In Our Opinion: The Brandeis Art Lesson

Daily Hampshire Gazette

Jehuda Reinharz said that Brandeis had been blindsided by the declining value of its endowment, and needed to cut costs and raise fresh money. That's not news these days--every institution of higher learning is facing the same dilemma. What was news was how Brandeis proposed to go about it. Reinharz said the trustees had decided to shutter the university's Rose Art Museum--and sell off its collection.

Brandeis owns works by major artists, and there was talk that the collection might fetch as much as $350 million. But Reinharz hadn't counted on the fast, and furious, reaction to his announcement. Arts organizations, museum curators and others--including some of the donors who had given works to Brandeis in good faith--pounced. A sample scolding, from the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries: "Brandeis is setting a dismal example ... To capitalize that which is related directly to learning and sell it off to fund general operations or to bolster waning endowments is not only myopic, it also sets a dangerous precedent."

College and university museums and galleries serve students by giving them a laboratory for studying art: a place where they can examine actual paintings, sculptures and other works, and learn about the scholarly history associated with them. The curator of one college museum in the Valley has observed that the collections aren't frills or luxury items; they're teaching tools. Learning to look, this curator says, is a critical skill in a culture that is becoming increasingly visual.

Last Friday's Hampshire Life profiled the collections owned by the Five Colleges--Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and the University of Massachusetts. The schools' museums and galleries not only add richness to their campuses; they add richness to life in the Pioneer Valley, as visitor-friendly places to see an array of often exceptional works from around the globe. They are also a key component to cultural tourism, which is part of the Pioneer Valley economy. A few years ago, when the Five College museums and other area institutions collaborated on an exhibition titled "Go Dutch," a television station in The Netherlands--a country that knows a thing or two about world-class art--produced a documentary detailing the artistic riches to be found in the Valley.

The "Brandeis disaster," as some have started referring to it, isn't the first time college collections have been looked at as a source of quick money. Two years ago, when Randolph College in Virginia began dipping into its endowment for operating costs, trustees and administrators saw its Maier Museum as a potential cash cow, and eventually four of its most important paintings were sold.

A museum shouldn't be static, of course. Works need to come and go to maintain a collection's quality and balance. But the decisions by Randolph College and Brandeis University are symptomatic of a troubling approach: using college and university art collections as "an ATM machine," as one area curator put it. Not only does such a move diminish a collection, critics say; it undermines the prospects of receiving future gifts of art.

While the Five Colleges have all been affected by the current economic woes, there's no indication that a Brandeis scenario will unfold at any of them. And in fact, President Reinharz quickly backpedaled in the face of the criticism. Just five days later he issued a press release in which he quoted President Obama: "I screwed up," Reinharz said. The Rose Art Museum would not close. And although Brandeis was still reserving the right to sell its art works, it apparently wouldn't be the across-the-board fire sale suggested by the original announcement.

It was a wise decision, and not just for PR reasons. Taking time to observe art closely, Amherst College's Mead Art Museum Curator Elizabeth Barker said in the Hampshire Life story, is "good for the soul." It's important that institutions cultivate, protect and cherish their collections.