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A question for a rescheduled Rose Art Museum symposium

March 10, 2009 | 11:00 am

Rose_brandeis_001

When a snow storm barreled into Boston early last week, Brandeis University's imperiled Rose Art Museum had to postpone an all-star literary symposium being convened to analyze the school's headline-making decision to shutter the museum and sell all or part of its modern and contemporary art collection. Now that warmer weather has brought at least a momentary thaw (and plenty of slush), the symposium, "Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum Amidst Financial Crisis,” has been rescheduled for March 16. The event will be Webcast live (you can watch it here).

One issue the panelists might want to discuss is the modest level of museum attendance. The low numbers — reportedly about 13,000 to 15,000 annual visitors — might suggest to some that losing the Rose and its art collection wouldn't be so dire. That, however, would be a mistaken impression.

During a visit to the Rose on Sunday afternoon, I witnessed a fairly steady stream of people poking around the permanent collection and taking in several small shows, including a quirky presentation of paintings made in 1950 by German-born American Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. At 70, he had been hired to work on a mural project in Peru with Spanish-born American architect Josep Sert, who later ran the design program at Harvard. If the subject sounds a bit esoteric, it is — and what of it? Hofmann was an important painter and an influential teacher, but this is not a show designed to bring in crowds. Rather, it's for the art-curious.

The university's shocking announcement in January has no doubt generated an attendance spike. Friends in Waltham, Mass., who live not five minutes from the school accompanied me on their first-ever visit to the Rose, curious about the commotion they'd read about in the paper and heard about on the radio. I'd guess others were satisfying a similar urge.

But why should the state of the museum's general popularity ...

... have anything to do with its reason for being, never mind its fate? Unlike Brandeis, reports are that the Rose Art Museum is in pretty stable financial shape. Costs are covered, the collection (at just over 7,000 works) continues a steady if modest growth. The museum even pledges a percentage of its annual operating budget to the university. For the school it's not a financial drain — just the opposite.

An average rate of about 50 visitors a day might imply that students with course requirements and area art-junkies are the only ones attending. If so, that's OK. With costs covered, the quality of the experience, not the quantity, is what counts.

We have become so accustomed to using pop-culture yardsticks — profitability, celebrity, fashion — to measure the success or failure of art and art museums that it's easy to lose sight of what matters. In fact, a degree of obscurity, relatively speaking, is one of the great charms of the Rose's collection.

Yes, celebrated masterpieces by De Kooning, Johns, Lichtenstein, Hartley, Gris and others are impressive. But so is the weirdly erotic, metallic-hued 1916 Morton Schamberg machine-abstraction. And Florine Stettheimer's delirious fantasy of drawing-room gentility, 1920's “Music.” Bruce Conner's big, lace-trimmed 1963 collage-assemblage of a faded, peeling attic wall is a poignant murmur of the ravages of time, so different in tone and feeling from Robert Rauschenberg's nearby — and far more famous — 1961 Combine, “Second Time Painting,” with its flashy colors and actual, embedded clock.

The diversity and richness of the encounters are what make a museum distinctive. They strike a deep chord. In today's vulnerable economic landscape, a bigger audience base might make the Rose more difficult to abuse. But, really, is a protection racket what art museums in America now require to get by?

Here are some more photos:

Hofmann

"Hans Hofmann: Circa 1950"

Schamberg

Morton Schamberg, "Painting VII," 1916, 19.25 x 15.13 in.

Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer, "Music," 1920, 69 x 50.5 in.

Conner

Bruce Conner, "Light Shower," 1963, 65 x 51.5 in.

Conner_detail

Bruce Conner, "Light Shower," 1963 (detail: paper, fabric, fur, horsehair, bathing cap, hooks)

— Christopher Knight

Photos: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

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