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Brandeis decision echoes through art world

Since Monday, the arts blogsphere has been in a bona fide furor over the decision by Brandeis University to sell its eminent collection of modern and contemporary art and to close its Rose Art Museum to raise money for the cash-strapped institution.

(Below is "Seated Woman," a 1917 piece by Max Weber, which is part of the Rose Art Museum permanent collection. The collection also includes significant pieces by Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.)

Permcollection2[1] Yesterday, Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz backtracked on the university's original announcement that it would "sell the collection" to say that it only intends to sell part of it. The school did not back away from its intention to shutter the Rose, however. Lots of people are looking at this as the art-world equivalent of hawking the family jewels.

The decision to sell a collection of which contains many modern masterpieces and a museum which contributes immesurably to the cultural and academic life of its parent institution and community simply to raise money is understandably coming under huge amounts of fire, both from bloggers and the mainstream press. Leading the charge online, as expected, is Washington D.C.-based blogger Tyler Green, a tireless critic of deaccessions for purposes other than acquiring new art. Joining him are Time's Richard Lacayo, the Boston Globe's Sebastian Smee and others to whom the idea of selling art to raise cash for a struggling institution is tantamount to denouncing its cultural importance. Count me in, on that point.

On the other side of things, Don Zaretsky at his Art Law Blog argues against characterizing the Brandeis move as "deaccessioning." He says that the decision is rather to close a museum and divest its collection and should avoid the stigma associated with more controversial art sales which, when done piecemeal (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, anyone?), raise more justified objections.

It'll be interesting to see -- after the firestorm that has erupted both online and in print -- how far the university is prepared to backtrack. My guess is, unfortunately, probably not that far.

--Colin Dabkowski

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