With its endowment plunging and donations expected to fall in part because of losses sustained by Madoff victims, Brandeis University is closing its Rose Art Museum. As part of that, the university will be selling more than 6,000 pieces of art, including paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, according to The Wall Street Journal. (subscription required)
The circumstances of the closing are sad, but it looks like a prudent step. College tuition and fees have been rising at two to three times the rate of inflation and colleges need to look hard at cost-cutting measures that will allow them to focus on the unique things that they provide.
Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, Brandeis is close enough to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and other celebrated institutions that students and researchers will still have easy access to world class art. The sale of the collection will provide Brandeis with the cash it needs to provide value to students and its other constituencies -- without jacking up tuition prices and saddling students with unmanageable debt loads.
Of course, the college's art snob bureaucrats are complaining like women in an Ibsen play: "It is the largest asset that the university owns, and it is a world-class asset," Jonathan Lee, who chairs the Rose's board of overseers told The Boston Globe. "So they're saying, 'Oops, we've had some bad reversals in our endowment investments, and we're going to make it up by selling our art.' What a second-class institution we've decided to be."
Here's the thing: It's not like Brandeis is setting the art on fire. The college needs cash and will sell the art to other people and institutions who want art -- The net cost to the art world is zero. And as Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz said, "The Rose is a jewel. But for the most part it's a hidden jewel. It does not have great foot traffic, and most of the great works we have, we are just not able to exhibit." Perhaps some of the pieces will end up in places where they can be more appreciated by the public.
Hopefully other universities -- especially public ones that have a responsibility to provide affordable education to state residents -- will follow Brandeis' lead and divest extremely valuable assets that are not central to their core missions and responsibilities.
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