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.”
Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a Brandeis graduate, also lauded the news, which comes three years after the Rose’s last director, Michael Rush, left protesting university plans to sell art to pay for the school’s operating budget.
“It’s a very good sign that Brandeis was able to attract an experienced curator with excellent credentials and a marvelous reputation,” said Tinterow, who was chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art department before taking over in Houston earlier this year. “It is the best possible result out of a time of trouble. The past is really behind us.”
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.
“Basically, the Rose has been in a holding pattern for 3½ years,” said Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and another Brandeis graduate. “It’s now able to come out of its cocoon.
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.
Bedford has similar hopes for the Rose, where his plans include developing exhibitions that will travel to other venues throughout the country. He also says the museum needs to acquire the work of living artists to add to its collection of 20th century pieces.
All of this, he knows, will require money.
Some will come from the university. Brandeis will provide more financial support for the Rose’s operating budget than ever before, a spokesman said this week while declining to reveal numbers. In addition, Bedford said he will be working to develop relationships with potential donors and spread word that the Rose is back. That’s a job he’s up to, the artist Bradford said this week.
“I’ll tell you, you will find a warrior in Christopher,” said Bradford. “He is a very principled person and will fight tooth and nail if he believes in something.”
Bedford and his wife, Jennifer, an art historian, have three children: Fletcher, 8, Gracie, 3, and Harriet, who is 5 months old.
The Wexner, which calls itself a “research laboratory” for the arts, is known for its commissions, exhibitions, and commitment to new works. Helen Molesworth, the ICA’s chief curator, also served as chief curator at the Wexner before arriving in Boston.
The institution doesn’t collect art, a point that’s important to Bedford.
“It’s been really nourishing to work only on ideas as opposed to the mechanics of acquisitions, but it’s something that I miss dearly,” said Bedford.
More than the Rose’s rich collection attracted Bedford. He said he’s always been drawn to university museums because of the expertise found on campus. He hopes to get Brandeis professors involved in exhibitions.
“Often, the involvement of faculty members happens in the form of a conference or writing for the catalog,” said Bedford. “That’s valuable, but I’m also interested in inviting those faculty members in much earlier in the process.’’
Bedford, who did not apply for the job but was identified by the university’s search firm, was one of nine finalists for the post. A search committee then whittled that list to three and passed the names to provost Steve Goldstein, who chose Bedford.
Brandeis leaders, in hiring the young director, are drawing a parallel to the Rose’s first leader, Sam Hunter.
It was Hunter, just 37 when hired, who acquired the now-coveted works in its collection soon after its 1961 opening.
That’s the art that Lois Foster found so fascinating when she began to visit the Rose in the 1970s. Foster, whose husband donated $5 million to create a wing named after her in 2001, protested the proposed sale of artworks and, at one point, joined a lawsuit brought by other Rose donors against Brandeis. The suit was dropped last year after Lawrence’s arrival and promise not to sell art.
On Tuesday, Brandeis’s president called Foster to tell her of Bedford’s hiring.
“It means that we’re going to be back in business,” said Foster.