Avoiding the Next Brandeis

Broad coalition of arts organizations starts in-depth study of how to improve the relationships between colleges and their museums.
October 1, 2009

The prized modern art collection of Brandeis University isn't headed to the auction house, but supporters of college art museums are trying not to declare victory. Rather, they are taking the controversial plan to sell the collection (a plan currently on hold, but by no means dead) as a wake-up call.

Two related efforts are being started by a coalition of leading arts organizations. One is a public statement about the importance of museums to colleges and universities, calling for them to be viewed as "essential to the academic experience and to the entire educational enterprise." At the same time, recognizing that not everyone views museums as essential to higher education and that the economic downturn makes vulnerable anything viewed as non-essential, the arts groups are jointly sponsoring a task force that will look for ways to strengthen the ties between colleges and universities and their museums.

These efforts are being backed by key organizations in the art world: the American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, the University Museums and Collections Division of the International Council of Museums, the College Art Association, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Association of Art Museum Curators.

"Sadly the arts are often the first to be cut," said David Alan Robertson, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. "Nothing could be more blatant than what happened at Brandeis, and we have to avoid that. We want to find a means to strengthen the presence of museums within academic institutions."

Brandeis announced in January that it would sell its prized collection of modern art, which includes works by a who's who of artists in the last century: 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, and Rene Magritte, among others. Brandeis officials said that they needed the funds from the collection -- potentially hundreds of millions of dollars -- to focus on "the best interests of our students." Amid international outrage among arts supporters, Brandeis put the plan on hold, and the university's president recently announced his retirement, but the university has not pledged that the sale won't happen.

Robertson, who will be co-chair of the task force, noted that Brandeis was not the only place where campus-based art has been threatened of late. 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.

And 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.

All of these developments, Robertson said, point to the vulnerability of campus museums.

He noted that campus museums are in an unusual situation in that many of them receive substantial funds from non-college sources and yet report to colleges. At Northwestern, he said, about 35 percent of the annual budget for the museum comes from the university, another 18 percent from endowment funds designated for the museum, and the rest is from a variety of source -- gifts, grants and so forth. Much of the outside funding comes with goals relating to the public, and there can be "a tension between the museums' public responsibilities and their university responsibilities," he said.

The new task force has already held meetings with two of the regional accrediting agencies for higher education, trying to impress upon those bodies that museums shouldn't be viewed as extras, but as "teaching institutions and research institutions" that are central, Robertson said.

Another strategy being discussed is encouraging colleges to define the financial exigency plans -- or what they would do in a severe financial crisis -- and to make the case that museums should not be the first institutions to be closed, Robertson said.

Lyndel King, the other co-chair of the task force, said that the goal should be, in the wake of the Brandeis controversy, "that we would never face that kind of issue again."

King, director and chief curator of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said "we need to educate college administrators and governing boards that disposing of their collections can't be a way to fill the coffers or seen as an easy way to bring in money." To do that, she said, university museums need to be "a little more obvious about how we contribute to a university education."

For example, Robertson said that the Northwestern museum has looked for ways to work with faculty members -- and not just those in the arts. Last year, the Northwestern museum organized an exhibit called "Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright," which explored the influence of Darwin and evolutionary ideas on architecture, the decorative arts and design. The exhibit also was tied to a university-wide program in which students and faculty members were encouraged to read a biography of Darwin. It's important, Robertson said, for university museums to be part of such central, intellectual projects at their institutions.

Nothing will make college and university museums "bullet-proof," Robertson said. But by drawing attention to their value and strengthening relationships, he said he wanted to be sure they have "a seat at the table," especially in these tight budget times.

Centrality is also the theme of the public statement that the organizations are encouraging scholars to sign: "At the heart of many of our great colleges and universities stand museums of art, science, archaeology, anthropology, and history, as well as arboreta and other collections of living specimens. Along with our libraries and archives, these academic museums advance learning through teaching and research. They are the nation's keepers of its history, culture and knowledge."

Sean Buffington, president of the University of the Arts, who is not involved with the task force, said it was an appropriate time for a review of how museums can be central to colleges and universities. "I think university museums are vulnerable right now, but I think it predates the recession," he said.

Rather, he noted that many university art museums were created as direct teaching tools. Art and art history were taught by professors standing in front of various works in the collections. "Art and art history are taught in different ways and thought about in different ways now than when these institutions were founded," he said. "Those models have changed."

Prior to taking on his current position at a university where the arts' central role is self-evident, Buffington was associate provost for arts and culture and director of cultural programs at Harvard University. Part of the challenge for the arts at universities, he said, is that there are many constituencies "more powerful" than those who are advocates for the arts.

At the same time, however, he said "the museums own some responsibility for this, too." When art museums were created at many colleges, the curators and the professors were "one and the same," while now at many campuses, the professional curators may view themselves (and be viewed as) separate.

Despite these challenges, Buffington said that there are intellectual trends -- such as interest in cultural studies broadly or material culture specifically -- that could favor college museums. "I think there are a lot of receptive audiences" among college faculties, he said. "But there is a burden on museums to try to represent to faculty beyond art history what the collection can do."

The new task force may be most valuable, Buffington said, if it keeps in mind audiences outside the arts. "What would be useful would be for this task force, made up of people who represent the arts, to begin to develop arguments about why these collections matter," he said. "I think that inside these communities, it's very clear to everyone what those arguments are, but it's not so obvious to all boards of trustees."


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