Brandeis: Selling Off or Selling Out?

Would you sell off your precious family jewels to save your house?

That’s how Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is presenting the quandary it’s in these days.

Nearly two weeks ago, the university announced that because of a severe budgetary crisis, it would be closing its art museum and selling its 6,000-piece art collection, including major works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and more — great works by many of the greatest masters of 20th century art. The Brandeis collection could be worth as much as $350 million, according to initial estimates.

What those first reports didn’t say is that such a sale might be illegal — that many of those art works may have been donated to the school under binding agreements that would not allow them to be sold. The initial reports also didn’t mention that the art market stinks right now, so it would not be the best time to sell even the best pieces.

They also didn’t say that Brandeis has tried this before — selling its art that is — and failed because of community outcry.

So now the Massachusetts attorney general is reportedly looking into the conditions on the sale of Brandeis’ artworks, and meanwhile various revelations about the university’s plans have been dribbling out, even as petitions to save the art and to save the school’s Rose Art Museum — a small jewel in and of itself — have been circulating madly.

Hearing the call, Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis’ president, has pulled back somewhat, saying that because the trustees are aware there may be some restrictions and that the art market is down, the school may not immediately sell all of the collection. What might go first, though, has not been revealed. Nevertheless, he said that the museum will close permanently this summer — its annual attendance, according to a report in The New York Times, is just 13,000 to 15,000, small by any museum standard. The space, argues Reinharz, could be better used for classrooms and a smaller gallery.

But it was in a statement quoted in The Times, that Reinharz showed his hand:

“Choosing between and among important and valued university assets is terrible, but our priority in the face of hard choices will always be the university’s core teaching and research mission.”

And that’s where he lost me.

When I think of Brandeis’ art collection, I am more than sentimental. I am fiercely protective, because for me — and many others like me — it was a revelation. I am a child of the Rose Art Museum. As an art history undergraduate, I served as an intern there, cataloging a part of the collection that had been recently donated. The works I inventoried weren’t masterpieces, but getting to hold those fine artworks in my hands, to measure them and examine their conditions, left a lasting impression. It set me on a path that led to a graduate degree in art history, several years as a museum curator and, ultimately, more than two decades as an art writer and editor.

I learned about art hands-on, in the way that a student working with mice in a lab might learn about medical science.

And this is why I believe this matter needs attention, even here in California. Because university art collections — be they at UCLA, USC or Cal State Long Beach or many others — all offer students and outside visitors alike a doorway into one special world of creative genius otherwise unfathomable on the college campus. To experience real art — not from a slide, not from a book, not from the Internet — is a visceral experience we cannot afford to lose.

And what’s most troubling here is that even in the hallowed halls of a top school like Brandeis, art is being treated as a commodity, as dollar signs divorced from the heart and soul it was intended to reveal.

But, what’s a school on the precipice to do?

Brandeis was badly wounded by the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scam. Some of its major donors were hit. One philanthropic couple, Carl and Ruth Shapiro, reportedly lost $545 million. The downturn in the stock market also has left the school’s endowment radically diminished, and Massachusetts law restricts the school to spend only gains, not capital, from its endowment.

So Brandeis says it is searching for a way to survive.

Last week, Peter French, Brandeis’ chief operating officer, gave an exclusive interview to the online journal, The Daily Beast, in which he said that the school has been “faced with the prospect of closing 40 percent of the university’s buildings, reducing staff by an additional 30 percent or firing 200 of its 360 faculty members.” Selling the art, he stressed, was a better option.

But is this dire situation really without any other recourse? Two days later, Reinharz told 200 students that he had no mandate to sell quickly, and that an upturn in the stock market, or generous donations (a hint?) might overturn the decision on the art, though he plans to close the museum, regardless.

In a climate of tough choices — and without fully reaching out to his community (why didn’t I get an alumni call?) — Reinharz has put his cards on the table.

Other institutions are no doubt also taking painful measure of their options. Yeshiva University lost an estimated $140 million from the Madoff fund collapse. Will it sell a precious treasure to close the operating gap?

Hadassah lost $90 million and already has let go most of its esteemed magazine staff. Will the publication survive?

Brandeis, without its art, would still be a good school, albeit diminished. Much of the collection was purchased long before the artists were famous, and the works have accrued in monetary value over a long period of time. But more than just assets on the balance sheet, they have added tremendous value to the school and its students. Many have been displayed in exhibitions worldwide, in addition to being used as teaching tools. All that would be gone.

So, let us all listen to the outcry against Brandeis and remember, as we look to cut our losses these days, that our decisions about what or who shall stay and what or who shall go will reveal much about our priorities and values as a community.

At the end of all this, when this crunch is over — and we know that even the worst economic crises do end — we will have to ask ourselves this question: In saving ourselves, did we lose ourselves?