Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #19: The Rose at 50, Part 2: Education

By Carl Belz

With the survival of the Rose’s death threat, and strengthened by press releases issued from the office of new president Frederick Lawrence, discussion has pointed to the museum henceforth becoming more deeply embedded in the campus community and serving more effectively—maybe even serving exclusively—the university’s teaching mission, the goal being to become indispensable to its host institution as a whole. 

As the only director of the Rose who ever taught while at Brandeis, I submit the following on the subject of the museum’s relationship to the university community:

(1) I inherited the Charna Stone Cowen Student Loan Collection and kept it going throughout my tenure. It comprised prints, drawings and assorted artworks that were annually made available to students to hang in their dormitory rooms for $5 apiece. We periodically reviewed the collection to see if it contained objects that should be transferred to the permanent collection because of their increasing value. Early in my directorship, for instance, I found in the collection a wonderful 1942 David Smith bronze that I figured should be spared the hazards of the dormitory and sheltered more safely in my office. In any case, the program was always a big hit, a wonderful fringe benefit enhancing undergraduate life.
David Smith,  Table Torso, 1942, bronze, height 10 inches, formerly Charna Stone Cowen Student Loan Collection.
(2) I transformed the Rose Art Decorating Service (We Pick Up and Deliver) into a campus-wide operation. I learned early on that the museum was responsible for decorating the president’s suite and a few administrative offices, and, in an effort to beautify the Brandeis working environment and improve everyone’s quality of life—it was one of those utopian dreams I carried over from the 60s—I informally let it be known that members of the faculty and administration could borrow artworks from the Rose for their offices; they had only to make an appointment, spend an hour or so looking at pictures with our registrar, pick them out, and, subject to the director’s approval, we’d deliver and hang them. You probably figure I created a nightmare for Roger Kizik, our preparator, whose job it was to actually deliver and hang the pictures—as you can imagine, there was a resident art critic in every office complex—but he invariably met the challenge with aplomb and, mirabile dictu, became in the process a highly valued, campus-wide ambassador for the museum.  
Installation View, Judy Pfaff, Elephant, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, January 26 - March 5, 1995

(3) A significant amount of teaching took place in and around the Rose’s exhibition program, especially during the 1990s when, in a position newly created, education coordinator Corinne Zimmermann and curator Susan Stoops regularly worked with undergraduate interns in connection with special as well as ongoing projects. For a 1995 Judy Pfaff site-specific installation titled “Elephant,” a team of undergraduate concentrators from the Department of Fine Arts was enlisted to assist the artist throughout her creative process. Two years later, during a weeklong residency with Jonathan Borofsky on what he called “The God Project,” undergraduates from all academic departments were extended an open invitation to come to the museum anytime between 10 AM and 10PM, interact with the artist, make paintings expressing their spiritual beliefs, and then have those paintings exhibited in the company of several of Borofsky’s own works.

In addition, we periodically showcased work by members of the Department of Fine Arts studio faculty. I mounted a 1976 retrospective honoring the founder of the department, Mitchell Siporin, and a 1981 mid-career survey of paintings by Paul Georges. Group shows of the entire faculty, generally five or six artists, took place in 1982, 1987, and l994, the intervals informally determined via ongoing consults with the artists themselves. For each show, the artists individually presented gallery talks that I always enjoyed attending; coming in many cases from Yale’s graduate program, the painters in particular were culturally and intellectually informed, and, take it from me, they really knew how to talk.
Mitchell Siporin, Back of the Yards, 1938, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches, (Smithsonian American Art Museum, #1971.447.83).
(4) After becoming director of the Rose, I continued to teach a lecture course or seminar each spring on the history of contemporary art, and I also worked with individual students in one-on-one independent studies. Occasionally, either on my own or in tandem with an art department colleague, I was able to supervise an exceptional student in preparing an exhibition that was mounted in one of our public galleries. In any of these cases, however, my new base of operations radically affected my teaching. Instead of relying on slides alone, the age-old art historical practice, I had ready access to a broad spectrum of physical objects I could present to students for face-to-face, in-the-flesh encounters. Within a couple of years, I also realized I could introduce them to the context within which I was responsible for collecting and exhibiting those objects, so I initiated a bi-annual spring semester seminar on museum methods and procedures. The seminar ranged from practical challenges to ethical and aesthetic speculations, and it regularly included progress reports on the major exhibition I annually prepared for the close of the academic year—updates from the real world, you might call them. It was a seminar I personally had never taken, a seminar that didn’t even exist when I was in college or graduate school, a seminar whose content was derived not from theory but from my own day-to-day, ongoing, always enlightening, on-the-job training.

The educational programming outlined above, which was partly academic and partly administrative (read service oriented), was fully in place during Evelyn Handler’s tenure as Brandeis president, which was from 1983 through 1991. I reported directly to her office, and our meetings generally focused on development and administration. From the outset, for instance, President Handler directed me to beef up my small advisory committee into a full-fledged Board of Overseers that would “give, get, or get out,” as it was put at the time. Further on, she shared with me her wish that all Brandeis undergraduates would visit the museum at least once before they graduated. Thus did we become poised, she and I, for an ongoing and sometimes uneasy tug of war about the Rose’s intellectual or philosophical identity and program, about its institutional purpose—about whether it was first of all academic or administrative or developmental.

While working on the mandate to expand our Board of Overseers, I sought to finesse the second directive by explaining that Team Rose conceived its educational mission not as serving legions of students with a one-time taste of culture, but as serving them in numbers small enough to enable in-depth, lasting experiences. In treating aesthetic encounters as educational in and of themselves, we equated those encounters with knowledge traditionally gleaned in the classroom. Beyond service, then, and by way of intellectual (read academic) content, we conceived our exhibitions and publications as contributing to the ongoing discourse surrounding the art of our time. And, finally, we were in turn gratified by the number of students—large or small, depending on your perspective—who absorbed that mission, among them, Adam Weinberg, now Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Gary Tinterow, now the Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Kim Rorschach, now Director of the Nasher Museum at Duke University; and—ever near and dear to my ex-jock athletic heart—Doug Stark, now Director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum in Newport, Rhode Island.

Does any or all of this programming—or maybe some variation on it—represent the kind of embeddedness that translates into indispensability? The question is not hypothetical, as I learned to my alarm on a lovely spring afternoon back in the late 1980s when President Handler told me during a reception at the Rose that I was not going to like what she was going to do to “my” museum. That’s all she said. What she meant, I had no idea. Only later did I hear secondhand that she was planning something draconian, like selling part or all of the collection. But whatever the plan, it never left the boardroom, because, as I was also told, steadfast opposition led by university trustee and devoted museum supporter Dr. Henry Foster instead prevailed. Thus did the question seem to become hypothetical, at least for a while—until it became again very much not hypothetical with the 2009 Jehuda Reinharz announcement. And now? I’d say it’s now not only not hypothetical, it’s very real and immediate, central to any discussion of the museum’s identity and mission at the moment it readies itself to move ahead under a new director.

(This is the second part of a three-part post)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

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