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For supporters, bloom is off the Rose

Lawsuit pending while Brandeis says art museum remains operational

Artists Kiki Smith (pictured) and Chuck Close plan to take part in a fund-raiser tomorrow in New York to help pay legal fees for a lawsuit pending against Brandeis, where a show featuring work by video artist Bill Viola is scheduled to open in the fall at the Rose Art Museum. Artists Kiki Smith (pictured) and Chuck Close plan to take part in a fund-raiser tomorrow in New York to help pay legal fees for a lawsuit pending against Brandeis, where a show featuring work by video artist Bill Viola is scheduled to open in the fall at the Rose Art Museum. (Checkerboard Foundation)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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After months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the battle over the Rose Art Museum is again going public.

The latest twist pits Brandeis University, which last year announced plans to sell the campus museum’s collection, against a group of former Rose boosters who have filed a lawsuit to block any such sale and are claiming that the Rose is no longer a viable, functioning museum.

Tomorrow night, those donors host a fund-raiser to help pay their legal fees at a New York gallery, featuring a who’s who of living artists, including Frank Stella, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, and Richard Tuttle.

At the same time, Brandeis, which has reversed its decision to close the Rose but said it may still try to sell some of the art, is announcing a fall exhibition featuring renowned video artist Bill Viola and the hiring of a new collections manager. University officials point to those moves as proof that the museum, whose collection includes seminal works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, will remain open, and that the lawsuit’s claims are inaccurate.

“I would say that it’s functioning very highly as a museum,’’ said Brandeis spokesman Andrew Gully.

The debate over the Rose is focused on more than the art in question. It is about the very definition of an art museum. Is it a space to show and store work? Or must the institution abide by the ethical guidelines of the museum community, including the tenet that art is only to be sold to further strengthen its collection?

The dispute began in January 2009, when Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz announced that the school’s board of trustees had decided to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off its collection, valued by some at more than $350 million, to help solve the university’s budget crunch.

To the general public, such a plan might seem merely practical. In the art world, selling art for any reason other than to purchase more art is considered nothing short of a betrayal to those who supported the museum and donated works. If Brandeis were to sell art to pay its bills, the school could expect to be shunned by the museum community, meaning no more loans of works for exhibitions.

After a public backlash, Brandeis held off on its plans to sell works. The museum, which has an advisory board of overseers but is run by the university, operates without a director or curator. The school’s trustees have also not backed off the 2009 vote to make selling art an option.

Gerald S. Fineberg, a local art collector who is part of the ongoing lawsuit, called the Rose a “corpse’’ in an interview last week. Fineberg is seeking the return of $2 million he agreed to give to Brandeis in 2002 to expand the Rose.

“It’s not alive, it’s not well,’’ said Fineberg. “They don’t have a director. They’re just trying to keep it going so they can sell the paintings.’’

The Rose has been without a director since last year, when Michael Rush’s contract expired. Roy Dawes, who served under Rush, is now the top administrator as director of museum operations. He organized the show, “Atmospheric Conditions,’’ that will open in late September featuring Viola and painters Eric Fischl and April Gornik.

Viola and Fischl did not return calls for comment. Gornik declined to answer questions about the Rose, other than to say that she and Fischl, who are married, oppose the breaking up of its collection.

Tomorrow night, the group of artists gathered for the $250-a-ticket event at the Pace Gallery in New York are likely to offer stronger words in reference to Brandeis.

Stella, in a phone interview last week, said he couldn’t believe the university was considering selling art.

“It’s insane,’’ said Stella, who has work in the Rose collection and received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 1986. “It’s not rational and it’s destructive. I don’t know how any one gesture could send any more wrong signals.’’

Meryl Rose, Jonathan Lee, and Lois Foster, all overseers of the Rose and longtime supporters, filed their lawsuit last year against Brandeis in Suffolk Probate Court. The suit, scheduled to go to trial in December, calls for Brandeis to return hundreds of works and to no longer hold Foster to a $1.8 million pledge she made for an abandoned museum expansion project. She also wants any money that has been used to fund the Rose over the years returned so she can donate those funds to another museum.

Fineberg asked to be added to the suit in January.

Brandeis would not make available members of its board of trustees or Reinharz for interviews. Gully, the school spokesman, said the artists at the Pace event were being misled by Rose, Lee, and Foster. He pointed to the recent hiring of former Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum staffer Kristin Parker as collections manager and the near complete search for an education director.

Brandeis does not intend to hire a museum director or curator, he said.

“They [the artists] have to realize that the organizers of that event have been untruthful,’’ said Gully. “Those claims are false. The Rose is open. The museum has had the permanent collection on display for many months. We’re hiring staff. And we’re trying to mount the fall show in looking ahead to the 50th anniversary.’’

In the lawsuit, the university’s actions in recent months are called a “spin campaign’’ meant to create the “appearance that ‘something’ is going on inside the Rose building.’’

Brandeis attorney Alan D. Rose said that the lawsuit is without merit.

“The issue now in the case is whether or not the plaintiffs are able to present any evidence that they have any right to the return of works of art in the event the museum closed,’’ said Rose. “Since the museum has not closed, is not closed, and will not close, our opinion is that this litigation is completely pointless.’’

Meryl Rose said that she believes the suit is necessary to stop Brandeis from selling artwork and accessing the museum’s endowment funds. If the university is incapable of maintaining a museum, the lawsuit calls for Brandeis to turn over the museum’s artworks and endowment funds to the Rose Preservation Fund, a nonprofit recently created by Rose, Lee, and Foster.

“Unfortunately, this is the only way we’re going to stop them from selling art,’’ says Meryl Rose. “This is the route we have to take. Pay the lawyers and get it done. People don’t know what is really going on. They think that the Rose is sort of on track again and everything’s fine.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com