In a move that represents the worst fears of university art museums nationwide, Brandeis University announced Monday that it will shut its art museum and sell its entire 6,000-piece collection.
The Rose Art Museum  is known for its collections of American Modernism, American Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism. Holdings include works by Marsden Hartley, Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Jim Dine, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and many other leading figures of art in the last century.
The university will auction off the collection and use the proceeds to bolster the institution's finances.
“These are extraordinary times,” said a statement from Jehuda Reinharz, the university's president. “We cannot control or fix the nation’s economic problems. We can only do what we have been entrusted to do -- act responsibly with the best interests of our students and their futures foremost in mind.” The university's statement pledged continued support for teaching the arts, and for the liberal arts, and said that the decision was part of "an emerging new vision for the university aimed at streamlining it for the future while bolstering its focus on undergraduates, the liberal arts and research."
Last week, the Brandeis faculty agreed to create a special committee to review the curriculum. Among plans being discussed are adding business or engineering programs and finding a way to simultaneously expand undergraduate enrollment while shrinking the faculty. University administrators have also floated the idea of replacing all existing majors and minors with new "meta-majors," a term whose definition is hard to pin down even among those who have discussed it. Many faculty members have said that they will never go for the abandonment of traditional disciplines, and many have derided that idea as simply cover for eliminating positions and departments.
While faculty leaders say they feel confident that they will have a meaningful voice in the curricular debates, the decision to close the art museum and sell its holdings was not taken to the faculty or faculty committees for a vote or recommendation.
The decision to shut the museum runs directly counter to the ethics codes of art and museum associations, which permit the sale of art donated for a museum only for the purchase of additional art, not to be shifted to other purposes.
"This puts all of our roles at our institutions in jeopardy," said David A. Robertson, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and director of Northwestern University's art museum. "And it puts in jeopardy our relationships with our donors with whom we have built our collections," he said. The ethics codes cited by Robertson are vital, museum officials say, because donors will not make gifts to university collections if they believe that their donations could end up in an auction house sometime in the future.
Robertson said he was "saddened and disturbed" to hear of the decision at Brandeis. He said that his organization might ask accrediting groups to adopt standards that would censure or punish institutions taking such steps.
The university statement quoted Reinharz as viewing the decision to close the museum as "very difficult," but "an important step in the ongoing resource management and allocation process" that the university needs. “I am satisfied that our commitment is unwavering, that someday we will look back and say that when the quality of education and student services was at stake, we made hard choices so that Brandeis could emerge even stronger.”
Robertson called the idea that an art museum could be sacrificed "myopic" and said that the decision reflected a general lack of understanding that art is not a luxury, but is a central part of a liberal education. "A student's experience with an original work of art can be transformational. To take that away is sterilizing education in many ways." He stressed that time with original art is "a direct experience," not the "mediated experience" that defines the way so many students experience culture.
There is a "systemic problem" in American higher education, he said, wherein art is viewed by some as something that can be sold off by a college.  Randolph College won a legal battle last year for the right to sell several of its paintings over the objections of alumnae who said pledges to donors were being ignored. Fisk University remains in a legal fight over its plan to sell some of the art that Georgia O’Keeffe left to the institution. In both of those cases, the disputes are over parts of collections.
A member of the Iowa Board of Regents last year raised the question -- after floods caused substantial damage at the University of Iowa -- of whether it should sell “Mural,”  a Jackson Pollock masterpiece at the university’s Museum of Art. The painting is insured for $140 million. The idea was dropped after the university produced a report that said, among other things, that such a sale would deprive students from access to a great work of art, would probably cost the museum its accreditation, which would make it difficult for it to acquire or borrow works of art, and that future donors would be unlikely to give works of art to the university.
"In English, you can have a great work of art in front of a student with a paperback," Robertson said. "But the objects we teach do gain value and administrators start poking around and looking for things that they own."
A national discussion is needed, Robertson said, about how art museums have standards and codes of ethics, and why they matter. In the case of Iowa, defenders of keeping the Pollock work were able to cite a threat to the museum's accreditation, but at Brandeis, there will be no museum left to be accredited. The Brandeis museum, which has also organized many visiting exhibitions, will be converted into a fine arts teaching facility.
William Flesch, a professor of American and English literature and chair of the Faculty Senate, said that some faculty members had discussed on a faculty listserv the possibility of selling the museum's collection to deal with the current budget crunch. Flesch said that this "wasn't a leading idea" and was never recommended or approved in a formal way by the faculty. He said he did not object to the administration making the decision on its own. Asked if he knew about museum standards that consider the planned sale unethical, Flesch said he was not aware of them.
He did say that he was convinced that the university needed to take "substantial steps" to deal with the current budget situation. While Brandeis officials have not cited a figure that they must save now, they have for many years been discussing cost cutting. In 2005, administrators faced an uproar over a proposal to phase out the teaching of ancient Greek  -- an idea that was dropped following faculty objections. As a small research university with aspirations larger than its endowment, the university has struggled with any number of choices.
Prior to the collapse of the stock market this fall, Brandeis had an endowment worth more than $700 million.
Michael Rush, director of the Brandeis museum, could not be reached for comment after the university announced its closure Monday evening. But a feature about Rush in 2007 in the university's alumni magazine  may provide some insight into why the collection was tempting to the university in bad financial times. "Everyone in the art world knows about the Brandeis collection. It's the gem of modern and contemporary art in New England and one of the great gems of university art collections in the nation."
The article cites Rush as saying that by "eyeball," he could tell that the collection was worth at least $300 million, but that he planned to have a formal appraisal done to draw attention to the significance of the art museum. In a quote he may regret, he says: "I'm confident that, after its real estate, art is the university's largest financial asset, and I want everyone to know it."