BOSTON — Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum continues to move away from its tarnished past. School officials have hired a new director for the on-campus institution that’s been riddled with controversy in recent years.
Strapped for cash during the recession in 2009, former Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz rocked the art world by announcing plans to sell the Rose’s stellar collection of contemporary art — more than 7,000 pieces by masters like Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollack and more.
A firestorm erupted. Board members, artists and alumni were outraged. Lawsuits ensued. After all that drama, though, the museum and its collection were saved.
A new president was hired, and last year, Brandeis renovated the 1961 Rose Art Museum building. And now, after an exhaustive search, the school has hired Christopher Bedford as the Rose’s seventh director. He’s currently the chief curator of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.
WBUR’s Andrea Shea spoke with Bradford about his new job.
Andrea Shea: How are you?
Christopher Bedford: Good. It’s a hectic time, but extremely exciting.
When did you find out you were chosen for the museum director position?
I’ve been in discussion with the Rose some time now, but we reached a mutual agreement probably in the latter part of June. And actually, the final stages of our discussion were happening while I was ironically taking part in the museum leadership course that the Getty Museum runs in Claremont every year, so I was among 33 other colleagues from various different types of museums from across the country — many of whom were directors and some were curators. So it was a very interesting discussion to be happening while theoretically learning to be a director.
I bet you were keeping it under your hat!
I was! And I was going through the course in part as a chief curator in my current position in anticipation of doing something entirely different in September, so it was a layered experience, let’s say.
That’s exciting, especially because it is indeed your first museum director position.
Exactly right, yes.
That’s a big deal.
It is a big deal. You know, it’s an institution I’ve admired for a long time, and the collection obviously is singular and hasn’t perhaps been publicly — or at least in my world — leveraged in the way that it might. And as I was saying in part through the interview process, there are exhibitions I myself have put together, and one in particular that I’m working on at the moment, that had I’d known more intimately the Rose’s collection, I think I probably would’ve made a couple of loan requests from them. So one of my immediate goals would be to radically increase the visibility of that incredibly high-quality collection that has such a specific niche in New England.
Speaking of the collection — were there any hesitations on your part considering the firestorm of controversy, anger and bad press in 2009 that came after Brandeis announced plans to sell its collection?
I don’t think there was any hesitation at all. It became very clear to me in speaking with the leadership at Brandeis and the staff at the Rose that there was a really exaggerated commitment to the place of that institution in the university’s future and there’s a real emphasis placed on culture and the creative arts, and having a collection like that on campus places Brandeis in a very unique position to capitalize on the holdings, so I felt very strongly having talked to the new president and the new provost that all of the emphases were being placed absolutely correctly.
That, in addition to I think the trouble that the Rose found itself in recently, while trying and while very public, did alert the broader art world to the existence of the Rose and their collection in a very particular way, and because in the wake of the controversy the right outcome occurred, I think that did allow the art world to achieve a very substantial victory, and sort of closed the gap between art and life in a way that’s extremely rare.
The premium that we place on creative expression and the need to protect that was really put to the test, and when the museum and the collection were preserved in the process of those negotiations and with the various different lawsuits being closed, it really did spell the beginning of entirely new chapter, and so it’s a huge privilege to be able to help write that chapter.
There are certainly a lot of eyes on the Rose Art Museum, I think, and they’ll be focused on you now, too. How do you feel about the pressure that could come with that?
That’s the silver lining for me, and actually that’s the kind of pressure I relish. While I’m not ready to fully articulate exactly what the vision for the collection and the exhibition schedule and the institution’s place in the campus will be in my imagination, the idea that people will be watching was actually a huge enticement for me to consider this position and ultimately accept the offer.
Well that’s an interesting perspective.
So I don’t want to spend too much time going back to when this all erupted, but it was kind of like a shot heard around the art world. What were your feelings at the time, watching from a distance?
Well, it was very heavily reported both regionally and nationally. And I was at the Wexner Center at that point, having left the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where I was quite heavily involved in acquisitions within the Department of Contemporary Art that placed a huge emphasis on developing its collection.
So having come to the Wexner Center, and I think I’d been here for two years at that point, we did inherit a collection from the university 22 years ago when the center opened, but it’s never been built upon. That said, my heart lies with collecting institutions, and the idea that through collecting you develop a very particular constituency that can return to a collection, that they can consider their own over and over again. So collecting institutions in my mind provides a very specific form of public service and that’s even more exaggerated when the institution sits on the university campus and serves a rotating mass of students who rely on that institution to introduce them to the world of visual art, so it resonated very deeply with me from afar, and I like I think the majority of my peers followed the story very, very closely. And while I didn’t imagine the museum world would allow for a negative outcome, I was really gratified to see the way the art world rallied around the Rose to make sure that the right thing happened.
Last year, Brandeis reopened the Rose after giving it a massive renovation. A facelift, as it were. And part of the stellar art collection was on display to christen the updated building. I had the chance to speak with Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, and a graduate of Brandeis (1971). He, like many others, were outraged and heartbroken when the sale was announced — and then relieved with the resolution that the collection would be saved. At the same time, though, he talked about rebuilding trust after it’s been broken. Trust isn’t easily won, he said. How do you see your role in salvaging trust in the Rose and Brandeis?
Well, I think the institution, the leadership of the university, and the art world as a whole really went to the mat to ensure that the integrity of that collection was preserved. And I think when the institution went through the facelift, as you say, and unveiled the collection as if for the first time in the aftermath of all the trouble the institution had endured, I think that’s precisely the right message. And the idea that the collection isn’t going anywhere and in fact will be built up moving forward in the really strategic, really mindful fashion, to me that’s one way to nourish the public trust.
To me it would be unimaginable not to show a portion of that collection at all times, and I do imagine a very dynamic, multifaceted changing exhibition program, but I can’t imagine within that ever relegating that collection to storage. I think for me in some fashion, and probably quite a dynamic one, the collection will be on view at all times. And to me that sends a very direct message to the public.
So that’s one of your priorities, then?
Yes, and I’m not exactly sure what space would be allocated to the collection at all times, but there’s a notion in my mind, but I think you have to live within the bounds of an institution for a while to make those decisions really firmly. But I can see ways in which small project exhibitions, video installations, larger scale, perhaps thematic shows could all coexist while also foregrounding the collection in rotating ways. And it looks remarkable at the moment when you walk into the museum and you’re met with those masterpieces on the first floor, and to preserve that and inject it with a sense of change, I think that’s really important.
Christopher Bradford starts his new job as museum director at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in mid-September.