A couple of weeks ago, Lindsay Pollock ran a panel on the current state of the artmarket for the X-Initiative. The event was held in Chelsea. Earlier we ran a part of the transcript where Lindsay talked with Jeffrey Deitch. Here is her back-and-forth with Michael Rush on the state of play between Brandeis and his not-for-profit institution, The Rose Museum:
Michael Rush: Essentially, what happened on January 26, which was the day it was announced that the Rose Art Museum was closing and the collection was going to be sold, that remains the truth. The story really has not changed. There has been some backsliding in terms of language, in terms of “maybe it will just be a partial sale of the collection,” or if the economy gets better, there will be no sales, although that was only said once and I haven’t heard that again. So basically, I can give you the facts and I can give you my impression of these facts.
The simple story here, and really this is the only story here – as far as I can say, the university decided that they needed a fix for a dire financial situation. They looked at the collection, they looked at the asset of the collection, and decided, “This is a way out of our fix.”
I asked the president, “Are you telling us that that is your plan to solve the financial difficulties of Brandeis University?” and he said, “Yes.” I said, “Would you please repeat that? Your plan to solve the financial difficulties of Brandeis University is to sell the collection of the art museum?” He said, “Yes.” That’s the story.
The rest of it, all the stuff that you’re reading, which is great…I want to thank everybody here and people from around the world who are supporting us. There’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of PR comments that say this and that, but the basic story, which has not changed, is that the collection is for sale to help with the financial difficulty, end of story.
Do you think there’s a chance it can be stopped?
Likelihood, no. I think there’s a chance. I live ever hopeful that this decision can be reversed, but I must say that in order for the Rose, the historically significant Rose Art Museum to remain viable, the decision must be reversed, and we must be given a legally-binding consent that this cannot happen again. We’ve already lost all of our donors, obviously, memberships and so forth. There’s no way that this institution can survive without a complete reversal and a legal ban that this can’t happen again, otherwise, who would support it, who would contribute to it?
How were the museum’s finances prior to that announcement in January?
The museum’s finances were fine. We were an independent entity of Brandeis University. There are several entities on the campus of Brandeis that are financially independent. We were facing the difficulties that everyone else was, but our budget, our fundraising was on track, and we had upwards of 16, 18 million dollars of endowments, which, of course, are suffering.
That’s another thing that’s important to stress, if anybody is ever suggesting to you or that you read that the museum is being closed because of the museum’s financial difficulties, it has nothing to do with that. We were financially fine, and in fact, 15 percent of our gifts that we raised goes to the university to help support the university.
What do you think about the New York legislation that’s being proposed to regulate it?
I think it’s fantastic, and the legislator, Brodsky, is a graduate of Brandeis University. I think it’s extraordinary that the state would consider making it law that institutions cannot sell their art for profit, to help with financial difficulties. I can tell you there is an initiative now afloat, we’re meeting with a legislator in Massachusetts in two weeks, and hopefully a similar bill will be introduced in Massachusetts. That’s a hope, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but the wheels are in motion for that to happen in Massachusetts, as well.
What does the situation mean for other nonprofits, museums, universities, what have you been hearing from your colleagues?
I think that situation rang a lot of alarm bells for the nonprofit world. Although I run an institution that essentially has eclipsed all of the collection. I think the message that it’s sent is that there are no rules, and it makes one feel that the steadiness of the sun rising in the morning may not be quite as steady.
It’s a shocking thing to hear that a university is going to sell a collection. Obviously, the economy is taking its toll on the nonprofit world. We’ve had to cut our budgets significantly, I’ve had to lay off staff. It’s a difficult time, no question about it. I think my sense of all of this is that we are now looking at a two-year horizon in which we’re going to have to manage our budgets very carefully and look at the income and the expenses and hope we can stabilize and find an equilibrium.
What lessons do you think other museum directors can take away from your experience?
Ambien really can help. The five milligrams, the tens they used to make…I don’t know.
