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Rose Shows: Brandeis’ New Museum Director, Christopher Bedford, to Face a Thorny Issue

Christopher Bedford, incoming director of Rose Art Museum

When Christopher Bedford dives into the directorship of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, in mid-September, he may find himself in troubled waters.

I’m not referring to the Rose’s recent choppy stretch (now, thankfully, behind it). I’m alluding to the first exhibition that will open when Bedford walks in the door of his new professional home in Waltham, MA:

The Rose Art Museum, as seen last fall
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The museum’s fall-semester show (for which Bedford had no organizational role)—Dor Guez: 100 Steps to the Mediterranean, Sept. 19-Dec. 9—may plunge the fledgling director into the choppy seas of Palestinian-Israeli relations. As Mitt Romney‘s quasi-diplomatic foray into the Middle East recently demonstrated, these shoals can be tough to navigate.

Billed as the Guez’s first major exhibition in the U.S. (although his “Monayer Family” videos were shown by the Jewish Museum, New York, in 2010), the Rose show will feature photographs and videos by the Jerusalem-born artist whose family roots are both Christian-Palestinian and Jewish-Tunisian.

According to the Rose’s press release:

Guez…takes as his overt subject the Christian Arab minority in Israel, a community marginalized by the prevailing meta-narratives of both Israelis and Arabs. Guez’s work addresses these gaps while exploring contemporary art’s role in raising questions about history, nationality, ethnicity, and personal identity.

The artist himself was more straightforward in describing the thrust of his work in a video interview filmed in New York last year:

Every country’s got a meta-narrative and it’s the job of the minorities to create an opposition to that.

Images from videos portraying the Monayers—Dor Guez’s Christian Arab grandparents and their children and grandchildren—which will be a centerpiece of the Rose show

The Rose show’s co-curator, Gannit Ankori, arrived at Brandeis (which is self-described as this country’s “only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university”) almost two years ago as its professor of art history and theory and chair in Israeli art. She was formerly chair of art history at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and several years ago became embroiled in a controversy related to her writings on Palestinian art:

“Palestinian Art” by Gannit Ankori, Reaktion Books, London, 2006

In 2008, Ankori’s lawyer threatened a defamation suit against the College Art Association for derogatory comments about her scholarship made in a review of “Palestinian Art” published in the Fall 2007 issue of CAA’s Art Journal. As a result, the CAA agreed to pay Ankori $75,000 and published in Art Journal’s Winter 2008 issue a letter of apology and detailed correction of the disputed article (which had been written by Joseph Massad, a controversial Columbia University associate professor of Middle Eastern studies).

University spokesperson Bill Burger says that the Brandeis professor is “a complete innocent…accused of something she didn’t do.” She co-curated the Guez show with Dabney Hailey, the Rose’s director of academic programs, who is featured in a 2010 CultureGrrl Video (scroll to bottom).

When I asked for his views about the show, the Rose’s incoming director, Bedford, sent me this comment via a museum spokesperson:

Dor Guez’s work will inspire a rich dialogue around Brandeis’ core values of social justice and freedom of expression, both on campus and in the region. It is essential that the community be drawn into the museum socially and intellectually, and that Rose exhibitions be integrated into the curriculum of the university.

This thoughtful, timely exhibition will achieve both of these key objectives.

Speaking of the “core values of social justice and freedom of expression, ” Bedford told me several weeks ago that he hopes those values will be conveyed by a walk-through public art project that he plans to commission to “re-brand” the entrance of the Rose. It would, he said, be “an emblem of the university’s broader social commitment.”

In a far-ranging CultureGrrl conversation shortly after he was named to his new post, Bedford discussed the proposed outdoor commission and what he hopes to accomplish in his new post:

One of the reasons I was so drawn to Brandeis was that it was an institution founded at a time when Jewish students couldn’t attend Harvard [not entirely true; my father got his Harvard Law School degree long before Brandeis existed]….Now that the world has changed and Jewish students aren’t excluded from higher education, the mission of the institution has to change accordingly.

Looking at the literature and the records, the university has a lot to do with questions of social justice and social equality. I’m interested in works of public art that can throw those questions into relief. That will be at the core of the [commissioned outdoor] work, in my imagination of it.

As for his own exhibition plans for the Rose, Bedford stated:

I have a very long list of potential exhibitions, many of which could be actualized quite quickly….There’s a space in the museum that’s very conducive to video, and I’d like to see that rotated two to four times a year. There would be a Projects series, structured thematically, rotating quite frequently [about three times a year] to encourage people to come again and again. And there would be less frequent, bigger-investment monographic and thematic shows….

The bigger exhibition might be one per year, either internally generated, taken from another institution or co-organized with another institution….

I wouldn’t ever take the permanent collection off display. There will always be a third to a quarter of the museum devoted to collection holdings. But I would like to see those collection holdings rotated more [two or three times a year] so that the depth and breadth of the collection is more apparent to the public.

As for future purchases for the collection, this “devotee of painting” observed:

I do believe in building on what exists in an institution and while I don’t discount sculpture, video or photography at all, it’s pretty self-evident to anyone who has looked at the Rose’s collection that painting is the thing. I think it’s possible to build on those holdings today.

Does Brandeis, emerging from its recession-related (and Madoff-exacerbated) financial difficulties (which led the previous university president to recommend selling off the museum’s collection), now have the resources a very ramped-up exhibition program, not to mention the physical expansion that Bedford tentatively envisions?

“There are some resources,” he said, “and it’s going to require some fundraising too. That, of course, is why I was hired.”

That, along with a compelling track record for organizing engaging exhibitions during his time as chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH.

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