The Museum as Rainy Day Fund | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » On Culture

The Museum as Rainy Day Fund

Should institutions be allowed to sell off donated art to pay the bills?

by

comment

On the morning of January 26, Anthony Hirschel, director of the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art, was on the phone with Michael Rush, director of Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum, discussing Rush's application to be admitted to the Association of Art Museum Directors.

No problem there, says Hirschel, who's on the AAMD membership committee: Rush was clearly qualified.

But later that day, Rush called him back. "You'll never believe this," he began.

Rush had just returned from the office of Brandeis provost Marty Krauss, where he'd been informed that the university, grappling with a cash crunch, was going to close the 48-year-old Rose. Rush and his staff would be let go, and the museum's 7,000 artworks, touted by the university as the "finest collection of modern and contemporary art in New England," would be sold.

Rush was stunned. The museum had nothing to do with the school's money problems. It was self-supporting and financially sound; maintaining the collection, acquired through gifts and donations, was an obligation. An hour later, the university announced the plan to the world—and ignited a storm of protest that's still raging. Rush and Hirschel will be part of a panel at this year's Art Chicago called "Museums on the Line: Cutbacks, Closures and Opportunities"; the discussion will feature the Rose as a case study.

Like many institutions, Brandeis saw its income decline last year. Its endowment shrank from $712 million in June to $540 million at the end of December. Meanwhile, donors who might normally be expected to make up a shortfall were watching their own accounts evaporate—some of the most reliable turned up on the list of Bernie Madoff's victims. Brandeis reportedly projected deficits of $10 million to $20 million annually for the next five years or so, and drawing from the endowment's depleted principal to make up that gap isn't an option: it's forbidden by state law. Trustees must have been pondering how they'd make ends meet when their gaze settled on the museum on the hill, lit up and shining like a big piggy bank, with a collection that was appraised two years earlier at a cool $350 million.

The Rose was built in 1961—and later expanded—with money donated expressly for that purpose by mattress manufacturer Edward Rose and his wife, Bertha. The Roses also stocked the museum with their own art collection and made sure it would be self-sufficient by funding dedicated endowments for operations and acquisitions. With an annual budget of about $2 million, the museum gets no direct funding from the school. It's "owned by the university," says Rush, "but the only assistance is below the line—the light, the heat."

Which makes the sale of the collection to make up a relatively small and temporary annual deficit all the more problematic. A violation of trust—and of standard museum practice, which dictates that proceeds from the sale of any art in a collection be used only to purchase other art—it's enough to send donors spinning. Edward and Bertha Rose are gone, but about 50 members of their family issued a statement protesting "the plundering of the Rose Art Museum and its collection," and seeking a "commitment that Brandeis will honor the donors' intentions."

Looking at all this, Hirschel says, potential donors are probably thinking, "Why should I give you money for a museum if you're going to liquidate the museum? Why would I give you a work of art if you're just going to sell it? How can I trust you on any front?" That kind of dynamic, he adds, is fatal. "The way we operate in this country, we rely on people's generosity and on the benefits the tax code confers in order to make our cultural institutions work. If you knock a leg out from under the table by indicating that 'if we're really hurting we'll just sell the art,' you've impaired the viability of the whole system." Last year's floods at the University of Iowa had trustees there looking to sell a Jackson Pollock—"a pilgrimage object," Hirschel says—valued at $150 million. "It took the Iowa governor to stop that."

If an institution is selling art because it needs money, he notes, then "we're not talking about the things that are never shown and don't attract an audience, because they don't draw the kind of funds that situation requires. And if you sell the best art in your museum, you've undermined the very reason for you to be there. That's the justifiable fear about de-accessioning in general—it's the most valuable work in any collection that's at greatest risk."

Brandeis administrators and trustees seem surprised at the furor they've inspired. On Februrary 5, university president Jehuda Reinharz issued an open letter recasting his initial statements that the museum would close and the collection would be auctioned off. The new version is that the museum will be used for another purpose, and not all the art will be sold—at least not right now. An advisory committee has been appointed to ponder future uses for the museum facility.

Rush says this is all just spin. "Things haven't changed since January, he says. "Our exhibitions are closing on May 17, there are no future exhibitions, the staff is being laid off, the money stream has stopped. They're saying they're not closing, they're just getting out of the public museum business, but it's an empty statement."

But Rush and members of the museum's board met recently with Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, whose spokesperson told me their office contacted the university and "inquired" about plans for the museum. At the end of last week, Krauss announced that the Rose will remain open while Brandeis decides what to do with it. To that end, Krauss wrote, "four of the six current staff were offered continued employment." Rush isn't among them.

Art fairs are also facing a crisis. Since buying Art Chicago three years ago, Chris Kennedy's Merchandise Mart Properties has acquired VOLTA, Next, and New York's Armory show, making it the nation's largest art-fair producer just when nobody's buying much of anything. The company is characterizing this year's leaner, three-fair event (Art Chicago, Next, and an international antiques show) as "content rich." The public panel with Rush and Hirschel is one of a series on museum and curatorial practice.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com.

Add a comment