Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #18: The Rose At 50, Part 1: Collecting

Opening reception, "Collecting Stories," The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University (photo thanks to the Slowmuse website).
By Carl Belz

The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis recently kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration with an exhibition called “Art at the Origin: The Early 1960s,” an event that a few years ago seemed to have been cut off at the neck with the announcement by then president Jehuda Reinharz that the museum would be closed and the collection sold in order to keep its host institution financially afloat. The exhibition highlights paintings acquired by founding director Sam Hunter, all of them new at the time—by artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg, Louis, Kelly, Warhol, and Lichtenstein—paintings that effectively, and in some cases controversially, identified the Rose with the art of our time. That identity persists into the present and is widely appreciated, as evidenced by “Collecting Stories,” the second part of the current exhibition, which is displayed in the museum’s spacious Lois Foster Gallery and consists of acquisitions by subsequent Rose directors during the past four decades, many of them by artists who, loud and clear, voiced their support for the Rose during the bleak months of its threatened demise.

I spent 24 years as director of the Rose prior to retiring at the close of the 1997-98 academic year. Returning on a recent weekend afternoon to see the anniversary exhibition, I found myself excited to be once more among valued old friends, especially the Abstract Expressionist, Pop, and post-painterly warhorses comprising “Art at the Origin” that I’d hung countless times while visually writing and rewriting the histories of contemporary art they told.
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University with Stephen Antonakos neon sculpture
Yet my spirits dipped as I continued from “Art at the Origin” to “Collecting Stories.” The past 40 years, represented by a little of this and a little of that, also included old friends—some of them personal, you might say, insofar as I was involved in their acquisition—but for me the selections lacked the visual and thematic unities that highlighted the “Origin” section of the exhibition; fewer in both size and number, they also seemed to pale in comparison to the museum’s first decade, leaving the impression—unintentional, I’m sure—that the Rose’s glory days of collecting had come and gone in the 60s. With that, I began having doubts about what the Rose had accomplished during my own tenure as director. Had it really been as visually fragmentary and aimless as it now looked? Had it in fact lacked cohesive intellectual substance? Even the Steve Antonakos neon we’d acquired for the Rose fa├žade in 1986 (see photo above), the signature and site-identifying commission I’d gone mano a mano with then president Evelyn Handler to have realized—even it had disappeared into storage. I felt in turn an urge to defend myself, to pen from my own perspective a few thoughts about the institutional history reflected in the current exhibition, including the mission that’s been publicized in conjunction with it. With your indulgence I offer them here.

Sam Hunter’s most important acquisitions comprise the Gevirtz-Mnuchin Collection of 21 artworks (hereafter GMC) that were purchased in 1962/63 with a one-time gift of $50K from Leon Mnuchin and members of his and his wife’s families. In the context of today’s art market, that $50K translates into an astronomical number and makes for a fabulous investment story—I could even add a chapter about the years I spent envying that $50K—but it’s not the story we’re interested in here. Which is:

(1) Ranging from AE through Pop and Color Field painting, the GMC represented a broad swath of contemporary expression, meaning its vision of the art of our time was bigger than smaller, more inclusive than parochial; as such, its presence would be felt in subsequent acquisitions by allowing wide latitude in their selection while encouraging depth at the same time. A balance of breadth plus depth, that was the ticket. But we don’t get that balance in the Lois Foster Gallery. We get a mix of genres, encountering realism (Gregory Gillespie), postminimalism (Ana Mendieta), and the feminist critique (Kiki Smith), for instance, and we thereby catch a glimpse of the edgy complexity of the 70s and the renewed expressionism of the 80s and 90s. Yet it’s a glimpse only; as far as the larger collection picture is concerned, we sense the range but are denied the richness, and we miss an important lesson about the content of the GMC. In fact, there’s plenty more to see where those isolated examples came from, including, for starters, major paintings by Bill Beckman and Agnes Martin and Joan Snyder, paintings that buttress significantly the kindred examples now in the gallery and demonstrate they are not as isolated as they appear. 
Joan Snyder, Painter, catalog for an exhibition with an essay by Carl Belz. Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, MA, April 15 - July 31, 1994.
(2) The fact that the GMC artworks were purchased rather than gifted signified a focused and proactive approach to shaping a fledgling collection and demonstrated a first principle in museum practice generally, which is: To sustain growth, you need funding, preferably endowed; you may be a developmental whiz, able to charm the birds from the trees in attracting gifts to your collection—which Sam Hunter seems very much to have been as well—but your credibility in selling your mission can be no better served than by putting your own money on the table to demonstrate that you really mean what you say.

That same proactive approach, signifying the Rose’s ongoing leadership in its field, has been supported increasingly by endowment since 1981 when the museum’s very first purchase fund was established. I remember the day. I remember sharing a congratulatory handshake with Vice President David Steinberg, with whom I had made the pitch for funding to the trustees of the Rose estate, who that day gave us $500K. I remember being thrilled that a major piece in our institutional puzzle, a piece missing since the museum’s opening 20 years before, was now in place. And would be there in perpetuity. And would thereby ease what had been my growing concern—that, in the absence of ongoing funding, the Rose would, by default, become a museum defined by the 60s alone. Take a look at the labels in the Lois Foster Gallery, they provide a subtext within the current exhibition that lets you see how those funds have proliferated and more fully appreciate the collection growth they’ve enabled.

(3) Prior to acquiring any pictures with his $50K gift, Sam Hunter wrote a memo to Brandeis president Abram Sachar—I came across a copy years ago, purely by chance—informing him of the gift and explaining that he, Sam, would be making the acquisitions and that they would be subject to no committee of any kind, otherwise the deal would be off. Wow, think about that, a truly free-wheeling image out of the past, like an image from another world, an image of museums “at the origin”—before they became “professional,” before spectacle and entertainment, before corporate support and the corporate model—museums before trustees and overseers whose worldly business success privileged them to tell seasoned museum experts how to conduct their museum’s intellectual and aesthetic business. Sam’s memo was prescient; you certainly wouldn’t find his acquisitions procedure in any museum handbook today, but that doesn’t mean its underlying concern isn’t still with us—as I learned the hard way with the Frank Stella acquisition that didn’t happen.

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

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

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