The Rose Art Museum, without a permanent leader for three years after Brandeis University’s messy attempt to sell its valuable collection of modern art, will name a new director on Friday, in what many are calling a rebirth of the institution.
Christopher Bedford, 35, chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, is set to arrive in September with plans to launch an ambitious exhibition program, nurture donors, and even add new art to the Rose’s already stunning collection, which has been valued at $350 million.
Prominent art-world observers, who have viewed Brandeis with skepticism since it tried to close the Rose and sell its art three years ago, praised the Bedford hiring.
“Words mean only so much,” said Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York, which has funded several of Bedford’s exhibitions in the past and had been waiting to see if Brandeis leaders would make good on their promises to revive the Rose. “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. This is a real step in the right direction.”
The Rose’s last director, Michael Rush, left protesting university plans to sell art to pay for the school’s operating budget. The Rose has been in art world purgatory since January 2009, when then-president Jehuda Reinharz announced plans to sell its collection, which includes works by such big-name artists as Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Kooning.
Those plans were abandoned after protests were mounted on campus and around the country and a lawsuit was filed by Rose supporters. But observers have waited to see whether president Frederick Lawrence, who arrived last year, would follow through on his pledge to restore the Rose. At stake was the Rose’s ability to operate as a legitimate museum that borrows work from other institutions, organizes shows, and solicits donations of money and art.
In a phone interview this week from Ohio, Bedford said the controversial attempt to close the Rose actually made the job more attractive. It has drawn attention to a collection often overlooked because of the museum’s location on the Waltham campus, he said.
“Like a lot of dark periods, it provides opportunity,” said Bedford. “It did raise consciousness of people in Boston and even more broadly. I think there’s a huge amount of awareness to be capitalized on right now.”
Bedford, who was born in Scotland, earned his undergraduate degree in art history at Oberlin College and served as assistant curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum in Los Angeles before joining the Wexner as a curator late in 2008. Two years ago, he was made chief curator.
In Boston, Bedford’s efforts have been seen at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where a critically acclaimed exhibition organized at the Wexner of artist Mark Bradford’s work opened in 2010 before stops at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.