Curiouser and Curiouser

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Things get ever more complicated in the uproar over the decision by Brandeis to shut down its Rose Art Museum and sell — or not sell — the art to raise money to cover a budget shortfall at the school, which has seen its endowment decline by about 25%.

Let’s start from the beginning. On Tuesday the school issued a statement that it intended “to publicly sell the collection”.

But yesterday University President Yehuda Reinharz told an interviewer for Boston’s public radio station WBUR that the school didn’t intend to sell the entire collection, just selected works. And in today’s Boston Globe, Geoff Edgers, who has been on top of the story from the start, has an interview with Reinharz in which the president says that “if there is a miracle tomorrow” and the stock market improves, Brandeis might not sell any of the work at all. But it will still close the museum. He doesn’t say how or even whether the school would then exhibit the collection, but does say this: “Lots of universities have collections of art, which they display or don’t display.”

Got that?

I put in a call yesterday to Dennis Nealon, the media spokesman for Brandeis, who insisted to me that selling just part of the collection was always the school’s intention. To put it mildly, that makes the choice of words in their announcement — “sell the collection” — an unusual one. Could it be that the school thought it might set up the sale by announcing a bombshell — the complete dissolution of the collection — then step back to the less extreme position of selling just some of it, which would then look like a more moderate position? Maybe, though that’s a step that by itself is sure to set off alarms in a museum world that disapproves art sales for any purpose other than to purchase more art.

Meanwhile, in Edger’s story, there’s also a comment from Brandeis provost Marty Krauss in which she suggests that the reason Brandeis will shutter its museum no matter what is that this is the best way to escape the art museum code of ethics that forbid most sales. No museum, no rules to obey.

Her words:

In an interview, she said university officials believed they could not operate a museum, which is expected to abide by a code of ethics limiting the reasons it can sell off art, and then sell art to pay for needs other than the museum. Closing the 48-year-old museum entirely would provide the university more freedom, Krauss said.

Over on his Art Law Blog, Donn Zaretsky, who opposes these restrictions on museum sales, notes that this is a rationale in keeping with the one that was suggested to me a couple of days ago by Michael Rush, the Rose Art Museum director. Here’s what Rush said:

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.

Although it now appears that “piecemeal” — the sale of just a few works — is the way that Brandeis plans to go about it.