Meryl Rose on the Rose Art Museum

Meryl Rose on the Rose Art Museum
When Brandeis University announced on January 26 its intention to close its Rose Art Museum, the plan seemed clear: the museum would be shuttered this summer and its entire collection of some 7,100 works sold. “The Rose is a jewel,” university president Jehuda Reinharz said at the time. “But for the most part it’s a hidden jewel. It does not have great foot traffic and most of the great works we have we are just not able to exhibit. We felt that at this point, given the recession and the financial crisis, we had no choice.”

Just as clear, however, were the protests: from the Rose staff and board of overseers, the Brandeis community, and the art museum community. The Association of Art Museum Directors was “shocked and dismayed,” the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries “saddened and disappointed.”

Within days, Brandeis began to waver. Perhaps it would close the museum and keep the art, or maybe it would sell only a few works from the collection. On February 5, Reinharz said he had “screwed up.” Most recently, last week, university provost Marty Krauss released a statement in response to a request from the appointed “Committee for the Future of the Rose” clarifying plans for the immediate future of the museum. The upshot: the museum will remain open for now, current shows (“Saints and Sinners,” on spirituality in art, and a look at Hans Hofmann circa 1950) will be extended, and a new exhibition drawn from the permanent collection is to go on view July 22. But esteemed (and vocal) director Michael Rush is out, along with several other staff members.

Again, response was critical and swift. The museum’s board of overseers wasted no time issuing a response in which Meryl Rose, a member of both the board and the family that founded the museum, said that the university administration “is carrying out an elaborate charade, the first step of which is to turn the Rose from a true museum as its founders intended into something quite different.”

ARTINFO spoke to Meryl Rose about her take on Brandeis’s actions and her hopes for the future of the museum.

Meryl, on April 23 the Rose Art Museum’s board of overseers released a statement saying that the announcement university provost Marty Krauss made earlier that week about plans for the museum is misleading. Can you tell me about that?

Well, the endgame hasn’t changed: They want to sell art, period. What has changed is that they’re saying they’re keeping it a public art museum. But museums don’t operate in a vacuum. They cooperate with other museums. There are traveling shows that go around. A museum needs a director, a curator, patrons and donors; and all of that has stopped at the Rose. So the museum is really pretty much dead in the water right now.

The board’s statement said that the university has been misleading in terms of how much staff is being retained, and in what capacity. How many employees are left?

I think three, though I’m not sure that’s correct. But these are the people they need to sell the art, and to oversee it so that nothing happens to it while they’re preparing to sell it. These are not people to carry out the functions of a museum in any meaningful way.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the university does want to sell off the art, and that that’s a good idea. Now is not a great time for the art market, is it?

I can’t even for the sake of argument go down that road. As far as I’m concerned, the only reason ever to sell art is if the art doesn’t go along with the mission of the museum and the money is used to buy other art. Period. That’s the way museums operate and should operate. It’s not law, but these are the ethics that bind museums. At a university such as Brandeis, which was founded by one of our chief justices, you would think that the ethics would play a big role. It’s really quite sad.

These are sad times.

They are sad times. But there are certain things you just don’t do. There will come a time when fortunes are made back, and endowments are replenished, and the university will be ok. But once they do this, it cannot be undone. It’s forever. You just don’t sell your culture.

In January, Brandeis’s COO Peter French made a statement about the financial difficulties the school was facing and the measures that had already been taken. As far as you can tell, have significant measures already been taken by the university?

We have no idea. We know that the university has other assets, but it’s never been proven that it would be in dire peril without this step — and there have been no other plans, other than to sell the art. No Plan B or Plan C. Only this plan.

As I understand it, the museum has always supported itself and taken care of its own fund-raising. Is that true?

Yes, and as a matter of fact, what the school has done since January has cost them rather than saved them money. The director’s salary is underwritten by one of our wonderful patrons, Lois Foster. That doesn’t cost the school anything. The only reason they are removing the director is because he was fiercely protecting the art and documents of the museum. There can be no other endgame but to sell art.

Not keeping Michael Rush is quite a big step.

To terminate him is just unthinkable. There is no rational reason for [the university] to do that. He has done such wonderful things for the museum. He lives and breathes this museum. He is so passionate about the collection. I’ve traveled with him to art fairs and things, and he is so highly respected. He’s operated with nothing but dignity, intelligence, and great care.

Have there been other costs to the university?

There was a recent donation by one of our board members for $2 million, for work on the space that would make it possible for us to display more of our permanent collection all of the time. Now he wants that money back. And there are people who’ve donated art recently — and not so recently — who are pretty angry and want it back.

It is legally possible for a donor to ask to have something returned, or has that proven difficult?

We’re not sure of the answer to that yet, but you can be sure we’re going to find out.

Your statement also says that the school has established a “Committee for the Future of the Rose” to “explore options” for the museum’s future, but that the current board was not allowed to choose a representative. Is that true?

A member of our board is on that committee, but this person was not chosen by us; our committee chair recommended someone and was refused. And Lois Foster, who was chair of the board at one time, and who donated the Lois Foster wing at the museum, asked to be on that board and was refused. It’s a handpicked board. The woman from our board who does sit on that committee is a lovely person, and we all like her very much, but we don’t know whether she is as fiercely protective of the Rose as we would like to see.

Who else is on the committee?

I don’t even know. To me, that committee is just a sham. The Rose Art Museum has a perfectly good, vibrant, engaged board of overseers — we are the people who should be deciding if there should be a different future for the Rose.

And — this committee had a town hall meeting the other night, and the chair said more than once that there was nothing wrong with the Rose before. Well, if there’s nothing wrong with the Rose, why decide a new future for it?

The Rose has a rich history – there are so many top artists who had their first exhibitions there: Kiki Smith, Fred Tomaselli, Frank Stella, the list is endless. There was nothing wrong with the Rose. It was just fine.

What do you think the Rose will become if the school has its way?

It won’t be a museum. I can tell you that much.

At some point in this whole — I don’t know what to call it, this whole escapade — they said they were going to turn it into a studio and classroom space. Well, the structure doesn’t lend itself to anything like that. The ceilings in the Lois Foster wing are three stories high. You can’t turn that into a classroom. It was never meant to be anything other than what it is.

I understand that although the museum has quite a large collection of some 7,100 works, most of its monetary value is concentrated in a handful or few dozen of them. Is that true?

I would say so.

So in theory, Brandeis could do as it has suggested it might and sell “just a few works” but still make a fair amount of money.

They could, but in my view, that would be wrong. Do you do something that’s unethical just a little bit? I can’t abide that idea; I don’t believe that the end justifies the means in this case. There have to be standards. Brandeis was founded on the ideas of justice and equality: to do something so unethical is really counter to everything that it should be espousing.

Do you think there’s anything the university could do at this point to smooth things over?

Yeah. They could say, “We made a big mistake. We’re sorry, and we’ll never do it again.”

And then we’ll go away. But until that time, we’re not going away.