One of the flashpoints in the debate over whether colleges and universities should ever sell significant works of art was resolved Thursday -- with Brandeis University pledging to strengthen the Rose Art Museum rather than selling its masterpieces.
Based on the promise, four supporters of the museum who sued the university two years ago agreed to withdraw the litigation. Further, the Massachusetts attorney general's office has agreed to end its inquiry into the university's handling of the art collection.
There have been several cases in recent years over colleges trying to sell or being pressured to sell parts of valuable collections. Fisk University remains in a legal battle over its desire to sell (or to partly sell) a $30 million collection of modern paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and others. The University of Iowa this year fended off calls for it to sell Jackson Pollock's "Mural," an 8-by-20 foot painting that is considered one of the masterpieces of abstract art and of modern American art. Some estimated that the painting could have brought in as much as $140 million.
Longstanding policy in the art world is that donated of works of art be sold only to finance the purchase of more art, not to have the funds shifted to other purposes. So art supporters at Brandeis and elsewhere were stunned when the university in 2009 announced plans to shut the Rose Art Museum and sell off its works. The Rose is known for its collections of American Modernism, American Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism. Holdings include works by Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, 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 made the announcement in January 2009, with officials citing a major hit taken by the endowment and severe budget problems facing Brandeis. “These are extraordinary times,” said a statement from Jehuda Reinharz, then the university's president, as the decision was announced. “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 decision immediately prompted an outpouring of anger at the university from supporters of the arts, and donors to the Rose. Eventually, the university faced the lawsuit, an inquiry from the state, and widespread condemnation -- even as Brandeis put the plans to sell the art on hold. Critics cited not only the action the university was poised to take, but also the view that displaying and teaching from a great art collection was somehow a luxury and not a core function of a university that says it embraces the traditions of the liberal arts.
Reinharz has since retired, and the university's new president, Fred Lawrence, used language in an interview Thursday that suggested a different view of art.
"I view the Rose as a crucial part of what we are about, and while I may not be the most objective source on that, I think we have the best contemporary art collection in New England," he said. Just as universities have a mission of disseminating research, he said that they have a role in "the dissemination of a cultural tradition." He added that the collection "plays an important role in what we are about."
committing to hold on to the art. He said he wanted the universityLawrence was personally involved in discussions with supporters of the museum who sued Brandeis, and he said he was entirely comfortable "looking forward," to strengthening the collection, not focused on the conflict of the last two years.
Brandeis is in a much stronger position economically now than it was in January 2009, Lawrence said. The endowment is "roughly back" to where it was before the Wall Street collapse in the fall of 2008, and the university is operating on a budget plan that will be in balance by 2014.
David A. Robertson, director of the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, was president of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries when the initial Brandeis plans were announced. He said Thursday that he was thrilled with the news that the university was committing itself to strengthening the collection.
The Brandeis controversy was "the flagship problem" for those worried about the sale of art, both because of the caliber of the university and the stature of the collection, he said. "It was very detrimental to art that Brandeis would have considered that move," he said.
The debate over art at Brandeis has been valuable, Robertson said, in that it has "made other institutions aware of the issues that revolve around their collections." He said he hoped the uproar Brandeis has faced would discourage similar proposals.