A Talk With: Michael Rush

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On Tuesday afternoon I had a phone conversation with Michael Rush, the still shell-shocked director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. He only came to the job in 2005. And it was just Monday he got the news that the school, looking to bridge the kind of budget shortfall that just about every institution everywhere is facing right now, has decided to shut down its almost half-century-old museum and sell off its entire collection.

The most important thing Rush told me is that it wasn’t true that the university had pre-cleared the shut down with the office of the Massachusetts attorney general. If nothing else, donor agreements with the university could be stumbling blocks to any effort to just flush the museum and its collection. The Massachusett’s attorney general’s office agrees.

Here’s some of that conversation.

LACAYO: Before this happened, did you have any idea that dissolving the museum was an option that the university was considering?

RUSH: No, none.

LACAYO: How did you get the news?

RUSH: I got a call [Monday] from the provost, who asked me to come by her office.

LACAYO: Why do you think the university opted to do this instead of attempting, as other schools have done, to sell off just a few works?

RUSH: You can’t solve a shortfall problem by selling, say, our Lichtenstein and still maintain yourself legally and ethically as a museum. I think that’s what’s behind the decision to do something drastic and close the museum.

Over the last couple of years we went through one very meticulous deaccessioning. It involved some art that was not part of our mission and had never been shown in the museum but that happened to be valuable. We got in before the market crashed. We went through several meticulous processes there, with donors, with boards, with lawyers, with the AAMD [the Association of Art Museum Directors].

So the university, from the top down, was intimately familiar with deaccessioning processes. And I think that, rather than go through the scrutiny that would accompany the sale of a few paintings, they decided instead on what I’m sure they felt would be a one-shot situation of horrible feedback over closing the museum. As draconian as it may seem, I think that closing the museum was what they were advised, legally, to do. You can’t do this piecemeal.

LACAYO: You had already ordered up an appraisal of the collection to determine its dollar value. Why?

RUSH: For insurance purposes we wanted to know the value of the collection. Christie’s did a full evaluation that was completed about a year and a half ago. I also thought that in order to move the museum up the [funding] pipeline at the university, in terms of getting renovations and so forth, the more information they had about how great this place was, the better it would be. That may have backfired.

LACAYO: I’ve had the same thought — that the trustees were suddenly alerted to the dollar value of the asset they had.

RUSH: And we don’t have any representation on the board of trustees. That’s a very unfortunate reality as well. There’s nobody there really speaking up for us.

LACAYO: Have you been in communication since this happened with Jehuda Reinharz, the Brandeis president?

RUSH: No, we have not spoken.

LACAYO: The museum remains open for now?

RUSH: June 30 is our last day.

LACAYO: Brandeis offers an art history major.

RUSH: Yes, they have a very good department.

LACAYO: So if this closing is carried out, it will be a university with an art history program but no collection?

RUSH: That’s correct.

LACAYO: And what will you be doing next?

RUSH: Looking for a job. And equally important, there’s my wonderful staff. As I said to them today, our job now is to find a job.