Posts Tagged ‘chris ofili’

Art, the Easiest Target

January 28, 2009

The Brandeis University story has been gathering steam in the last few days, appearing for a time late last night as the lead story on the NY Times website, photo and all. As noted earlier this week (as an update to When Museums Sell Art) the university decided to close the Rose Art Museum and sell all of the works therein. Within hours of the announcement, petitions appeared online and blogs began to call for action. The Rose Art Museum is known for its collection, a tight survey of American contemporary art. Much of the museum’s artwork was purchased during the relatively early years of big-name artists when the work was relatively cheap. It appears that the trustees did not foresee the public reaction to the radical act of closing an entire institution and splitting up a notable collection of cultural objects.

A brief flashback to New York’s Guiliani administration…In 1999 the Brooklyn Museum, now rather famously, hosted the Sensation exhibit from the Saatchi Collection which included Chris Ofili’s Madonna image. Ofili’s artwork incorporated elephant dung, which in the artist’s perspective was a signifier of esteem, rather than disparagement of the primary subject matter. But that is really besides the point. Then mayor Guiliani, apparently because of lack of knowledge about the specific artwork, general ignorance about art, arrogance, or all of the above, perhaps along with political motivations, sought to remove Ofili’s work from view. The museum refused. Guiliani cut off government funding and cancelled the museum’s lease as retribution. (Funding was later restored by the courts and the lease was not cancelled).

In the context of the mayor’s involvement, this attempted action could be seen as a government intrusion into free speech, but besides that issue, art was an easy target. Perhaps he was bolstered by the reduction of NEA funding subsequent to political attacks on the agency based upon the alleged offensiveness or obscenity of the artwork made by artists that received its (nondiscriminatory) funding. From the perspective of artists, the NEA has never fully recovered as the beneficial organization that it once was.

However, the artists and art patrons of New York did not go quietly and the attack on the Brooklyn Museum resulted in an outpouring of speech and action in defense of the museum. Prior to the incident the Brooklyn Museum was not particularly known as the most challenging or eminent of New York’s art museums. Guiliani was not successful and the museum’s reputation and status was ultimately burnished by the attention (and the subsequent settlement). It didn’t, however, stop Guiliani from trying the same move, also unsuccessful, on Renée Cox’ Yo Mama’s Last Supper at the same institution.

The trustees of Brandeis University are not working as punitive agents, but they appear to have underestimated the reaction to closing a premiere institution like the Rose. No doubt that the university, as one of the many victims of the alleged Madoff scheme is in dire financial condition. In such situation, the arts are inevitably selected as the first neck on the chopping block. Artists and art patrons are, unfortunately, able to predict this with some regularity. There was a time when art classes, for example, were common in the public schools. By the mid 1980s they, along with music programs, were the first to be cut from curriculum in times of financial stress. This says quite a bit where we, as a culture, perceive the quality of value to exist.

A loss of the arts, whether in terms of access to recognized works of stature or in the form of educational instruction, is a loss to society and its future. Art is communication. When people, especially younger people, are not exposed to the arts, a vital experience is denied. A good education in the arts, whether formal or informal, can teach an individual to consider issues in a multi-dimensional perspective, formulate a critical analysis, and in consequence, make decisions that are well considered–in whatever context they may be made. The experience of art also provides lessons in cultural understanding, history, and human perception that are otherwise less accessible. In times like these particularly, we need to encourage this type of learning and experiencing, rather than curtailing it.

Brandeis is beginning the process of determining how to sell off its unique collection. A significant source of the Rose Museum’s funding for art purchases was a trust fund, along with donations of artwork. It is unclear as to whether the donations were made solely by collectors or if some donations may have been made by the artists themselves. Conditions in some of the donation agreements may serve as impediments to the sale of certain individual pieces. Regardless, the biggest impediment may be the public response to this nearly unprecedented action by an educational institution with such significant cultural holdings. Potential private buyers of the collection are not at fault, but it will be a major loss to the community, Brandeis’ students, and the general public if the collection is no longer accessible as a whole.

References:

Brandeis’ Press Release announcing closure of the Rose Art Museum

Insider Higher Ed January 27, 2009: Brandeis to Sell All of Its Art

The Rose Art Museum

A compilation of articles about the Brooklyn Museum versus Giuliani debacle: ArtsJournal

Brooklyn Museum Receives Support in Legal Battle With Mayor, NY Times, October 7, 1999

Brooklyn Museum: Businessweek, October 7, 1999

Brooklyn Museum: Salon.com, October 2, 1999

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