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Rose Art Museum revival

With closure threat only a memory, Brandeis gallery set to mark 50 years

Mike Lovett

The Rose Art Museum, no longer threatened with closure, has been renovated and will feature two new exhibits when it reopens Thursday.

The world-famous artist who pulled out of his solo show amid a widespread protest will be there. So will the trustees who voted, on that infamous day, to allow Brandeis University to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its valuable collection of contemporary art.

But they will gather on campus this week for a different occasion: to celebrate the Rose’s 50th anniversary, stroll through the renovated museum when it reopens with exhibitions showcasing the collection, and send a very public message that the Rose is reborn. Brandeis’s administration has reversed course, the 7,500-piece collection is safe, and both sides say they’re happy now.

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“Here’s a case where the quick buck lost out to something more lasting,’’ says Jonathan Lee, a former member of the Rose’s board of overseers who sued the university because of its plans to sell art. The case was settled earlier this year, with Brandeis promising not to sell the collection. “This is a wonderful conclusion to what was an ugly event.’’

In January 2009, Brandeis’s then-president Jehuda Reinharz stunned the art world and the Brandeis community by announcing that the Rose would be closed and its collection, valued at more than $350 million, sold to help resolve a university budget crisis. “We felt that, at this point given the recession and the financial crisis, we had no choice,’’ he said at the time.

The response was swift. Students held protests. Donors sued the university. Museum director Michael Rush spoke out against the plan, and his contract was not renewed. Figures including renowned Pop artist James Rosenquist and video artist Bill Viola pulled out of planned exhibitions. And some of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, from Chuck Close to Frank Stella, gathered at a New York gallery to publicly oppose the move.

The university eventually backed down, but not until new Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence arrived in January 2011. Until then, the Rose remained a public relations disaster.

Lawrence has been praised for helping save the museum and restore the faith of the art community and public in the Rose. Under Lawrence, Brandeis has moved forward on the search for a new Rose director. Meanwhile the university has found budget reductions in other areas, and the economy has improved to the point where Brandeis’s endowment is nearly back to its pre-crash high of $712 million, according to Andrew Gully, Brandeis’s senior vice president of communications and external affairs.

When the museum did close in June - only temporarily - it was to undergo a $1.7 million renovation. The museum now boasts a new climate-control system, energy-efficient glass, new ceilings and floors, an LED lighting system, and a new coat room. A shallow pool on the lower level has been removed, and the entryway has been reconfigured.

On Thursday, when the Rose reopens to the public, two new exhibitions will showcase the museum’s rich collection of 20th-century and contemporary art, including works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Nam June Paik, and Jenny Holzer. In a third show, a new acquisition will be on display, a video work by pioneering multimedia artist Bruce Conner.

Key events of the week will be a public reception Thursday and a Wednesday night gathering for trustees and other invited guests, featuring a dinner conversation between Rosenquist and Whitney Museum of American Art director Adam Weinberg.

Getting Rosenquist and Weinberg, a 1977 Brandeis graduate, to participate is significant, Lawrence says, because the duo were among those who attacked Brandeis when plans were revealed to sell art.

“I made a personal phone call to Adam both because of the substance but also the symbolism of it,’’ said Lawrence. “It’s very much a homecoming for people connected with the Rose and very much a message to the world that the Rose is back.’’

Rosenquist, who pulled out of a planned 2010 show at the museum, is one of the artists whose works founding Rose director Sam Hunter acquired during a buying spree in the early ’60s thanks to money donated by Leon Mnuchin and his wife, Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin.

Of the opponents of Brandeis’s sale plan, Rosenquist says: “They put up a good fight. They won. And the Rose is back in action again.’’

Not only that, but the Rose’s galleries have been rehung for the new exhibitions by Dabney Hailey, the museum’s first director of academic programs, who came to the Rose last year after eight years as a curator at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College.

Seventeen of the 29 works in the first show, “Art at the Origin: The Early 1960s,’’ were works purchased by Hunter during that first wave of purchases.

“I’m madly in love with this collection,’’ says Hailey. “It’s a really moving story, and preparing this has shown me how much people believed in the museum. Not a jewel in the crown, which is the phrase that was going around. It’s more nutrition to me.’’

Former Brandeis president Reinharz actually called the Rose a “hidden jewel,’’ a museum with little foot traffic, when explaining his motivation to sell its collection.

Hailey aims to create a stronger bond between the Rose and Brandeis. She has already started by launching a program to train 10 undergraduates as museum tour guides and recruiting professors to bring their classes into the museum to create connections with the university’s curriculum.

Hailey and Roy Dawes, who has served as acting director and will become deputy director when a new museum leader is hired, have not scheduled many exhibitions for the future. They say they want to keep the schedule open for the new director, whom Brandeis hopes to hire sometime next year.

That effort proceeds with a search committee that includes Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, and an advisory committee made up of Weinberg, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Gary Tinterow, and Kim Rorschach, director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

All three attended Brandeis.

“About a year ago, it was questionable whether the Rose would continue to exist as a museum,’’ says Weinberg. “Now, with the arrival of the new president, the Rose Art Museum will become a real museum again. It is a rebirth.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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