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