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Art Museum for sale.
January 26, 2009 7:30 PM   Subscribe

Art Museum for sale. Rocked by a budget crisis, Brandeis University will close its Rose Art Museum and sell off a 6,000-object collection that includes work by such contemporary masters as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Nam June Paik. The LA Times makes the Madoff connection.
posted by R. Mutt (29 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
No Duchamp, though?
What a shame for you, coulda been the (oft dreaded) e-word otherwise.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 7:41 PM on January 26, 2009


That's a shame.

Unfortunately, this crisis isn't going to be the last of its kind. L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art is on the rocks now too, thanks to years of financial mismanagement that turned into a full-on disaster when the economy tanked.
posted by scody at 8:12 PM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Someone should break the news to them that it is a crappy time to sell art.
posted by R. Mutt at 8:14 PM on January 26, 2009


The Brandeis student newspaper.
posted by R. Mutt at 8:46 PM on January 26, 2009


Wow, three of my favorite artists to boot.

Any mefites wanna spot me 10 mil? My studio needs a little something-something to bring it all together.
posted by bardic at 9:00 PM on January 26, 2009


If art is a public good -- and the notion of "museum" certainly presupposes that idea -- then it should be funded as such. Now these publicly-viewable works are going to be in the hands of private collectors who can admire them in the privacy their own homes, shove them in a warehouse while they wait for them to appreciate in value, and even piss all over them if the mood so strikes them. The market can entertain or even engage one's intellect, but it can't raise the level of discourse, it cannot enlighten -- and that's precisely why the production and maintenance of art should never be made to depend primarily on market forces (i.e., private donors).
posted by treepour at 9:15 PM on January 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I work at the local art museum as security and we just had a meeting about the annual budget. Apparently the museum runs off the interest of four large investments but this year all four have failed and cut the budget from $3.2 million down to a meager $800,000.
posted by cabbages at 10:18 PM on January 26, 2009


The LA Times makes the Madoff connection.

In related news: Newsweek: ‘Uncle Bernie’ And the Jews.
posted by ericb at 10:31 PM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Greg Cook comments.

Does Selling Art Really Pay Off?

I cringe whenever I hear the word "deaccessioning".
posted by mlis at 11:06 PM on January 26, 2009


What a shame. I've been to the Rose Art Museum, and it's one of the bright spots at Brandeis (and Waltham, Mass, which could use a few more bright spots like this)
posted by zippy at 1:56 AM on January 27, 2009


There's a petition to sign if you feel the decision is a mistake (I do!)
posted by cbrody at 2:23 AM on January 27, 2009


Sounds more like a ploy to raise some funds from the alumnae. (however put me in for a Warhol. Tomato soup in my kitchen would be just the thing to cover those grease stained walls.)
posted by Gungho at 4:27 AM on January 27, 2009


I can't really blame Brandeis. To quote one of the comments linked above:

So the university was left to ponder this question - better to leave $300m of artwork in a basement while laying off 10% of the faculty, increasing enrollment by 12%, and cutting entire programs and departments? Or to close the museum, sell the artwork, and use the proceeds to increase the size of its endowment by more than 50% and plugging the short-term hole in its finances?

Not really a tough decision. With a little bit of luck, some of these major works will end up at a museum that actually attracts visitors and has the space to display them. Even if that's only half of the works, it'd be infinitely more than are presently viewed by any substantial audience.


So do you let your children starve or sell off that Warhol? Brandeis is a private institution and it made the only decision it could because it was able to.

The problem is not Brandeis but that so many art treasures are in private hands already - private individuals and private institutions. The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, gave an interview recently describing the mission and purpose of museums. He was also asked why he famously turned down an offer to go run the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.

"...it is not, he says, a truly public institution like the [British Museum]."

posted by vacapinta at 4:38 AM on January 27, 2009


Most of these works weren't made with museum walls in mind. I'm sure some of the artists (especially those with installations) hoped that they would end up in institutions, but a lot of art was generated with humbler abodes in mind.

If that means that the art gets out of the museums and circulates for a few decades in private hands, why, that's only where they were intended to be seen, in the private walls of private homes. If the big kids screw up, then let the bits of art that have mostly been filling up lonely, climate-controlled basement rooms to showings of the odd roach or two circulate again, and at bargain prices.
posted by adipocere at 4:41 AM on January 27, 2009


These are just the first flakes in a large museum shitstorm. Art museums suffer quite visibly, but never fear, history museums, community museums, and science museums are struggling with the same concerns - only, in many cases, their collections aren't as valuable, so deaccessioning isn't a big part of their survival plans.

I don't know a museum that's not facing cutbacks for next year - and some are in dire trouble. Very serious trouble. It should be pointed out that the failure of museums is not entirely attributable to "the big kids screwed up" -- unless by "big kids" you mean "Wall Street." Museums draw a very large proportion of their budgets from endowment (invested in the stock market, mostly, and doing about as well as your retirement fund) and private donor support. When both those sources of revenue fail, even the best-managed museum is looking at a threat to survival.

