One of the most scandalous aspects of l’affair Brandeis/Rose is the fact that the Rose doesn’t need any money, and is essentially being raped by its parent. Donors to the Rose Art Museum probably never stopped to wonder whether their paintings might end up being sold against the museum’s wishes by Brandeis University.
But this economic crisis is revealing just how powerless museums can be when it comes to the fate of their own art. And it’s not just at Brandeis:
That $140 million Jackson Pollock painting at the University of Iowa may be headed for the auction block… Legislative leaders are quietly talking about ordering the sale of the painting, which would outrage the university and art aficionados — but not many other people in the state… Although University of Iowa officials have sworn that the painting will not be sold… lawmakers say the legislature does have the power to order the sale.
While I’m much less doctrinaire on the subject of deaccessioning than many in the art world, and while I can even color a case for moving Mural, I’m quite clear that the Iowa legislature should not have the unilateral ability to order such a thing. At least no one is suggesting that the Iowa legislature shut down the University of Iowa Museum of Art entirely — but presumably they could do that too, if they were so inclined.
Even if this never happens, and even if the Rose Art Museum miraculously lives, the events of the past couple of weeks will have far-reaching consequences for museums across the country. From now on in, it’s going to be much more difficult for any museum which isn’t a standalone entity to rustle up donations — and when they do get such donations, they’re likely to be encumbered with all manner of very tightly-written covenants and restrictions on what can and cannot be done with the art.
In the wake of the Rose affair, I’ve changed my mind on Mural: if the museum still wants it (and of course the museum still wants it), the museum must be able to hold onto it. The situation in Iowa is a bit different from the situation at Brandeis, because the University of Iowa Museum of Art is not self-sustaining in the way that the Rose Art Museum is. But if the museum does end up needing to sell some paintings, they should be non-core works chosen by the museum to minimize any damage done by the deaccessioning.
Anybody setting up an art museum has to let that museum take full control of, and responsibility for, its artworks. They can’t reserve the right — as Brandeis and Iowa clearly have done — to overrule the museum and force a destructive liquidation of key assets.
In extremis, museums can still be forced into certain actions against their will: look at the Barnes Foundation, for instance. But moving the Barnes was rightly a very difficult thing to do. Closing the Rose, or selling Iowa’s Pollock, seems altogether far too easy.