Selling the family jewels?

Brandeis University directors are seeking to sell their acclaimed art collection to stave off bankruptcy.

May 25, 2009 20:19
Selling the family jewels?

brandeis campus 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

By last January, after it had become clear to just about everyone that the US economy was not going to improve anytime soon, the trustees of Brandeis University gathered to review their options for averting any chance of bankruptcy. Though shielded by an $85 million rainy-day fund, the school was facing a $10m. budget deficit, and an emergency appeal to plug losses in the endowment fund - which dropped nearly $200m. in just six months - had run aground amid the fallout from the collapse of Bernard Madoff's investment scam, which wiped out some of the university's wealthiest donors. The menu was grim: Cut faculty and programs, roll back financial aid, raise tuition or begin liquidating assets. From the board's perspective, the last option seemed the most straightforward, and the least disruptive to the school's students and its educational mission. As it happened, the board also knew that Brandeis was sitting on a "hidden jewel": a $350m. collection of modern art owned by the campus's Rose Art Museum. Over the course of 50 years, the Rose had managed, through a combination of shrewd collecting and generous bequests, to amass more than 7,000 pieces, including important works by marquee names like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. In the process, the Rose had come to embody the legacy of the postwar generation of American Jewish art collectors, many of them successful entrepreneurs who rose from immigrant tenements to university boards through sheer force of will and imagination - but, with credit markets dry even for big institutions, it seemed then that selling the family jewel might be the price of keeping the lights on. The first person to hear that the Brandeis board had unanimously voted to sacrifice the Rose was Lois Foster, whose name graces a large wing at the back of the museum building, just uphill from the main university entrance in Waltham, Massachusetts, a few miles outside Boston. Foster's husband, Henry, a longtime university trustee, had died in October, and Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis's president and a close friend, told the new widow he thought she deserved to know before anyone else that the public museum would be converted into a teaching space and the paintings eventually sold at auction to generate cash. Foster was astonished. She knew things were bad; in December, the university had called off its yearlong search for a museum curator, citing a hiring freeze, but she had lunched with Reinharz a few days earlier and he hadn't mentioned that the museum was in danger. "We never imagined this would happen," Foster told The Jerusalem Post in a recent phone conversation. "I don't know what he thought I'd say - that it was a great idea? I said to him, 'Jehuda, I just lost my husband, and this, to me, it's another death.'" When the press release went out on January 26, it was Reinharz's turn to be surprised. Almost immediately, the board's plan prompted an outcry, not just from students and donors but from members of the Rose family, who issued a scathing letter asserting: "The museum is not for closing; the art is not for sale." Handmade "For Sale" signs on green construction paper went up in the building's glass facade advertising Reinharz's office phone number and "rock bottom prices" on Picassos and Chagalls, along with an oversized red-and-white ATM sign - nominally an acronym for "Art Trumps Money." Off campus, yellow plastic "Ca$h for your Warhol" signs made by a Boston artist dotted telephone poles on Waltham's main drag. The protests quickly spread far beyond the town's borders. Facebook sprouted an array of protest groups, and a group of alumni launched a Web site called to solicit pledges and donations. A panel discussion about the threat the financial crisis posed to the arts moderated by poet laureate Robert Pinsky was broadcast on YouTube. The Rose's own Web site, run by the museum's openly defiant staff, posted an open letter signed by art world heavyweights Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum in New York, and Gary Tinterow, chairman of the modern art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both alumni, castigating the university for what they saw as an abrogation of the ancient Jewish responsibility of l'dor vador - the responsibility to transmit knowledge "from generation to generation." By late March, Reinharz had disavowed the original stark language of the January announcement, explicitly telling the Post, "The Rose is not closing, period." But, he added, "We may change the way it operates" - a loophole that, pending the results of a review by the Massachusetts State Attorney-General's Office, may still leave room for the university to change the museum's mandate, and for at least some of the collection to be sold, a move endorsed this month by a student-faculty committee convened by the university administration. A display of works from the permanent collection is slated to go on view in July, but the university has terminated the museum's well-regarded and highly outspoken director, Michael Rush, and two other staffers, including one who refused to stay. The last of the Rose's curated exhibits, including a major exhibit of work by the abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, closed May 17. "The debate has had the quality of a deep family feud about how to save this site of Jewish secular culture," said Mark Auslander, director of Brandeis's master's program in cultural production, who coordinated the YouTube broadcasts. "So many of the faculty are children and grandchildren of [Holocaust] survivors, and there is a sense that in a time of crisis, you do sell family heirlooms - but do you sell this, or do we