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Brandeis University Goes from “Liberal Arts” to Just “Liberal”

My university is closing its world-class art museum and selling the collection to meet a budget shortfall.

Brandeis University- a bastion of liberal arts and intellectual inquiry, an institution whose motto is "truth unto its innermost parts"- is selling off its world-class collection of contemporary art, including such luminaries as Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, and Dana Schutz.

Alumni feel a tremendous sense of loss and, in some cases, outrage. The Rose, an airy, contemporary-yet-intimate space, has been a special place at Brandeis for over 45 years. Speaking personally, the Rose is where I saw a number of provocative installations and schmoozed at countless events in a relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere. It’s also where I first saw pieces by William Kentridge, who is now one of my favorite artists.

Granted, I am sure this was a wrenching decision for the Board of Trustees, and hesitate before condemning it wholesale without the benefit of the school’s financial records. The school has lost a reported 25-40% of its endowment, and has seen some of its biggest donors nearly wiped out by Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. I can understand the rationale of preserving the school’s core mission and services as an educational institution, rather than a sponsor of visual art.

I still have some fiscal concerns, namely, skepticism over how much money the school expects to make by selling art when we’re at the bottom of an already-hollow market. Add to that the long-term damage to the school’s reputation, which could depress alumni giving as well as application rate and admission yield, which determine a school’s ranking. Yet what concerns me most is the demeaning of art’s qualitative value at an institution that claims to operate on Jewish principles.

To clarify, Brandeis is not a Jewish school; it is a sectarian institution supported by Jewish sponsorship. But said sponsorship is not just financial in nature (if at all, given the present circumstances). It is the values  that determine the university’s identity, the more humanistic values of Judaism, including social justice, pursuit of knowledge, passionate yet reasoned debate, glorification of the mortal world. These were all present in spades at the Brandeis I knew.

Jews have a long and treasured history as creators and patrons of art. Artists like Marc Chagall, Julian Schnabel, Judy Chicago, and mega-patrons like Ronald Lauder and Eli and Edythe Broad are just a few examples. One of the most protracted and emotional initatives after the Holocaust was the attempt to restore valued works of art stolen by the Nazis to the appropriate Jewish families. In fact, Ron Lauder’s Neue Galerie exists for the purpose of displaying these works and celebrating their return to rightful ownership.

So with all due respect to the leadership of my alma mater, I remind you that Jews did not sue the Swiss government for 50 years for repatriation of masterpieces only to now sell Warhols for pennies on the dollar. If we go forward with a fire sale on invaluable works, we will never get back the art itself nor the reputation of the university. A commentator on the Boston Globe, "sam-yanes," said it with brutal concision: "This move cuts the heart out of the respect for the humanities and the arts at the core of Jewish culture. It cuts the heart out of my feeling Jewish."

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