Q&A with Rose board chair Jonathan Lee

KellyYellowCurves54Rose.jpgYesterday evening I spoke with Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the Rose Art Museum's board of overseers. (Lee also sits on the boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Aspen Art Museum.) Lee has been notably outspoken regarding Brandeis University's attempts to sell off the Rose Art Museum's art collection. That outspokenness continues in this Q&A, which I'll run in two parts. Look for the second half around noon. [Image: Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Curves, 1954, Collection of the Rose Art Museum, dammit.]

MAN: Last week you said that you wanted to meet with the Brandeis board. Has that happened, will that happen?

Jonathan Lee:
I sent the president of the university a letter [Monday] asking to meet with him, with his attorney, and any members of the Brandeis University board that he'd like to have at the meeting. I'd come with a small group of the Rose overseers. I doubt that will happen. My initial outreaches to the board itself have not borne any fruit. My expectation is that won't happen, but I'm making every good-faith effort to have such a meeting.

MAN: Do you have an endgame in mind for that meeting, a desired result? Or do you mostly want to chat and cajole?

The issue that I have -- or that I perceive -- is that we share completely different reality sets. I'm sitting in a chair at the time this thing explodes as the chairman of the Rose of the board of overseers, so I have a duty and a responsibility to the collection and to the people who have given money to the museum. We have endowments and cash-on-hand for facility enhancements, and there is a museum that has been going since 1961. So I am representing those interests as loudly and as clearly as I can.

I come in as an art person and not first and foremost as a Brandeis person. I didn't go there. My mother was highly involved in the Rose and was, I think, the first chair of the board and had given a lot of pictures to this place as well as a gallery. I grew up going there and learning about art by her taking me there, so there's a long family connection and history.

ArchipenkoRose.jpgSo, with all that in mind, the endgame is to convince the trustees and the administration of the university that closing the art museum and selling the art is not in the interest of the university even though I appreciate that the university is in a dire financial time. I feel for the university. I am not anti-university, and I appreciate that the university's situation is difficult. I think that the solution does not lie with selling the art off. So I would love to get [Brandeis] motivated to develop a 'Plan B.'

Of course when they turn to me and say, 'What else should we do?' I'd say, 'I'm not on your university board of trustees and I'm not on your financial committee, and the things that I'd say off the top of my head that aren't well-founded you won't like. Such as: Stop building the buildings you're building. Stop rolling out things in your life sciences initiative for two or three years. But I'm on the outside. Obviously I'm not the most effective person to solve that problem.

But I do think that selling the art and closing the museum is extremely bad for the long-term health of the university. They say, 'Without selling the art we have no university.' And I say, 'If you sell art we have no university.' So I don't know who's correct, but my take on the art is this: The Rose is a cultural and an artistic legacy of post-World War II Jewry who got over the shock of Hitler and World War II and pulled themselves up and made money and became philanthropic and culturally-inclined, so they collected art, supported the university and gave it art. It's a beautiful legacy. It has an intellectual legacy beyond the art -- and the art here is the largest modern and contemporary collection in New England. This art has been loaned from the museum to all over the world. To me this is a world-class asset. Maybe I'm not subjective, but I categorize it as a world-class asset and I say protect your world-class asset, the kernel of the wheat, not the chaff.

This place is fundamental to a liberal art education. Louis Brandeis was very eloquent when he talks about this to his daughter, who was involved with the University of Louisville: One thing is you have to get books and start a library; and two you have to get art and start an art collection. He's very eloquent about what that means. [Image: Alexander Archipenko, Torso Nude Female Figure, Collection of the Rose Art Museum, dammit.]

MAN: You're looking at legacies from multiple positions: the past, the present and the future.

Yes. The whole thing about art museum codes of conduct and codes of ethics -- Brandeis, they don't really care about museum codes of ethics. So that's why the first thing they said was that we won't be a museum anymore, we'll get around the codes of ethics by not being a museum.

My position is that you make a whole lot of current donors, past donors and much more importantly future donors really unhappy. It's a reputational hit that's hard to get over. It gets Jewish donors who are philanthropically-oriented... you give them a perfect excuse not to give Brandeis any money. What they're doing to the Rose is an easy out.

So yeah, I feel it's my job to try to protect this thing. Why do I want to see an artistic and cultural legacy busted up like some poor widow who is sending her jewelry [out] through a pawn shop to where it's ending up in Dubai and Russia?
February 10, 2009 8:40 AM |


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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Modern Art Notes published on February 10, 2009 8:40 AM.

Oranges and Sardines at the Hammer was the previous entry in this blog.

Q&A with Rose board chair Jonathan Lee, part two is the next entry in this blog.

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