In 2009, Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum announced its intention to close to the public and sell off its acclaimed 20th-century art collection in response to difficult economic times. Eventually, the plan was rejected amid a furious controversy. Now, Brandeis has renovated the museum and, after an exhaustive search, hired a new director, Christopher Bedford, 35, currently the curator of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.
Bedford (who is not Jewish), will begin his new position on Sept. 17. He has experience not only in the art world, but also with Jewish art at the Wexner Center. The Jewish Week spoke with him about the controversy, his new position and the role that art museums can play in universities.
Q: The original controversy touched a raw nerve in the art world. Why do you think the reaction was so visceral?
A: We as professionals in the museum field — curators, directors, educators, really everyone who participates in the art world —pride ourselves on our commitment to the arts and the importance of art and in the concept of the broader world. Sometimes the depths of that commitment can get lost on a day-to-day basis. … It can become like any other job. … What’s so vital, at the core of everything we do was, for an instant, instantly threatened. The fact that the outcome was ultimately the right one means that the eyes of the art world are trained on the future of the museum. … The future is very bright for the Rose.
In hard economic times, shouldn’t universities look to make whatever cuts necessary to keep them viable? Should there be sacred cows like art collections?
The etymology of the word curator is keeper. [Museums are] not a cash cow at all. They’re to be preserved and enriched.
What upcoming exhibits are you excited about?
There are a number of great shows coming up. One that’s present in my mind is “Andy Warhol: Image Machine.”
How will the Rose be more closely connected with the university going forward?
I think that university art museums are uniquely positioned, and it’s always been clear to me that one will imagine the broadest conceivable constituency. The most immediate audience is the students and the faculty of the institution you serve. That programming relates to curricular concerns is really essential to me. It should become a central academic resource. … The collection will not be static, and exhibitions related and unrelated to the collection will emerge. What I’m really interested in is using a more collaborative model … drawing on the expertise of the university. So thinking less of say, a member of the art history department writing for the catalog. What I’m more interested in is a curator paired with someone from the art history department to be paired with, say, a member of the engineering department, to be wildly different. I would like to formalize a way in which that would happen.
Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the museum’s Board of Overseers, has said, “This is one of the artistic and cultural legacies of American Jewry.” The Rose has had Jewish-specific content in the past. Will there be more in the future?
I believe quite fervently in site-specific programming. … Jewish subjects, concerns and artists would register periodically and powerfully. I can say categorically you should expect to see that in the future.
How do you think the museum and its holdings contribute to the academic and cultural environments at the university?
We have a really wonderful curator of educational programming [Dabney Hailey]. While the Rose is not an academic unit, I think it should be understood as an academic resource. … But I don’t want that to just be confined to art education, art history and studio art. I want it to be a platform for discussion and research that cuts across platforms … and involve the Rose much more thoroughly than it has been in the past. I want the academic community to be involved in the conception and execution of exhibitions.