I think it’s interesting that we’re focusing on the money. This conversation about the art world, when there were good times, we were saying, “It’s all about the money,” and now that it’s bad times, “It’s all about the money.” Maybe it’s all about the money.
I think maybe whatever is happening can move us beyond the money in a certain way. Maybe that’s the upside of all this, I’m not sure. I do think that times of stress, like this, do produce creativity, yes, that’s true.
But the lessons…personally, I feel, hopefully, that I’ve learned some lessons on leadership, humanity, talking to people…one of the most shocking things about being in this whole experience is that nobody in university administration has even talked to this small staff of really good people that were working with the university and say anything human, like, “Sorry we had to do this, we know you disagree, how can we help you?” Any sort of human, across the aisle gesture has been totally absent. So I would say, hopefully, I’ve learned a little bit about humanity. I hope I had some before all this, but I learned a little more about it.
I learned, also, how not to behave in panic situations. I really believe the administration at Brandeis, and others are doing this, too, were acting out of panic, feeling panic, feeling backed up against the wall, and many of us can sympathize with the extreme difficulties that the institution is having. What do you do when you’re in a panic situation? I think you do not go into extremis and create situations for yourself that are worse than what got you into the panic to begin with, which is what’s happening at Brandeis, I feel. I think for the museum world, one of the big things I’m quite sure is going to happen from this, and in some ways, it’s unfortunate for the directors…directors don’t want to have gifts coming with too many restrictions, particularly objects.
If you receive a wonderful painting, you don’t want the donor to say, “You have to show it every year, we need a gallery for all these things we’re giving you.” There were those restrictions, but now when you see how one day to the next, an institution can radically be altered by a higher authority, donors are going to be much more rigid in their gifts, and frankly, I think they should be. Mrs. Foster, who gave this gallery to us, the main contemporary gallery at the Rose, the Foster wing, was a gift, given in good faith – seven or eight million dollars at the time. And Mrs. Foster would like to sue. There was no grounds, no stipulation in the gift that said this had to be in perpetuity. Other gifts do say that. I think in the future that donors are going to be very, very suspicious of the good faith aspect of charitable giving, and a lot happens among us in good faith. I think those days are over.
What portion of your collection was given without strings attached?
Most of it. We’re meeting with the attorney general in a couple of weeks. I know that there are some lawyers in the room, and I can’t speak for this, but there are questions about the legality of taking an institution that was something and even given in good faith as something and all of the sudden making it something else – what is public trust, can we define public trust?
There are upsides that may come out of this, perhaps we will start getting more meat on the bones of what ‘public trust’ means and what donor intent means, even if it’s not spelled out quite so explicitly. Perhaps, in good faith, a court will see the evidence of donors… “This is why I do this, this is why I gave the museum this money, this is why I did this, and I’m here to tell you and this is why. It wasn’t an endowment and perhaps it should have been, we were wrong and we won’t do that again.” But maybe that can go a certain distance, people hearing people who have given, saying, “This is why we did this.”
On the museum side – we’re heading into what could be a depression, long term financial problems. Under any circumstances, should deaccessioning be permitted other than for acquisition?
This is a favorite topic of mine, actually. The phrase is a very museum world phrase. The hideous thing that Brandeis did was to close the art museum so they wouldn’t have to deal with all those ethics surrounding it. If you ask the common person on the street what that term means, I don’t think most people would know what it means. We’re talking about selling artwork for money, that’s the story.
This is not a story of [deaccessioning]. I’ve done it before, engaged in very painstaking systems and processes, dealing with donors, dealing with all the legalities, all the ethical issues they place before us for good reasons. This is not about that in this case. The question is can money be used for things other than art?
Is there any time when it’s OK?
I object to the very thought, the very premise, the very starting point of artwork in a public museum being looked at as collateral that can be used during a difficult time. I think that philosophical starting point is wrong, and that’s what I would want to eliminate.
So what about the Met Opera House using it as collateral?
The Met Opera House is not a museum. I haven’t thought about that particular question. I think it’s really bad.