren’t beholden to short-sighted leaders.

Ed Siegel
Boston Globe

Donors and longtime supporters of the Rose Art Museum are exploring whether they can block Brandeis University’s stunning decision to close the museum and sell an art collection that had been valued at $350 million.

Jonathan Lee, chairman of the museum’s board of overseers, said yesterday that he intends to meet with officials in the state attorney general’s Public Charity Division to see if there is anything he can do to stop the university from shutting down the 48-year-old museum at the end of the summer.

Brandeis’s announcement that it would sell the collection to help shore up the university’s finances raises a thicket of legal questions about what the university can do with money and art donated to the Rose, especially pieces given with the restriction that they be displayed publicly.

“We can be angry, but the question is, can we save it?” said Jonathan Novak, a museum overseer and a Los Angeles art dealer who graduated from Brandeis in 1975 and has given art works and money over the years. “Had I had any idea when I donated work that there was a chance they would be sold to benefit the university, I never would have donated them.”

Among those joining the chorus of outrage yesterday was Lois Foster, the widow of a former Brandeis trustee, for whom a new museum wing is named.

In an interview, Foster said university trustees raised the idea of closing the Rose a decade ago, recognizing the potential millions that could be raised by selling off a collection that includes works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and de Kooning.

Her late husband, Henry, “talked for hours to get them to change their minds, and they did,” Lois Foster recalled yesterday.

Eventually, the Fosters gave more than $5 million to the school for the museum’s Lois Foster Wing, which opened in 2001.

“It’s like somebody kicked me in the stomach, and I’m just sick,” Foster said. “I just don’t want to sit back and let them do the wrong thing.”

Officials in the museum world continued to criticize the Brandeis administration yesterday. In a statement made on the eve of its midwinter conference, the Association of Art Museum Directors said it was shocked and dismayed to learn of the university’s “regrettable” plans.

Meanwhile, a pair of petitions to save the Rose were posted online, and Brandeis students were planning a sit-in protest tomorrow.

Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon said yesterday that many alumni and donors had called to support the university’s decision. While dismayed about the closing, Nealon said, the alumni recognized that Brandeis was making hard choices to undergird its core educational mission. And, he said, they recognized as well that the building will be used as a campuswide fine arts center.

Emily LaGrassa, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said that Brandeis notified the agency Monday afternoon of its plans, after the trustees voted unanimously to shut down the museum. While Nealon said at the time that the attorney general’s office “has not balked at this at all,” a university attorney amended that statement yesterday morning. And LaGrassa confirmed that the office has not offered an opinion on any aspect of the proposed sale.

“We’re talking about 6,000 pieces of art,” she said. “It’s going to take some time. But we will review the Brandeis plan as it evolves.”

In fact, the museum’s collection includes 7,180 works, 84 percent of which were gifts, said Rose registrar Valerie M. Wright.

While Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis, said that financial challenges facing the university forced the museum closing, Rose supporters said they were cut out of the process. Director Michael Rush learned of the move late Monday afternoon, when he was informed by provost Marty Krauss.

Lee, the Rose overseer, said that the university had other choices: borrow $100 million against the value of the collection or decide to sell just a work or two. Lee, whose mother, Mildred, gave dozens of works over the years and served as the first president of the Rose board in the 1960s, said he remains baffled by the logic of the university.

“The trustees and the president should call Barack Obama and say we can solve the financial crisis,” he said. “Why don’t we sell all the collections in the Smithsonian?”

It remains unclear how complicated any art sale will be. Much will depend on what arrangements donors made when giving the museum art. In some cases, Brandeis would need to file papers with the Supreme Judicial Court and seek approval.

Opened in 1961, the Rose was long one of the only places for art lovers in the Boston area to see contemporary works. This was before the Institute of Contemporary Art had a permanent home and prior to the opening of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center.

Novak was an economics major in the 1970s when he took a course with Carl Belz, then museum director. “But for the Rose Art Museum, I would not be an art dealer today,” he said.

Lois Foster began to visit the Rose in the 1970s through her husband, head of the university’s board of trustees from 1979 to 1985. She helped organize a supporters’ group by taking friends on tours of the museum and asking them for a small check.

Years later, when her husband wanted to give the Rose more than $5 million to name a wing after his wife, she resisted.

“This was his gift to me,” said Foster. “I fought it when he wanted to do it, because he wanted to give the gift in my name. But he always said, ‘This is the best gift I’ve ever given.’ “

Of the Rose closing, Foster said: “It’s like a death.”

Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe

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Rocked by a budget crisis, Brandeis University will close its Rose Art Museum and sell off a 6,000-object collection that includes work by such contemporary masters as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Nam June Paik.

The move shocked local arts leaders and drew harsh criticism from the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries. Rose Art Museum director Michael Rush declined comment this evening, saying he had just learned of the decision.

Brandeis is also discussing a range of sweeping proposals to bridge a budget deficit that could be as high as $10 million, such as reducing the size of the faculty by 10 percent, increasing undergraduate enrollment by 12 percent to boost tuition revenue, and overhauling the undergraduate curriculum by eliminating individual academic programs in favor of larger, interdisciplinary divisions.

Other plans under consideration include requiring students to take one summer semester, allowing the university to expand its student body without overcrowding, and adding a business program. The changes would take place, at the earliest, in 2010.

“This is not a happy day in the history of Brandeis,” President Jehuda Reinharz said tonight. “The Rose is a jewel. But for the most part it’s a hidden jewel. It does not have great foot traffic and most of the great works we have, we are just not able to exhibit. We felt that, at this point given the recession and the financial crisis, we had no choice.”

Brandeis said the museum would be closed late this summer. It was founded in 1961; a new wing designed by celebrated architect Graham Gund was added in 2001.

Announcement of the closing came as Rush was searching for a chief curator. A leading expert on video art, he had arrived in 2005 with plans to expand the museum. He also launched a full scale analysis of the museum’s value by Christie’s auction house. Dennis Nealon, the university’s director of public relations, would not say how much the collection is worth.

Experts on university art collections said the move was unusual, but not unexpected.

“Clearly, what’s happening with Brandeis now is that they decided the easiest way is to look around the campus and find things that can be capitalized,” said David Robertson, a Northwestern University professor who is president of the Association of College and Univertsity Museums and Galleries. “It’s always art that goes first.”

But there is no precedent for selling an art collection of the Rose’s stature. Internationally recognized, the collection is strong in American art of the 1960s and 1970s and includes works by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler.

“I’m in shock,” said Mark Bessire, the recently named director of the Portland Museum Of Art. “And this is definitely not the time to be selling paintings, anyway. The market is dropping. I’m just kind of sitting here sweating because I can’t imagine Brandeis would take that step.”

Geoff Edgers and Peter Schworm
Boston Globe

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