Flyover conversation about the Rose debacle
Yesterday I wondered aloud if the breach of trust between art donors and Brandeis University’s trustees might send a chill down the spines of art donors in small cities and college towns in Flyover Country. The Brandeis trustees want to sell off the contents of the Rose Art Museum, some 6,000 works of art valued at about $350 million. I said this keeping in mind that philanthropic circles in cities like Charleston, where I live, are very small, very intimate, and can be very volatile if bonds of trust are called into question.
So I emailed Mark Sloan, the director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. Sloan is highly regarded here and for good reason. His exhibitions are generally excellent and he almost single-handedly found, commissioned, and acquired the 850-piece Contemporary Carolina Collection housed at the Ashley River Tower, a new hospital just built by the Medical University of South Carolina. I wanted to know what Sloan thought of my question.
He said the breach of trust is a concern in all cities with no unique threat to smaller cities and their social and philanthropic circles. He was on deadline to finish a grant proposal when I caught him, but he did send me this quick but thoughtful response:
I think it is the same everywhere. I think all donors, whether in small towns or big cities, often develop long-term relationships with institutions in their midst. Even though there are more donors in bigger cities, they all seem to know one another from various board affiliations and social gatherings.
So it’s just a bigger group, but no less intimate. This was brought home to me when I attended a fund-raising event at Harvard (I did a book about their natural history museum a few years ago, and I was up for a book signing). Many of the people there were sharing stories about the Boston Ballet, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Gardner Museum, etc.— all of which they supported to one degree or another.
Donors talk to one another. If I were a donor to Brandeis, I would be furious, and I would withdraw from future donations. I feel certain this will be the reaction of a portion of their donors. There are many people who love the Rose Museum.
This decision brings into question the whole notion of the role of a Trustee. You’d think it was to protect and defend — not divide and conquer.
I would add it brings greater light to the role of any person acting in the public’s trust. That includes volunteer board members of orchestras who view their stewardship not as a civic duty but as a social obligation. Or worse, as a duty discharged in the name of business, as the Brandeis trustees have done, and not in the name of community, legacy, and cultural heritage.
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