The art world is in a state of shock and horror because of the recent decision by cash-strapped Brandeis University to close its Rose Art Museum and sell off its entire 7,000-plus piece collection -- worth an estimated $350 million in 2007. Much of the rest of the public is feeling differently. Many of them either (a) don't care and wonder what the fuss is about or (b) believe Brandeis trustees are doing the right thing.
Brandeis took this drastic step because it's in deep financial trouble, exacerbated by the Madoff scandal. To avoid rules that prohibit museums from selling art works to pay their bills, Brandeis decided to shutter the whole thing -- eliciting condemnation. But, as one commenter on the situation wrote: "It is not a college's mission to run an art museum; it is the college's mission to educate and do research." Agreed another: "I fail to understand why a university taking a fiscally responsible approach (selling down assets, as opposed to accumulating added debt) is a bad idea? If I were faced with losing my home, but inside my home was a Monet that I could sell to save my home ... bye, bye Monet ..."
On one level, you have to think the public is missing the point. Museums themselves are educational institutions. They are nonprofit ventures, tasked with selecting and preserving art for current and future generations. Though their collections are worth millions or billions, in practice they are not listed as assets on museum balance sheets. Art is too precious for numbers.
But on another level, public bemusement is understandable. For decades, art has been seen as a tradable commodity; in the just-deceased new gilded age, the art trade -- dealers, auction houses and even artists themselves -- reinforced the idea that art is a financial trophy, perhaps even more than an aesthetic one. To show their stuff, collectors -- especially those in contemporary art--very publicly plunked down their money in crowded auction rooms and at glamorous art fairs. Some then flipped their works, sometimes in a matter of months, like so many barrels of oil. Some galleries, exhibiting hauteur along with their art, seemed to be off-limits for ordinary people.
And when art makes headlines, it's usually because a work has been sold, or is about to be sold, for a multimillion-dollar sum. At least four paintings have changed hands at $100 million or more; dozens have fetched $10 million or more. Little wonder that people connect art with price, not value.
Some contemporary artists have added to this state of affairs, making celebrity appearances at fashion events and restaurant openings and devising commercial products for the likes of LVMH. Britain's Damien Hirst went much further: He set out to claim the title of record-setting living artist when he made a diamond-encrusted skull, which was sold for more than $100 million to an "investment group" reputed to include himself.
Not long after, Hirst made another bold move: Instead of selling his new works through a gallery, slowly, he decided to put 223 of them on the block at
Museums, while less culpable, may be confusing people as well. The public has been entertained, but not necessarily educated, by many museum exhibitions. When motorcycles, guitars, hip-hop, Star Wars memorabilia, commercial jewelry and other pop-culture emblems fill the galleries of the country's most prestigious museums, the message is mixed: What's art, what's show?
Can you blame the public for believing that art is an investment, to be cashed in when expedient?
None of this is to excuse the behavior of Brandeis. It is deplorable. But if the gulf between the art world and the public were not so wide, Brandeis' trustees -- who voted unanimously to close the Rose -- might never have risked the widespread rebukes.