Saturday, June 19, 2010

Introducing Carl Belz

Carl Belz will be writing occasionally for Left Bank Art Blog. From 1974 - 1998 Carl was director and curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and has taught Art History for much longer. He was my professor at UMass Amherst in the sixties, and has been a mentor and friend for almost fifty years.  He was the most impassioned and charismatic teacher I ever had, and he inspired hundreds of his students to become interested in art (including Deborah Wye, who will be retiring in September as Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA).

Carl worked with many of the major artists of our time and has remained an inspiring teacher. I'm looking forward to learning about his experiences and some of what he's learned over the years. Here's the first installment of I hope many.
--Charles Kessler

Curatorial Flashbacks: Valuing Art
by Carl Belz

I spent 24 years as director/curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham MA. Yes, that Brandeis, the one that announced in January 09 its intention to close the museum, sell the permanent collection to help pay bills that had been piling up around campus since the start of the current recession, and turn the building itself over to the Department of Fine Arts for use as student and faculty studios. The announcement felt like a dagger in the heart, not just to me, but to countless others across the country who've known, or known about, the Rose since its founding in 1961 and have admired its ongoing contribution to our understanding of the modern and contemporary visual arts.

It's not the first time I've seen a Brandeis president drool over the prospect of turning the university collection into a cash cow, yet I've never been able to believe it could actually happen. Thinking about it now, however, I shudder as I recall the current president proudly announcing-this was about 15 years ago-that the university would henceforth be run on the model of corporate America. Yikes! From that perspective, it goes without saying, the collection objects become mere commodities, appreciated for their market value instead of their esthetic content, which is their value as human expressions of thought and feeling. This, mind you, in the name of Louis Dembitz Brandeis, who must surely be turning in his grave.

Questions about value remind me of the time, early in my tenure at the Rose, when we had a break-in and attempted robbery at the museum, an incident that, surprisingly enough, kind of articulated how I'd felt about art's value all along, and how I continue to think about it even now.

It was a spring evening, and our exhibition comprised pictures from the permanent collection by heavy hitters such as Robert Motherwell, Willem deKooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Fairfield Porter, and Marsden Hartley, to name a few. Three young men smashed a clerestory window at the rear of the building, jumped to the floor of a gallery situated below ground level, and raced up a flight of stairs to the desk inside the front entrance, which is where our head guard was stationed when we were open to the public, and where we kept the museum's unlocked cash box containing, as I recall, seven or eight dollars. The would-be felons took the petty cash and bolted out the front door but then found they'd lingered too long in the museum-a couple of them suffered cuts going through the broken window-for they were quickly apprehended and removed to the slammer.

Naturally enough, we were all relieved. In our first real-life test, everything had worked as it was supposed to work: the alarms had sounded, campus security had responded immediately, the Waltham police had cooperated fully in the process, and we at the museum were in turn rewarded with renewed confidence in our security system and the personnel required to make it effective.

And then there was a bonus, which the head of campus security told me about a day or so after the incident. He said that one of the three young men had, on being questioned, made a confession of sorts when he lamented, "That was a really stupid thing to do, 'cause there was nothing in the building but art." Wow! Nothing but art! I loved it. Art as nothing but itself, of no use or value, Yet, and equally, nothing gives meaning more than art, nothing presents itself so independently of me or thee and thereby models what we might be. And what, I wondered, could be more valuable than that? In any case, that's how one of the Rose Art Museum mantras came into being, the one we invoked whenever we goofed up by misplacing an object in storage, bumping into a sculpture while backing up to sight and hang a painting, or inadvertently hanging an abstract painting upside down, the one that went, "Good thing it's nothing but art!"


jessica lenard said...

Charles - I enjoyed your blog - I'm sure you know Irene shares space at my studio. I actually have a piece in the Rose museum art collection entitled "June Bug Days" whether it ever made it out of the basement I do not know but I am certainly dismayed to hear it closed (is closing) I had actually heard that and was hoping it was a rumor, but obviously not. Thanks for writing an interesting blog - Jessica Lenard

Unknown said...

Thanks, Charles. Nice to meet Carl Belz. Interesting article. Sorry to hear.

Charles Kessler said...

For those of you that don't know about the Rose scandal, here's an excerpt from a scathing article by Roberta Smith: The Brandeis vote was an act of breathtaking stealth and presumption: a raid on a museum that supports itself, raises its own funds and has consistently planned wisely for its own future without leaning on the university. The trustees treated it nonetheless as a disposable asset.

Brandeis backed off closing the museum (so far), but here's an update about artists raising money for a legal fund to stop Brandeis from selling their collection: