Rose Art Museum to Close, Assets Sold

Times are tough for many, from corporations to small businesses and individuals, but things seem especially bleak at Brandeis University where even the art collection is to be brought down. On Monday, the Waltham, Massachusetts University announced a unanimous decision by its trustees to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its art collection in order to raise money, likely for its endowment or other fiscal needs. The University’s endowment, formerly reported to be approximately $700 million, has reportedly taken a big hit in recent months and is now significantly smaller, but there has been no report of its current amount. The decision to close the museum and sell its assets was based, according to University President Jehuda Reinharz, on a need to continue the main mission of the university, education. The Museum will close in late summer 2009 after which it will be used as an exhibition and teaching facility rather than as a museum. Since 1961, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis has been the repository for American art, its collection largely growing with gifts of artwork from donors or of funds earmarked for artwork acquisitions. Today, the collection consists of approximately 8,000 art objects of some of the 20th century’s great artists including Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Phillip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein. Such works have frequently been exhibited as part of international art exhibitions in addition to the exhibitions held at the Rose Museum. Experts value the collection at approximately $350 to $400 million according to the New York Times, though it is not clear what effect the current economic strains and recent lackluster art sales would have on such values. If it proceeds, the University will likely work with a prominent auction house to sell the art collection and will then re-invest the funds from the sales into the school.

While it is understandable that in the midst of a financial crisis, and in cash strapped times, one might turn to a very valuable asset sitting in front of oneself and try to turn it into liquidity. However, when that asset is artwork the process gets more complicated and more controversial. Factor in the bequests of donors over time and their intentions in donating the work to the repository of an art museum and things get even messier. Monday’s decision has sparked strong controversy in the art community, causing many to exclaim that the museum is squandering its cultural heritage and putting dollars and cents ahead of more valuable concepts such as cultural patrimony and the educational value of the art collection. Immediately, many were heard to say, “They can’t do that!” So the pressing question becomes, “Can they do that?”

The New York Times reported today that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office will be investigating Brandeis’ decision to close the museum and sell the collection. The attorney general’s office will be acting in its capacity to review certain actions of non-profit institutions as delineated in the Massachusetts General Laws. This investigation will include reviewing wills and contracts between donors and the institution to determine whether this intended closure and sale will run afoul of any donation contracts. This process will likely take some time and cause delay in bringing the artwork to the auction block or to the private market.

The decision at issue runs against the current in the art museum world which strongly opposes deaccessioning artwork to benefit operating budgets and endowments. Opponents to such sales say that institutions (such as college are museums) depend upon donations which will dry up if donors see their intentions disregarded down the road and their prized artwork sold to raise cash. They also argue that such sales undermine the public trust, the mission of all museums to build timeless repositories of knowledge and culture as cultural teaching tools for the public.

Other eductional institutions such as Fisk University and Randolph College have been at the center of such controversies in recent years as they, too, attempted to sell valuable works from their museum collections in order to raise money for the schools’ budgets. Fisk, in dire financial straits, proposed to sell some of the valuable artwork bequeathed to it by Georgia O’Keeffe to Alice Walton of Arkansas for her soon-to-be American art museum. The matter has been tied up in litigation since 2005. As it stands now, a court ruled that the sale would run contrary to the terms of the donation and thus the court blocked the proposed sale of the artwork of American painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. This decision is currently on appeal and the matter unresolved. At Randolph, a Rufino Tamayo painting was sold (among other proposed sales).  Representatives of Randolph have contacted me to state that the funds were put towards the college’s endowment.

Museum associations such as the American Association of Museums (AAM), the College Art Association (CAA) and the Association of College and University Museum and Art Galleries (ACUMG) promulgate codes of ethics and best practices standards designed to guide institutions in acting on behalf of the public good (the public trust) and to benefit and protect one another. Ethics codes, such as that of the AAM, state what funds from deaccessioned artwork may be used for – and it isn’t for operating budgets or endowments. The AAM Ethics Code, for example, states that such proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned artwork may be used for other acquisitions or direct care of the collection. Brandeis and the Rose Art Museum will face sharp and well-deserved scrutiny from the public, the museum community and the world as they attempt to breach public trust and widely-accepted museum ethics codes in order to raise cash for other purposes at the expense of their art collection.