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Rent-a-Rose: Sotheby’s Persuades Brandeis to Lend Collection for Profit

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Cover of catalogue for Rose Art Museum’s “permanent” collection

In a detailed, thoroughly reported story for today’s Boston Globe, Geoff Edgers‘ dropped this pre-holiday weekend bombshell: Brandeis to Loan Art to Boost Budget. In his account, Edgers repeatedly uses the “loan” euphemism, but what’s really contemplated is renting the Rose Art Museum’s collection for big bucks:

Brandeis University, which stirred controversy last year by proposing to close its Rose Art Museum, now plans to hire Sotheby’s auction house as a broker to raise money by loaning out artworks, the school confirmed yesterday.

Is this better than selling the collection, as had been initially contemplated? Yes. At least the art would not be irretrievably lost to Brandeis and, quite possibly, the public.

But the fact that this is the lesser of two evils doesn’t make it good. (More about my negative take on rental shows, whereby art-rich institutions exploit art-poor sister institutions, rather than cooperating collegially, is here.) A fundraising dispersal of the Rose trove to big-money borrowers would remove the art from the academic community that should be able to use it as a cultural and educational resource, as was intended by the donors.

Particularly problematic is the role of Sotheby’s in brokering this deal, as reported by Edgers and confirmed by me by spokespersons for both Brandeis and Sotheby’s:

Sotheby’s approached the university [emphasis added] about a year ago suggesting the new plan. The university will sign a contract with the auction house sometime next month and hopes to begin fielding specific proposals as soon as this fall.

When asked whether the Brandeis trustees might consider reversing their early vote to consider selling works, [Brandeis President Jehuda] Reinharz reiterated that the board voted twice to keep the option open.

This means that a borrowing museum exhibiting the Rose works may, in effect, be mounting a very prestigious presale exhibition, enhancing the marketability and eventual price of a collection that Brandeis still says it reserves the right to sell. Not a pretty prospect.

What’s in this for Sotheby’s? Edgers says that “the university has a deal in place, if it decides to sell art, to put the works up for auction through Christie’s.” Christie’s had appraised the collection (scroll down) at the behest of the Rose’s former director, Michael Rush. Whether or not Sotheby’s gets a fee for brokering Rose rentals, or an eventual chance to auction Rose art, it might get the satisfaction of scuttling a big potential payday for its competitor. Neither Brandeis nor Sotheby’s would tell me the details of their agreement nor what kinds of renters (private or public) they are contemplating.

Here are my own suggested guidelines to be followed when exploiting the Rose collection as a cash cow, directed towards making a dicey situation somewhat less problematic:

—Preference should be given to Boston-area museums or educational institutions, so that the collection remains accessible to the Brandeis community for whom it was intended.

—Under no circumstances should Rose works be lent for private use by collectors or corporations.

—A core collection of important works from the Rose’s “permanent” collection should remain on campus, with the right to borrow back works from renters for educational or exhibition purposes.

Here‘s Brandeis’ press release on the subject. At least we have this commitment:

The university has not sold any art since that vote [by Brandeis’ board, to authorize sales], and will not do so while it examines non-sale alternatives [emphasis added].

an ArtsJournal blog