roborig (Brandeis ’77) , is an artist and political activist blogging under the name Itinerant Activist, currently working on Progressive Media Reform Issues. This issue is about how art, politics and the economic crisis collide.
“The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns;
the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose.”
– Kahlil Gibran
I was utterly shocked, furious, heartsick and frankly, ashamed, when, earlier this week, I received a late night alumni email, a letter from Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz (himself a Brandeis alumnus, PhD ’72, so, shame on him, he should know better!) announcing that the Board of Trustees had voted unanimously to close The Rose Art Museum and liquidate the entire art collection in order to “sustain our core academic mission.” This decision seemed to have been made unequivocally, without exploring any other options and without vital input from the wider Brandeis community or the greater Arts community. The next morning, the story was on the front page of the Boston Globe (Ailing Brandeis will shut museum, sell treasured art:No other choice says president), the front of the Arts section of The New York Times (Outcry Over a Plan to Sell Museum’s Holdings), coverage on NPR (and a followup the next day) with many additional articles following as word spread about the decision. I started getting phonecalls and emails from many Brandeis related friends who were as outraged and upset as I have been.
The Board of Trustees and the President do not seem to understand the colorblind implications of their rash decision. As a Brandeis graduate who has chosen to be a full time working artist (although I successfully studied both Academics and Fine Arts equally at Brandeis), and has worked at a museum in the early 1980s (in the Textile Conservation Department of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which ironically has problems of its own, the article appearing on the very same day (!) as the article about the Rose ), I am still always stunned when the Arts are seen only as a commodity; a way to subsidize other supposedly more important or more valuable programs and commitments, rather than be recognized as the integral, priceless achievements of a civilized society. How can a University such as Brandeis, founded on the heels of the Holocaust fall into this trap? The Board of Trustees and the President have sent a message to the entire student body as well as to the larger community that the culmination of artistic pursuit is only valuable for its financial value, thereby undermining their own educational mission. Even the Nazis understood the symbolic value when they seized and preserved great works of art and Hitler famously said “No state lasts longer than the documents of its culture.” Too bad he didn’t understand that the artists, the artwork and the culture are all intimately connected and cannot be separated. Historically, it has always been artists and their artwork, along with journalists, that are the first to be suppressed and purged from societies that are closing down and becoming less democratic.
One of my earliest memories is of going to the Museum of Modern Art on weekend mornings with my parents. For years, right inside the entrance, was a huge painting. I stood in front of that powerful painting many times over the years until it was suddenly gone. That painting, which decades earlier had been banned along with its painter, as a symbol of resistance to fascism and war, was returned to Spain, when after the death of Francisco Franco, it threw off the tyranny of fascism and became a democracy once again. That painting is Guernica, by Pablo Picasso. This is the real power of a great work of art, not just its dollar value.
FDR implicitly understood the importance of art and artists when he included them as part of the WPA plan for driving the recovery of the economy during the Great Depression. In the current economic crisis, this action by the Brandeis Board of Trustees sends a terrible message, one that I fear will be mimicked by other institutions who decide that the arts can be sacrificed.
If the Brandeis Trustees and Administration go through with this fire sale (which is what it will be in the current economic downturn given reports of plummeting art sales) it will be a tragedy that can never be righted. When I was a Brandeis undergraduate in the 1970’s, in another difficult economy, there were massive student protests, sit-ins and a building takeover to contest the seemingly unmovable budget, program and personnel cuts made by another oblivious Board of Trustees without any consultation with or involvement by the greater Brandeis community, that ultimately drove the University to reconsider and restructure their decisions toward a more creative and less drastic solution. Let’s hope that we can convince them to do the same again.
“The greatest dangers to liberty lurk
in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal,
well meaning but without understanding.”
– Louis D. Brandeis
Write letters opposing the Closing of the Rose Art Museum:
– Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz: email@example.com
-VP of Development, Myles Weisenberg: firstname.lastname@example.org
Send copies of letters to:
the petition sponsors
students organizing in protest:
Rebeccah Ulm: email@example.com
Maarit Ostrow: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Inner Most Parts: email@example.com
Brian Friedberg: firstname.lastname@example.org
Penelope Taylor: email@example.com
UPDATE: There will be a featured segment about this issue on Thursday morning, February 5th on the Jeff Santos Show on WWZN 1510AM BOSTON, 6-9am.
More Articles About the Rose Art Museum decision:
My friend and colleague Richard Rockford ’69 writes, Here are some of the real questions to ask:
1. What is the role of Brandeis’ endowment? Is it an emergency fund? An income earner? How much of it is used for what? Is it a part of yearly budget, or is it a fund that is tapped only for capital projects, like new buildings, etc?
2. Is the school loosing operating money on a regular basis? In other words, does it yearly spend more than it takes in from tuition and grants, etc? Can the school operate without a deficit if it adds no facilities or staff in any given year?
3. What about all this other stuff that was looked at-expanding into summer sessions, less faculty, raising tuition, combining programs/disciplines/departments, etc? What were the numbers there? Why would a “slow, careful, and deliberate” sale of art help out? ( NOT that that was the original idea or that that concept reached the media-it was more like “come get all the art-now!). Did anybody forsee the uproar and bad publicity in the art sale? What will this situation cost the University? If all universities are suffering the effects of the economy and scandals in personal fortunes, why is Brandeis the only one known to have an art “fire sale” as a remedy?
4. And, in the irony department, why did the school drop this bomb on the alumni and the public (who seems to have certainly noticed the event!) without floating the reasons and the other choices and discussions beforehand? If we learned anything at Brandeis in my day, it was that important issues dropped on the relevant bodies by a hierarchy beyond our influence was a recipe for…..well….let’s not be too radical here….”undemocratic, usually unfair, and paternalistic control”. (And to think I actually was a very conservative student relative to many in my Brandeis days!).
5. By the way, what exactly is the type, amount, and cost of “aligning” Brandeis with the 21st Century? Where is the college going, and is it upward in standards and quality?