say that what allows us to survive as a people is art and truth?" BRANDEIS IS both a secular university and a Jewish one. Founded in the aftermath of the war, it was intended to be the Harvard of the Jews - and a secular answer to Yeshiva University in New York, which was expanding its liberal arts education program at around the same time. Yet Brandeis's founding charter recognized the "Hebraic tradition of Torah looking upon culture as a birthright," and from the time the university opened its doors in 1948, art was an integral part of that inheritance. The university's founding president, Abram Sachar, wrote in his history A Host at Last that 300 paintings arrived before the first class graduated, including works by preeminent artists like Fernand Leger, George Grosz and de Kooning - pieces that themselves may not have had anything to do with Jewish themes, but whose owners wanted them entrusted to a Jewish institution. At first, the works were stored in the basement of a campus residence hall - a make-do solution that worked until a Category 3 hurricane named Edna swept through New England in 1954, flooding the Brandeis campus and ruining some of the art. Sachar wrote that he decided to ask Edward Rose, the son of Russian immigrants who made a fortune manufacturing mattresses for the cribs of the infant baby boomers, and his wife, Bertha, to pay for a museum building. The Roses had no children, and Sachar convinced them to endow the art museum instead of making a bequest in their wills. "Why should the pleasure of helping plan the museum be left exclusively to strangers who would get all the gratification that really belonged to those who had spent a long lifetime making the resources available?" he recalled asking. By 1960, ground had been broken for the Rose building, a two-story atrium arranged around a central staircase with a reflecting pool at the bottom where students would throw pennies for luck. The Rose's first director was Sam Hunter, a former New York Times art critic and associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Hunter was supremely cognizant of what was happening in the Manhattan art world, but his new museum had no acquisition budget until 1962, when Leon Mnuchin, an attorney and collector in New York, called to say he and his wife, Harriet, had just inherited $50,000. They wanted to use it to buy art for the Rose, but they had one requirement: No single piece could cost more than $5,000. Hunter, now in his 80s, recalls running around Manhattan galleries with Mnuchin. "We decided on the spot whether we wanted to buy the art," he said. "We decided to have a ball. We talked in the spirit of, 'Now we can have some fun with this money - buy some art!'" By the end of their four-month spree, they had bought 21 pieces, the cheapest of which was a 1962 Claes Oldenburg, Tray Dinner, for just a few hundred dollars; the collection is now estimated to be worth about $200m. alone. Overnight, the Rose had amassed the best collection of contemporary art in New England - a distinction it still holds over Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University's museums. Hunter, who went on to direct the Jewish Museum in New York, scoffed at the idea that there was anything particularly Jewish about his collecting with Mnuchin. "It was about art, simply. It had nothing to do with Jews," he said. "They were art collectors." But it established Brandeis as a place that was serious about preserving art, and enabled the still-fledgling university to attract gifts and bequests from families - Shapiros and Auerbachs and Kleins - who wanted their collections to remain in Jewish hands. Mildred, or Micki, Lee, the daughter of a Lithuanian shoemaker who built his Columbus, Ohio, company into the Shoe Corporation of America, was there at the start, talking abstract art on the steps of the Rose with Mnuchin and Hunter and gathering members for the Friends of the Rose; her son, Jonathan Lee, is now on the museum's board of overseers, said he sees his role as protecting not just the individual pieces but the story of a generation that bootstrapped its way into American culture and society. "The collection has an intellectual provenance because of who gave it, when and who and why, more than just what it is," he said. "It's something Brandeis has that no one else has, it's an asset and it's a huge source of pride." Meantime, while the Rose's collection is primarily one of American art and artists, decades of legal battles in Europe to recover Jewish-owned art seized by the Nazis has only heightened the feeling of protectiveness among many in the art world. "So many Jewish collections have been dispersed, that in the Jewish context, it feels like tossing out an important element or aspect of Jewish history," said Margaret Olin, an art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who signed a petition against the closing of the Rose. "University collections and Jewish collections are histories of the communities that built them, and to split them up is not only a slap in the face to the people that gave these collections, it's also a dispersal of one's own history. It's like throwing out the archive." PEOPLE WHO have engaged in the debate over the future of the Rose all eventually talk about death when they discuss what happened in January. At the Pinsky symposium on the future of the museum, on March 16, Joyce Perkit, a Rose family member, stood in the audience and announced that as far as she was concerned, the museum was "a perpetual yahrzeit" to her childless great-aunt and uncle. "They had no one to say Kaddish for them," Perkit said, quietly. "Every time somebody, whether a student, a person from the public, an artist, came into the museum and had that moment of spark between them and the painting, that is a moment of reverence - that's when the museum is a synagogue." Another relative, Fred Hopengarten, who is related to the Roses on his mother's side, was even