That was the underlying question at the panel discussion “Museums on the Line: Cutbacks, Closures, and Opportunities,” held May 2 as part of the series Art Chicago Speaks. Moderated by Isolde Brielmaier, consulting curator for the program, the panel featured Rose Director (for now — his contract expires in June and will not be renewed) Michael Rush; Anthony Hirschel, director of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago; Heather Pesanti, curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; and artist Mary Lucier.
Rush recounted the news that shook him and the art world on January 26, when Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz announced that the school would close the Rose and sell its collection in order to help defray university operating-expense shortfalls. The school later amended its statement to say it would repurpose the museum as a student art center and likely sell only some of the artworks.
How museums respond to a challenging economy had been the focus of other forums throughout the Art Chicago weekend, including “Crisis and Opportunity: Programming and Exhibitions in the New Economy” (panelists Ruba Katrib, from MOCA, North Miami; Benjamin Godsill, of New York's New Museum; Dean Sobel of the Clyfford Still Museum; Heather Pesanti, from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; and moderator Brian Sholis, of Artforum). These panelists detailed budget cuts, layoffs, unpaid furloughs, slashed programming, and fewer exhibitions, but nothing as drastic as what happened to the Rose. “But,” said a representative of the Rose family who was in the audience at Rush’s panel, “people think they can get away with more — cuts, deaccessioning, changed mission — because of the Rose.”
It was this idea — that the Rose is just the tip of the iceberg — that drove passionate audience participation at the event. “Why does art always have to be considered the icing on the cake? Our importance and our integrity should not be for sale,” said one attendee. Another brought up the ramifications on relationships with donors and artists: Will trust be lost knowing that collections can be broken up and pieces randomly sold? More questions followed from there: If the art is sold, does it disappear from the public eye forever? And who really has the right to sell pieces of an established collection?
“One claim was that the collection in the past was not well visited,” said Rush. “Foot traffic is a crude measure of a museum’s success. Who is to say the effect of the little museum in Texas that Robert Rauschenberg visited as a young man? He changed the course of Western art radically because of his exposure to it. He could have been the only visitor in 10 months. We cannot monetize the impact of art; its effect is immeasurable.”
The Brandeis administration now says that the fate of the Rose is uncertain, and it has appointed a committee to help make a final decision about its future. But at the panel, Rush made clear his prediction that “despite outrage and protests, the selling of the Rose collection and closing of the museum is going to happen.” The real question, then, is, what’s next?