Campuses vow art is in safe hands

Local school museums see their roles, art secure

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / February 15, 2009
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Intricate wool and silk tapestries dating from about 1600. A beautiful woman looking out from an Andy Warhol canvas. And "Waterloo Bridge," a Claude Monet oil painting that captures the amazing depiction of light for which the artist is famous.

These are just a few of the important works of art hiding out on Greater Boston campuses.

Lingering questions about the future of Brandeis University's highly regarded Rose Art Museum have shaken members of the academic arts community, who are facing their own struggles to safeguard and showcase their treasures amid the flagging economy.

Wellesley College, Boston College, Phillips Academy, and Tufts University all have noteworthy collections or museums that are seen as a key part of their educational missions. While none seem in danger, officials say, they are being financially cautious.

"We're making reductions in our budget and we know we're going to have to make more," said Brian Allen, director of Phillips Academy's Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover.

"Our annual fund-raising has been very strong in the face of this terrible calamity, but everyone has been affected and we don't know what the future is going to hold for us."

At Phillips Academy, Allen said he is not worried that the Addison, which owns works by Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock, could face closing. Still, he said, the Rose's news was shocking to anyone in his line of work.

The Addison Gallery is comparable to a major college collection, with 16,000 objects and an annual budget of about $3 million. It is closed during a multimillion-dollar renovation, the funds for which were raised before the recession, Allen said.

Dennis McFadden, interim director at Wellesley College's Davis Museum and Cultural Center, called the prospect of the Rose's demise "heartbreaking," but added it would be an unlikely scenario at his facility.

"Of course you think could it happen, but then you immediately think this is an institution that has such strong ongoing support, it's not as troubling as it could be. If you take a broader perspective, you always fear - of course you do."

Wellesley started its art collection in 1875, right after its founding. Famous artists in the collection include John Singer Sargent, Paul Cezanne, and Monet. But it also has works by modern artists such as Kiki Smith, as well pieces from ancient Greece and Rome.

There have been no cuts to staff at the Davis, which has an annual budget of about $3.5 million, said McFadden. Donors have been loyal, he said, but there is no denying that they are being affected by the recession as well. "For most educational institutions that have endowments, what we're most concerned about is what the impact is going to be two and three years out."

Boston College has a small collection, including American landscapes and portraits from 1840 to 1940, sacred scenes by Italian painters from the 16th to 18th centuries, and Flemish tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries.

But the emphasis at the college's McMullen Museum of Art isn't on its permanent collection but rather on featuring "groundbreaking exhibitions" from around the world, according to director Nancy Netzer, who is also an art history professor at BC.

As they watch events at Brandeis unfold, museum directors at other campuses have tried to calculate how the art world could be affected.

One of the biggest losses could be the Rose Museum's "great experimental shows," said Allen.

McFadden said what is happening at the Rose calls into question what it means to be a museum, which he said he has always considered a public trust.

"The works that are given to a museum . . . the museum holds in trust from previous generations for future generations."

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