Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Eye on the Ball (UPDATED)

I feel like something odd has happened to the Rose Museum debate lately.

When it was first announced, everyone thought Brandeis was closing the museum and selling off its entire collection. The lede of the Jan. 26 Boston Globe article that broke the news was: "Rocked by a budget crisis, Brandeis University will close its Rose Art Museum and sell off a 6,000-object collection that includes work by such contemporary masters as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Nam June Paik." The New York Times story the next day led with "The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum"; Rob Storr was quoted as saying "It couldn’t be a worse time to sell expensive art."

The initial wave of outrage took off from there. The best example of the genre was probably Roberta Smith's Feb. 1 New York Times essay, less than a week after the initial announcement. She started from the fact that "the university’s trustees voted unanimously to trash the institution by closing it and auctioning off the 6,000 works in its collection." The message this sent, she argued, was that "art is dispensable."

But since that time, the university has either (a) clarified or (b) backtracked (take your pick) from the original announcement; they now say (1) the Rose will not be closed but instead converted into some sort of research and study center plus gallery (the exact shape of which shall be determined by a faculty-student-trustee committee) and (2) rather than selling off the entire 6,000-work collection, they will sell "a limited number" of pieces "if the need arises in the future." Nothing will be sold in the current market.

It seems to me, though, that the nature of the outrage hasn't kept pace with the facts on the ground. It no longer seems fair to say that Brandeis has "trashed" the arts, that art no longer has a place on campus, etc. As I've noted before, the new version of the Rose sounds very much like what Smith's NYT colleague Holland Cotter has argued a campus art museum should be.

So now the discussion really ought to be about the conversion of the Rose from one sort of institution to another. Why must it remain forever as it was? What's wrong with a research and study center plus gallery? I suppose there might be good reasons to prefer one to the other. But I don't see where outrage comes into it any longer.

UPDATE: Paddy Johnson agrees: "The tone of this conversation should change."