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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Symposium provides perspectives on value of the Rose Art Museum

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: Front Page

<i>PHOTO BY Barbara Stark/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Barbara Stark/The Hoot

“We object.”

This repeated, emphatic declaration of opposition came not from one of the noteworthy panelists, faculty, or students at the Rose symposium on Monday night, but from the Rose family itself. The statement, issued after an address by Museum Director Michael Rush, demanded that the university cease its plans to close the museum and sell its art. In a night of poignant insight into the meaning, purpose and value of art, this stood out as a moment of clear-cut defiance against an administration that would sell valued works from the museum’s contemporary collection to overcome its recent financial losses.

The symposium, entitled “Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum amidst Financial Crisis” brought together notable literary and cultural figures from the surrounding area as well as Brandeis faculty and students. Taking place in the Lois Foster Wing of the Rose, the discussion of the role of art in trying times stood against the backdrop of the vibrant, colorful Hans Hoffman exhibit.

Each panelist tackled the dilemma of the Rose from a different vantage point. Former Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Robert Pinsky, quoted a poem by Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” to illustrate the importance of transmitting art through the generations. Not surprisingly, the poet who has worked toward the greater democratization of his art used a line from Keats to explain the process of culture as a unifying force across social classes. He also sought to remind the audience of Brandeis’ history and mission as a nonsectarian university providing equal opportunity for all at a time when other curators of culture (including prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton) limited the admittance of Jews.

Renowned literary critic Stephen Greenblatt offered reflections on the necessity of art in times of distress from his standpoint as a Harvard professor and member of the Harvard Task Force on the Arts. This committee has insisted that the arts are central to the university’s academic mission. “The boundary, bright line between art making, collecting and exhibiting on the one hand and education on the other,” he explained, “has given way to a much more vital interaction between the two.” As the first such committee in 50 years, its findings revealed the stunning absence of contemporary art in the school’s museums from the decades since the 1960s, and Greenblatt marveled at the absence of an institution like the Rose at Harvard.

Another major literary figure, Claire Messud, author of the novel, The Emperor’s Children, weighed in on the significance of the Rose’s threatened closure. She noted the irony of losing sight of the essential importance of art in a time when humanity needs its power the most. She compared the hubris of the Bush administration in its reaction to the looting of the Baghdad Museum with the Brandeis administration’s willingness to disregard its cultural heritage. “When we see mistakes in the making, we must speak out,” she implored.

The Brandeis panelists represented diverse disciplines and included a student representative, contributing to the pervasive feeling that the Rose has become a cause that transcends individual departments or self-interests.

Prof. Andreas Teuber, chair of the philosophy department, related personal anecdotes about his art historian mother and his own discovery of art’s meaning. “Art, when I go to a museum,” he declared, “is life confirmed.”

Speaking in a tone of outrage and frustration, Brian Friedberg (GRAD), a student in the Cultural Production Master’s program, demanded that Brandeis figure out a way to solve its economic problems without compromising its art programs. “This is a breach of trust for those who are involved in the Fine Arts programs,” he insisted.

One of the most moving moments of the night was an informal comment by a member of the Rose family, who discussed the importance of the museum for its founders, Edward and Bertha Rose. Since they had no children of their own, the museum was a monument that served as their legacy for successive generations.

Overall, responses to the symposium were positive. “I’m just mainly impressed with the steadfastness of this whole process,” said Rebeccah Ulm ’11, one of the planners of the first Rose sit-in. “I think it’s important to continue to show our opposition.”

Yet the program’s focus on affirming the value of art rather than mourning its loss, showed that optimism remains. As long as people are willing to fight for the value of art, the Rose saga will continue.