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NY Times Reports That Massachusetts AG Will Review Brandeis Art-Sale Plans UPDATED

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

Sometimes, it seems, we can’t trust what Brandeis University’s publicity machine would have us believe. As I reported here, a university spokesman told the Boston Globe‘s Geoff Edgers that the Massachusetts Attorney General had been informed of university’s plan to sell the Rose Museum’s entire collection. The university spokesman declared that the AG (in Edgers words) “will not block” the disposals. It now appears this may have been mere wishful thinking on the university’s part.

And the statement released yesterday by Brandeis’ press office, which was specifically an announcement of the plan to close the Rose and sell the art, made it sound as if the faculty had approved this:

In a special session on Jan. 22, the Brandeis faculty voted unanimously to support the president and trustees as they combat the effects of the economic recession and work to make Brandeis stronger academically and fiscally for the 21st century. Faculty members agreed that the university should maintain the strengths that have helped position Brandeis among the nation’s top liberal arts and research institutions.

Both of these attempts by Brandeis to spin the story have been cast in doubt by subsequent reports.

Randy Kennedy and Carol Vogel of the NY Times now inform us:

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum…Emily  LaGrassa, director of communications for the state attorney general, Martha Coakley, said that Brandeis had informed the office on Monday of its decision, but had not consulted with the attorney general in advance. The attorney general has approval powers over certain actions of nonprofit institutions in the state.

Ms. LaGrassa said that in the case of Brandeis, the attorney general would review wills and agreements made between the museum and the estates of donors to determine if selling artworks violated the terms of donations. “We have not yet offered any opinion on any aspect of the proposed sales,” she said, adding, “We do expect this to be a lengthy process.”

Long enough, we hope, to make the university rethink its bad decision.

As for the unanimous faculty vote, whatever it was about, it cannot have been a referendum on the Rose plan, although the press release made it sound that way (and even fooled the Art Law Blogger Donn Zaretsky).

Here’s what the Inside Higher Ed website had to say about faculty involvement (or lack thereof) in the Rose decision :

While faculty leaders say they feel confident that they will have a meaningful voice in the curricular debates, the decision to close the art museum and sell its holdings was not taken to the faculty or faculty committees for a vote or recommendation….

William Flesch, a professor of American and English literature and chair of the Faculty Senate, said that some faculty members had discussed on a faculty listserve the possibility of selling the museum’s collection to deal with the current budget crunch. Flesch said that this “wasn’t a leading idea” and was never recommended or approved in a formal way by the faculty. He said he did not object to the administration making the decision on its own. Asked if he knew about museum standards that consider the planned sale unethical, Flesch said he was not aware of them.

It sounds to me like the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, and the Association of Art Museum Directors need to do better job of publicizing and explaining their strong positions against monetizing collections. Otherwise what was once a “slippery slope” could fast become an avalanche.

UPDATE: Geoff Edgers has amended his Boston Globe report on the AG situation as follows:

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe by a Brandeis University spokesman, a Page One story yesterday on the university’s decision to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its art incorrectly characterized where the attorney general’s office stands on the matter. The office was merely informed of the university’s intention and has not taken a position.

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