If you’re an arts journalist these days, it’s hard not to feel a pang of envy at your colleagues covering the media and politics. For the past few weeks, the media beat has basked in the glory of taking down one of journalists’ favorite villains, Rupert Murdoch, after the relentless pursuit of The News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal.
Not long before that, political reporters could feel their pulse rates jump as Anthony Weiner resigned amid the media’s focus on his tawdry string of tweets. The jury’s still out on whether the media’s coverage of Dominique Strauss-Kahn was more a defeat than a victory, but you cannot say it made no difference.
But culture reporters? What have we got? What proof is there that we still matter? Even the New York culture world’s latest cause célèbre — New York City Opera’s lamentable decision to leave Lincoln Center — hasn’t done much to stop it. On an even more myopic scale, in the Jewish culture world, there’s been no sign that the journalistic howls bemoaning the shutdown of JDub Records, the original label of Matisyahu, has had any effect.
In short, we arts journalists can protest the brash business decisions that threaten culture as we know it, but rarely do we seem to achieve much. We’re good at eulogizing the dead, not resurrecting them.
And yet! There was a recent, and bracing, story few culture reporters seemed to notice. What’s strange is that they in part made it happen: it was the announcement that Brandeis University had finally given up its protracted battle to close its own Rose Art Museum, a treasured institution.
Holding one of the country’s most impressive collections of American art — Warhol, Guston, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, among many others — the university’s board of trustees decided in January of 2009 to close the museum to raise much-needed money. It was a desultory and rash decision bemoaned by the arts press from the get-go.
The Rose Art Museum did nearly all of its own fundraising, consistently balanced its budget and had a prized collection donated by patrons who believed Brandeis should have an art museum on par with the university’s stellar academic reputation. What’s more, the economic downturn did no serious damage to the museum, since it was operated by a separate board and budget.
Until it did.
The university’s separate coffers were hit hard by the financial meltdown. Its endowment shrank by 23 percent between 2008 and 2009, down to $549 million. The Madoff scandal compounded the problem, devastating many university donors. When the university trustees realized that the school faced a $10 million budget shortfall in 2009, they felt they needed to raise money fast; they set their sights on the Rose.
With a collection valued at nearly $350 million, and unimpressive attendance figures — 13,000 visitors a year, or just 36 people a day — they did not bother to consult the museum’s independent board of trustees, or even its director. The university simply announced it was closing the museum to help plug the university’s other losses, and hoped no one would notice.
They were wrong. The press seized on the story, with a flurry of coverage lasting more than a year. “It makes me feel disposable, like a plastic fork,” one museum donor told The Wall Street Journal. Roberta Smith, an art critic for The New York Times, was even more trenchant, attacking not only the university’s deplorable execution but the broader significance to art.
“In a just and moral society,” she wrote, “art is crucial to our understanding of freedom, difference and individual agency. The message out of Brandeis University last week — to its own students and to the world — was that when the going gets tough, none of this matters. Art is dispensable.”
Of course, it would be naïve to think that arts journalists were solely, or even mainly, responsible for saving the Rose. Much was being done behind the scenes. Brandeis students and faculty mounted steady protests; artists slated for exhibits refused to lend their work unless the Rose was saved; and many museum donors badgered university officials and mounted a lawsuit to save the institution that they themselves built.
Yet culture reporters kept covering these developments, however fitfully — that is, until late June; that’s when the decision to disband the museum was officially dropped. There was little coverage in the mainstream press, with a notable exception being The Boston Globe, whose reporting has been superb. I’m hoping there’ll be a little more ink when, come this fall, the Rose Art Museum unveils its new $1.5 million renovation. It was a recent gift from a donor and will help commemorate the museum’s 50th anniversary this year. None of its art will be missing.
Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.