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