How Deaccessioning Rules Doomed the Rose Art Museum

Shortly after posting my blog entry on Brandeis and the Rose Art Museum this morning, I received a series of unsigned emails, demanding that I take the blog down, asking that I hand over not only my own phone number but that of my editor, and accusing me of "multiple" (if unspecified) "factual errors".

Eventually the man behind the emails called me: he wouldn’t identify himself except for as a "concerned friend of the university", but in fact he’s David Nathan, director of communications in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at Brandeis.

He attributed to me many things I never said, including the idea that it’s "simple" to spend Brandeis’s endowment funds. (To the contrary, I said that "endowments are complicated things, made up of thousands of separate and earmarked bequests; they’re not big monoliths which can easily and simply be spent down in the event of a fiscal crunch".) But he did confirm for me that the reason the Rose Art Museum is being closed has everything to do with deaccessioning rules.

Brandeis has been saying that it’s not going to be selling off all of the Rose Art Museum’s art at once — or even, necessarily, any of it at all. So I asked Nathan why the musem needed to be shut down, if the university is going to hold on to the vast majority of its art for the near future.

Nathan told me that the reason is that selling art which is part of a museum is very difficult indeed. Clearly, Brandeis has come to the conclusion that by shutting down the museum, it can ignore all rules pertaining to deaccessioning, and worry only about the strings attached by donors to individual artworks.

Nathan also said something else which was extremely interesting to me: apparently all of the Rose Art Museum’s artworks are considered to be assets of the university endowment, valued at $1 each. All the proceeds from the sale of any artwork, then, is automatically a desperately-needed capital gain for the endowment.

On NPR Wednesday, Brandeis’s president, Jehuda Reinharz, said that he’d received a phone call from the donor of a Warhol worth over $1 million, saying that the university came first, and giving Brandeis full permission to sell the painting if it needed to.

But even if the donor was perfectly happy for Brandeis to sell the Warhol, the Association of Art Museum Directors would not have been, and neither (understandably) would the museum’s director. So it seems that for the sake of doing an end-run around the objections of the AAMD and the museum’s executives, Brandeis decided to close the museum entirely.

Had it not been for the deaccessioning rules, then, the Rose Art Museum might well have lived. There’s a good chance that its director would have resigned in protest at his art being sold from underneath him, but then he would simply have been replaced by someone more complaisant, a bit like the publisher of the LA Times. It would have been a deplorable outcome, but still one preferable to what we’re facing today. (Sorry, Tyler, but the loss of a few artworks — especially if they’re sold to other museums — really is preferable to the loss of an entire museum.)

And Brandeis should really reconsider its public-relations strategy here. I have no problem with Brandeis officials taking issue with my blog entries; I do, however, have a problem with them trying to bully me into taking them down. And I have a very big problem indeed with them trying to do so anonymously, without revealing their affiliation to the university.

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