Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rose-colored glasses (UPDATED)

Christopher Knight acknowledges that the "modest level" of attendance at the Rose Art Museum — reportedly about 13,000 to 15,000 annual visitors — "might suggest to some that losing the Rose and its art collection wouldn't be so dire." But, he argues, that "would be a mistaken impression." "Why," he asks, "should the state of the museum's general popularity have anything to do with ... its fate? ... An average rate of about 50 visitors a day might imply that students with course requirements and area art-junkies are the only ones attending. If so, that's OK. With costs covered, the quality of the experience, not the quantity, is what counts." "In fact," he adds, "a degree of obscurity, relatively speaking, is one of the great charms of the Rose's collection."

He's absolutely right that, to a strict anti-deaccessionist, it doesn't matter whether a museum gets 50 visitors a day or 50 visitors a year. If you look at the reasons they give for their position, none has anything to do with the level of popularity of the museum. If "art is not a commodity to be bought and sold like chairs and trucks," then that is so whether five people come to see it a year or five million. If a museum's collection is "held in trust" for the public, then that likewise does not depend on the number of visitors to the museum. And if your concern is the slippery slope -- that if you allow even the 50-visitor-a-year museum to deaccession, all hell will break loose -- popularity is once again irrelevant.

So the strict anti-deaccessionist is untroubled by the fact that Rose gets fewer than 300 visitors a week. But here's another thought experiment. What if Brandeis sold the entire museum -- the building and the collection -- to another institution and they just airlifted it to a new location in the Boston-area, except now, instead of 50 visitors a day they got 5,000? What would be wrong with that? We're back to the Ellis Rule: as long as the transaction does not result in decreased public access to the work, why should we object?

In any event, as I mentioned earlier this week, it seems that we're no longer facing the prospect of "losing the Rose and its art collection." Lately Brandeis has been talking not about closing the Rose, but converting it into a different kind of institution -- "a teaching and exhibition gallery that is even more fully integrated into University life and the academic enterprise." A committee has been formed to consider the possible shapes it might take, and I should think that one of the things they will look at is the museum's "general popularity" -- how many visitors it gets, who those visitors are, etc. If, for example, it turns out that it is largely used by Brandeis students anyway, then maybe turning it into a teaching space wouldn't be such a tragedy after all.

UPDATE: And this Regina Hackett post is a good example of the phenomenon I mentioned the other day of the outrage level not keeping up with the facts on the ground. Her outrage meter is still turned all the way up: she refers to "the degenerate sons and daughters who now run Brandeis," and says "[i]n a time of terrible losses, while wars grind on and the economy continues to fall apart, the Brandeis board stands out for its ignorance and stunning disrespect." (Really? In a time of grinding wars and a falling-apart economy, this decision -- to convert a university museum into a study center and gallery for students and possibly sell a "limited number" of pieces at some point in the future -- stands out for its ignorance?) In the same post, Hackett herself praises the Rose as "a place where students can go to engage with the art of their time." As I've said, it now seems that that will still be the case after the Rose is reconfigured.