Thursday, January 29, 2009

Think about it

I want to say a little more about why, contra my friend Sergio, I think it's unhelpful to speak of the Brandeis decision as a "deaccessioning."

It seems to me that the word is simply a conversation-stopper. Its function is to prevent debate, prevent discussion.

The question before the Brandeis trustees - the question people are continuing to debate - is whether, given the school's financial situation, given its broader goals, given what else would have to be sacrificed if it decided not to sell, it makes sense to sell some or all of the Rose's collection.

That's obviously a very difficult question, and one that I think none of us observing the situation from afar is in a position to really answer.

The Brandeis trustees thought the answer was yes, that selling art was the least of the various evils it faces as a result of the financial crisis. As John Lisman, a biology professor who has taught at Brandeis since 1975, put it in this morning's Boston Globe story: "To give away a family heirloom is a really painful thing. But the overall question is, to ensure the long-term health of the university, what do you do? Maybe you just reduce every department by a third. Do you think leaving every academic weakened is a better option that the Rose option?''

It's entirely possible they were wrong about that.

But calling what they're doing a "deaccessioning" is intended to avoid (or at least has the effect of avoiding) all of those difficult questions. It's intended to shut off all thought. Once we know we're dealing with a deaccessioning, we don't have to grapple with any of the hard questions, don't have to think about what other university programs should be cut instead, which academic departments should sacrifice and how. When we see a deaccessioning, we don't have to think at all: there is a "rule" that applies to deaccessionings, and that rule tells us that you may never sell works of art (except when you can) because they are "held in trust" (except when they're not).

When I first read Brandeis provost Marty Kraus's comment last night that closing the museum "would provide the university more freedom," I assumed she meant freedom to sell. But now I wonder if she didn't mean freedom to think.