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Sold! The Jewish Art Museum Crisis

Sold! The Jewish Art Museum Crisis

Jewish news this week has been dominated by the flotilla crisis, but there’s another Jewish problem still brewing: the fate of Jewish art museums. You’ll remember that about a year and a half ago, Brandeis University announced that it was considering selling all the artwork in its small, but precious and impressive Rose Art Museum. Warhol’s, de Kooning’s and many other mid-century treasures were on display on museum’s walls, and the university, facing its own dire fiscal problems, thought they could make money quick be selling it. But the museum board, which was different from the university’s, was having none of it. When they heard of these plans, they filed a lawsuit against it, claiming the university’s trustees did not have ultimate jurisdiction over the art work.

A big media storm ensued, which forced Brandeis’ trustees to reconsider. So what they’d decide? According to a small news item burried in the NYTimes last week, Brandeis said they are no longer considering selling the art. Instead, they’re exploring a partnership with Sotheby’s. Yes, Sotheby’s–the art world’s leading art dealers.

It seems a contradiction, but the idea is that Sotheby’s would only be allowed to loan artworks, not sell them, thus making some money for the university while not losing final ownership of the work.

But all this raises a bigger question, which was addressed in a Wall Street Journal article my editor recently showed me, and published late last month. The story says that many small and medium art museums have begun, in the wake of the Great Recession, to enter partnerships with nearby universities. The story leads with one Jewish art museum in particular–The Magnes Museum, founded in Berkeley in 1962, and whose focus is on Jewish art produced in the American West. Apparantly the museum has run deficits for almost a decade now–after expanding programs, buying new buildings and raising executive salaries–without considering how’d they pay for it (or, more precisely, thinking donors’ wealth and real estate prices would continue to rise forever). To solve their budget woes, the Magnes trustees have recently decided to donate all its holding, which include an important collection of ketubahs from the 19th century, to UC-Berkeley.

Yes, Berkeley. The one that’s facing some of the worst budget cut in decades.

Obviously, there are no easy answers for small museums. But what they appear to being doing now is entering into partnerships with institutions that, while theoretically committed to the same mission as art museums themselves–making their collections available to the public–are no better off financially than the museums themselves. And given Brandeis’ recent toying with the idea of sell all its own art holdings, it’s not unreasonable to think universities won’t consider the same thing.

But it’s not fair to put the burden only on universities. First, it’s a better deal than simply selling them to private collectors, where public exhibitions are not a priority. More importnatly, small art museums are just as guilty as anyone for being financially incompetent. In flush times it all seemed well and good to buy new buildings, increase executive salaries and even increase the fundamentally good, core mission things like public programming.

But it’s time museums rethink their habits and return to common sense: financial responsibility is critical. You cannot accept deficits this year in the hope that next year, you’ll be able to pay them off. That kind of thinking just got our country into a terrible financial bind, and it’s one even the current government doesn’t seem to always grasp–Republicans and Democrats alike.

If museums must enter partnership with universities to survive now, let’s not forget that, in the future, they shouldn’t want that to happen at all. The lesson should be one of financial prudence, and utter clarity about their core mission: showcasing and educating the public about the beauty, wonder and magnificent power of art.

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