more explicit. Half his family perished in the Holocaust, and for him, the museum stands as a sign that those who survived made their mark on New England. "It's not inconsequential that it's the family I have, as opposed to the family that did not survive the war, the 23 people from the Hopengarten side," he said. "I fall into the 'emotional attachment to the family' portion of the spectrum - it's the 'you can't do this to us' point of view." Hopengarten, an attorney who lives a few miles from the Brandeis campus, recalled that the museum went out of its way to contact him and other family members before selling off some pieces of yellow luster china that had belonged to Bertha, but which didn't really have any place in the collection. "I can tell you they asked the family for permission to de-accession the china but not to shut down the museum," Hopengarten said. "They were correct when it came to cups and saucers, but with respect to the museum as a whole, they were not." Ed Rose's will, discovered by family members in February, turns out to have spelled out very clearly that he did not want his museum to be at risk. "My said wife and I understand that Brandeis has agreed that the Rose Art Museum will be maintained in perpetuity as the only art museum at Brandeis; and that Brandeis's permanent collection of works of art by major artists will be housed and exhibited in the Rose Art Museum," it read. That vision was distinctly at odds with the view put forward by Jehuda Reinharz in the letter he sent with the original January 26 press release, in which he described the Rose as "a marvelous addition to the fine arts program" - a dramatic departure from the view put forward by Sachar, who made it clear that his university always considered the creative arts, including museum space, an integral part of the educational mission and not just a "luxury." In a phone conversation with the Post, Reinharz acknowledged the wording of the release and the letter had been careless. "I believe museums are part of our teaching mission, they ought to be," said Reinharz, a historian who was born in Haifa. But he added that his biggest concern is maintaining student scholarship funding. "What is going to change is that institutions are going to have to be more mindful of overlap, of adjusting to new realities." He repeated that the Rose came up at the board level as an extreme measure and only in the context of other tough choices. "What I'm trying to explain is that the Rose is part of the university, it's not exempt from all the other measures the university is taking. When people say, 'You can't sell the art,' I say, 'OK, can we close five departments on campus?' Tell me what I can do. This is the problem." IN THE five months since the vote was taken, the economy has shifted from total free fall into a more manageable pattern of recession, and Brandeis hasn't made any move toward liquidating the Rose collection. It is nonetheless already paying the price of moving to secure the option. As soon as the board's decision was announced, donors - including Lois Foster and other members of the board of overseers, who traditionally give generously - withdrew their pledges, and other funding for the museum, which has traditionally been self-supporting, dried up. "I think this is fixable - they could just say, 'Yeah, we made a mess of this, we didn't have the facts, we didn't realize that there is a whole set of rules for running a museum,'" Foster said. In the absence of such a complete turnaround, the Rose board, led by Jonathan Lee, is exploring legal action to stop the university from selling any art at all. "You don't want to set in motion a precedent that says you can sell off your long-term assets to solve a short-term problem," said Lee, an investment manager in Boston. But even with the collection intact, the museum will reopen in July a shadow of its former self. Members of the university art faculty are debating among themselves about the ethics of curating a show with no professional staff on hand. "Will we have a museum in name only? Will there be a museum director? A curator? A director of education? Any possibility of lending and borrowing artwork? None of these things are on the table," said Mark Auslander, the culture professor. "There will be a public museum that doesn't conform to any understanding of what a museum is in the art world." Some are already sitting shiva. Auslander said that on May 12, the university's artist-in-residence directed senior administrators gathered at the faculty club for a cocktail party to write their feelings about the Rose on little stones, and then to lay them in front of the building - an echo of the familiar Jewish custom of laying pebbles atop tombstones. "He didn't say it was Jewish, but everyone knew," Auslander said. "It's such a Jewish thing." Meantime, the outgoing director, Michael Rush, said he was too busy trying to protect the collection to mourn its possible loss. "The dismantling of the museum happened with the release on January 26," he said. "We're like the last people left at the Alamo - most of my time is spent dealing with people, either supplying information to donors, people who have already given, or with artists who want their work back." Rush rattled off the names of artists who had called trying to retrieve pieces that had been donated to the Rose collection, including painter Joel Janowitz and conceptual sculptor Jackie Ferrara. Rush said he was angry about many things, but none more than the idea that the university board might simply have been naive about how it handled the Rose. "We're talking about the utter loss of 50 years of donors," Rush said, exasperated. "If they don't sell the art - and it seems likely that it won't happen for a couple of years - then where are the dire consequences? They've dropped the original mantra of why they were doing this in the first place."

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