Saturday, December 11, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks #10: Disasters Averted, Mostly (Part 2)

By Carl Belz

Incident: I was called to the office of acting president Stuart Altman at the start of the 1990-91 academic year and told that $120K would be cut from the museum’s budget during the next two fiscal years. The goal was a museum that would not financially encumber the university, funding degree zero. On hearing that, I pretty much went into shock. What the bulk of that $120K consisted of, you see, was the payroll for the museum’s entire professional staff—curator, registrar, membership and events coordinator, and preparator. Fortunately, the directorship had recently been endowed, but wherever would we each year get $120K to keep the place going into the future? Through membership and occasional grants, we were already paying our own way for all of the exhibitions we mounted and the attendant catalogs we published, not to mention the lecture series and other special events that we additionally sponsored. The endowed Rose Purchase Fund enabled us to pursue acquisitions without cost to the university, while expenses for building maintenance were annually covered by yet another endowment that Vice President David Steinberg and I had established back in the late 1970s. Further developmental efforts—to the tune of $120K per year—seemed beyond our reach. Ironically, at the moment when we were close to becoming “a tub on its own bottom”—alas, David Steinberg, long our shield against capricious administration mischief, had left Brandeis in the early 1980s—it was suddenly not inconceivable that we might have to close our doors. Having come to believe that only endowment could secure the museum against future administrative indignities, I determined to build ours, and I elected to do so via deaccessioning.    

We’d done some deaccessioning before, back in the late 1970s when we sold at auction about 15 Old Master pictures, the majority of which turned out to be not Old Masters but rather “followers of” and “students of” and “circles of” Old Masters. We did this in the process of focusing on the modern as our institutional mission, and we did it with the consent of the university administration and after contacting, to the extent we were able, the donors of the pictures, a number of which had come to the university prior to the building of the Rose Art Museum. Per negotiation with the university, proceeds from the sale went into a growing endowment targeted for the museum’s general operation, and that was that. Accordingly, we followed the same procedure in 1990-91 when we deaccessioned and assigned to auction 13 late 19th and early 20th century pictures, including examples by Renoir, Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard. In doing so, we were increasingly identifying the Rose mission as being synonymous with the post-World War II founding of Brandeis University itself.

Outcome: By 1991, however, the cultural climate had shifted. We’d witnessed a decade’s worth of an upwardly spiraling art market so wild that it reminded some economists of tulip mania in the 1630s—a popular candidate for status as the world’s first investment bubble—and in turn alarmed veteran art observers with the thought that works of art were becoming mere speculative commodities. Among museum professionals, there spread concern that some institutions might start selling artworks just to meet their day-to-day expenses—as if they were corporate entities concerned only with the bottom line instead of with the public trust. The most audible voice in articulating that concern was the voice of the AAMD—the Association of Art Museum Directors—and its message was clear: Proceeds accruing from the deaccession and sale of works of art can only be used to make new acquisitions.

I don’t know what the AAMD is like now, but back in 1991 it was like an elite club of individuals representing our country’s wealthiest and most distinguished institutions. It was not, however, an association that just any art museum director could join—as I learned when I naively wrote to them saying I wanted to be a member. You had to apply for acceptance, and to apply for acceptance you had to have an institutional budget of at least $1M a year. I repeat, $1 million! Which left the Rose Art Museum, with its total budget of about half a million dollars at most, on the outside looking in. But which didn’t mean we weren’t on the AAMD’s radar screen. Far from it, as we learned when we were informed after its annual summer meeting in 1991 that the AAMD members, upon learning of our forthcoming sale—it was by no means a secret—had voted unanimously to sanction the Rose Art Museum. Which meant that the institutions they represented would to the Rose neither a borrower nor a lender be, which in turn left us in cultural limbo, adrift, without rank in the professional community with which we were identified. It was a bitter pill to swallow at the moment when we were trying to keep the museum alive, particularly as it came from a group we were prohibited from joining—and not for reasons having to do with our record of achievement, but because of a hoary caste system based on wealth. 

Limbo was not a fun place to be. I didn’t like it. My RAM teammates didn’t like it. Brandeis’s new president, Dr. Samuel Thier—who’d arrived on campus about the time the sanction had been imposed—didn’t like it. And by all accounts, the AAMD didn’t like it either. But with President Thier guiding the process, a compromise was agreed upon, to wit: Brandeis could determine the use of funds resulting from the sale of artworks given to the university prior to the establishment of the Rose Art Museum in 1961, while funds resulting from the sale of artworks given after the establishment of the museum would be used only for further acquisitions.

The auction took place in November 1991 and 12 of the 13 pictures sold, yielding approximately $3 million, which broke down as follows: $1 million went into the acquisitions endowment; $1 million went to an educational endowment requested by the donors of one of the pictures and agreed to by the president; and $1 million was used to establish a conservation and collections care endowment, which, when viewed properly through a creative lens, enabled me to ease steadily the $120K burden originally imposed by the interim administration’s budget cut, the one that precipitated this entire saga and all the discomfort that went with it. I sometimes think about that discomfort and the sagging morale it generated around the Rose in the months prior to the incident’s resolution, and I’m still briefly saddened when I do.

But then I also think about how Rose director Michael Rush must have felt on January 26, 2009 when he woke up and heard president Jahuda Reinharz announce that Brandeis had decided to close the museum and sell the permanent collection to compensate for the huge downturn in the university’s financial resources. Now there’s an incident that could not only sadden, it could actually break your heart. It did mine.

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


Charles Kessler said...

I can see people not distinguishing between what you did then and the true disaster of the Rose now. They are actually opposites: you deaccessioned to keep the Rose open and advance its mission; they wanted to close the museum altogether and sell off its collection to help bail out bad management decisions.

I never understood the deaccessioning taboo anyway, and my understanding is most artists don't get it either. The artists on the board of the New York Academy, for example, recently unanimously voted to sell some paintings to help the museum stay open. Maybe artists are just favorably bias toward selling art in general, but the AAMD could certainly lighten up a bit.

Annie said...

What a riveting saga. I love reading this stuff – not least because of your masterful, intriguing, and actually very, very entertaining use of language. My heart was in my throat, and my sense of outrage was stoked. And that you saved the current situation for the end of the post, even though we all know it, added to the dramatic tension. And this is real life!

Deborah Barlow said...

Yes, as Charles pointed out, there is deaccessioning to keep the institution afloat and then there is deaccessioning to rescue fiscal errors.

As an outsider looking in on this inner sanctum world of curators and the imposed standards, seems time to rethink what, how and why. I am sure there are other stories to tell, yours as well as others, about how this does and doesn't work.

Thanks for this. It makes for very interesting reading and provides a helpful context for what transpired subsequently at the Rose.