As treepour said, they should not have been that vulnerable. Museums are a public good, in the way that any cultural institution can be seen as a public good. They are primarily educational institutions. They don't pay for themselves and never have - admissions fees to museums could never possibly cover the expenses involved in operating them. Museums used to receive a much greater amount of federal and state support than they have in the hostile climate of the last decade or so; because grant money has been drying up, cultural institutions have been driven to seek funds elsewhere - mostly by using private donations to build the endowment and invest it, or contribute to the annual fund for operating support. Corporate support also became a bigger piece of the pie, as you saw logos proliferating on museum signage, banners, tickets, wings and halls, even exhibit cases. Museums made these choices so they could survive and maintain their public service. The government began failing in its support a decade or so ago, and now the market is failing. How are museums going to survive with two legs of the tripod knocked out from under them?

It's pretty serious. I've been following several initiatives and campaigns in the past couple of months aimed at shoring up the arts and cultural sector as the economy is rebuilt. Museums are seeking Federal Formula Grants - the kinds libraries get annually just for existing, money distributed through the states to museums as the state would dictate. There is an effort to petition the Obama administration to appoint a cabinet-level Arts Secretary. Some professional organizations have banded together under Arts Transition head Bill Ivey to survey the current financial survival picture for arts institutions and use the immediate feedback to shape some component of the economic recovery plan to provide support for jobs in the arts.

We had a deaccessioning thread a couple weeks ago. There are a lot of museums in trouble. These aren't going to be freak, unusual events about which we can pontificate on institutional failure in a one-by-one manner, blaming everything on the institutions. This is serious business - the government failed a while ago, the private sector has failed now, and our cultural organizations will suffer from the retraction. The discussion in museums now is which limbs to cut off so that the core can survive. If some museums have to fold, it won't be a huge surprise. It's part of what happens when an economy that has been overdependent on market forces collapses. There are ultimately some goods that can happen if some museums fold - the weaker institutions will go first, and perhaps that will improve the climate for those who survive, much as Prohibition killed small local breweries off though Anhauser Busch and other biggies survived by becoming something different for a while, and dominated when prohibition ended. In my opinion there are too many cultural nonprofits in the US working in a way that is not really optimized for public service, and if it's time to let a few of them go away, that's probably going to result in improvements elsewhere as staff and funds can be redirected to really vital insititutions. However, and this is a big however, I think that if you have a museum mission and a 501(c)3 charter, the first option to be explored when deaccessioning is not private sale, but offer to transfer to another, more stable institution. Viewing museum holdings as cash cows is not ideal. It would be nice to think that as national conditions shift, some of this art will make its way back onto public view - but there have to be some profound financial and cultural shifts for people to feel that's the best place for the works that have ended up in their possession.
posted by Miko at 6:10 AM on January 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


So do you let your children starve or sell off that Warhol?
Hey, we can always make more babies....
posted by Floydd at 6:21 AM on January 27, 2009


Ugh. The Rose is easily the most human contemporary/modern art museum I've been to. You could spend a lot of time really close to some pretty sensational stuff. Frankly, I was always surprised that Brandeis was able to afford that kind of collection. I guess it had more to do with the foresight of their curatorial staff than with deep pockets, put their pockets had to be pretty deep even still.

Whether the works end up in 6,000 different private collections or in a couple of big lumps it's still an unrecoverable loss. How many small, publicly accessible, well-maintained and TERRIFIC contemporary art collections are there, and how many do you expect to be built ever again?
posted by dirtdirt at 6:49 AM on January 27, 2009


I think that if you have a museum mission and a 501(c)3 charter, the first option to be explored when deaccessioning is not private sale, but offer to transfer to another, more stable institution...

If the Rose isn't going to make it, hopefully the collection could somehow end up at Boston's ICA, which has a new building but no real collection.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:08 AM on January 27, 2009


One thing I've learned is that museums (and nonprofits in general) will give you a different kind of roller-coaster ride depending on their funding model. And University art museums are positioned to get it from both ends... no matter how well-run your museum is right now, your long-term fate is at least partly at the mercy of a) the governing body of your university, and (often) b) the state legislature that funds your university . And even if that arrangement actually feels pretty stable a lot of the time (universities and states are usually pretty monolithic, unchanging entities), it's pretty unsettling in the long run, because you never know who'll be running the university/state in 20 years.

I'm of lots of minds with the Brandeis situation. On one hand, an untenable financial situation is an untenable financial situation. On the other hand, this sets a horrible precedent. On yet another hand, maybe it's silly for me to think that museums should be off-limits when other University assets are fair game. And on some other hand, this isn't even a very opportune time to be selling art. Ugh.
posted by COBRA! at 7:57 AM on January 27, 2009


The university appears, at first glance, to be saying 'we're in tough times, we don't use this museum much, and if we sell it off, we can maintain other programs.'

To which I would say, this is a non-renewable resource. More so than even professors, who you can get for the same price tomorrow that you pay today. Once this art is sold, you are never getting it back, and it will take either many times the money you get from a sale, or many decades, or both, before you will have a collection that matters again.

I will also add that "most of the art sits in the basement" is misleading. Many (all?) museums rotate art between storage and display (you can display 10 pieces each for 10% of the year instead of having a building that's 10x the size).
posted by zippy at 9:37 AM on January 27, 2009


Madoff's face entirely lacks the cardinal signs of the sociopathic conman, in my opinion.

He seems deeply melancholic, but at peace with both the world and himself, and resigned to his fate.

Nor do I get much of a hint from reports of how he's lived over the years of his fraud, what he managed to spend fifty billion dollars on.

Now add to those two things the fact that he preyed a lot, perhaps even mainly, on other Jews. And according to the excellent Newsweek article ericb linked, he demanded a four million dollar initial investment to participate in his scheme. There are attractive competing hypotheses, but I think that looks like he was trying to bilk only those he thought could afford to lose the money.

All this would be accounted for nicely, in my mind, if the bulk of the the money Madoff stole had gone under the table to Israel, to fund projects like that ridiculously expensive wall, for example.

Brandeis, ironically from this perspective, has been described as the last major institution in America which is the product of Jewish philanthropy; the last because Israel (founded the same year as Brandeis) has soaked up much of the charitable and philanthropic capital and concern of American Jews ever since.
posted by jamjam at 10:08 AM on January 27, 2009


This is my alma mater, and, while it sucks that they are closing the museum, really doesn't resonate with me one way or another. I can count on one finger the number of times I set foot in the museum as a student or alumnus. I think they did the best they could given the circumstances. In the alternative, they could have hit up the numerous Shapiro families whose names adorn buildings on campus to save the museum.
posted by LilBucner at 12:25 PM on January 27, 2009


I think there is something odd about this. The shortfall in the budget is $10 million ... so they want to sell an art collection worth $300+ million ? There are individual Warhol paintings in the collection worth what... $50 million?

Something is off...
posted by R. Mutt at 12:46 PM on January 27, 2009


In the alternative, they could have hit up the numerous Shapiro families ...

At least one Shapiro family (that of Carl Shapiro) got taken for a ride by Bernie Maddof.

Shapiro is believed to be the biggest victim, losing $400 million and the family's charitable foundation losing $145 million in Madoff's Ponzi scheme. They have been generous benefactors to Brandeis, as well as many non-profits (especially hospitals) in the Boston area.
posted by ericb at 1:02 PM on January 27, 2009


Something is off...

I didn't look at the numbers, but not necessarily. A budget shortfall is just for one year. An organization might be able to run a $10 million deficit and make it to next year. But what about next year? Another deficit rolling over into debt? Now at $20 million plus interest? And a year after that?

What it looks like they're trying to do is close the hole rather than keep patching the hole. They can't produce the funding to cover expenses. So what do you do - continue to let it limp along draining serious money year after year? Or just shut down the operation and stop the leak?
posted by Miko at 2:30 PM on January 27, 2009


If art is a public good -- and the notion of "museum" certainly presupposes that idea -- then it should be funded as such. Now these publicly-viewable works are going to be in the hands of private collectors who can admire them in the privacy their own homes, shove them in a warehouse while they wait for them to appreciate in value, and even piss all over them if the mood so strikes them.

Treepour, I'm not sure that I understand the concern. I agree, we should have publicly funded museums, but I'm not sure why that would preclude private collections. For example, Brandeis itself is a private institution. Museums are good, and we should fund them better than we do, but I'm not sure why we should be bothered that some Warhols are in private hands, certainly not so long as reproductions are available.

The market can entertain or even engage one's intellect, but it can't raise the level of discourse, it cannot enlighten -- and that's precisely why the production and maintenance of art should never be made to depend primarily on market forces (i.e., private donors).

Well, we have to consider opportunity cost. Professors can enlighten. If it comes down to Brandeis firing 10% of their profs or losing the gallery, I'd keep the profs. No society has an infinite amount of money to spend on cultural projects, and choices do need to be made.

Where we can agree: I think we both find it troubling that extremely rich people are paying historically low rates of income tax while cultural institutions go bankrupt.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:58 PM on January 27, 2009


Hard time for artists, too, I guess. It will be interesting to see the sales results, sheep and goatwise.

(Professors are cultural projects. Sort of.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:13 PM on January 27, 2009


Jasper Johns has spoken about it:

Mr. Johns, represented in the collection by the 1957 painting “Drawer,” which was on view in a large exhibition of his work last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said when notified on Tuesday of the closing: “I find it astonishing. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

posted by R. Mutt at 5:29 PM on January 27, 2009



Tyler Green's interview with Brandeis' Rose Art Museum Director Michael Rush.

MAN: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that the Rose had an endowment that, at its peak was at $20 million and that it's down about 25 percent because of the recent market drop. The Rose's donors gave that money to the Rose, not to Brandeis. So if Brandeis closes the Rose, does Brandeis essentially 'steal' that money?

MR: I don't know what to say about that. If the Rose is closed, yeah, the university would take it over.

posted by R. Mutt at 9:39 AM on January 28, 2009


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