Brandeis University is taking another step away from its tarnished past with the hire of a new director for the Rose Art Museum.
In 2009, the Rose was at the center of a highly emotional controversy after the school announced plans to sell its art collection and shutter the on-campus institution. That never happened, but the fallout still lingers. Brandeis officials are eager to change that.
Enter Christopher Bedford. Since 2008, the Scottish-born museum professional has been chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. Now, at age 35, Bedford’s new job at the Rose is his first as a museum director.
"You know, it’s an institution I’ve admired for a long time, and the collection obviously is singular," Bedford said.
One of Bedford's top priorities is to increase the Rose collection's visibility — but that pretty much went viral three years ago. Blaming the recession, Brandeis announced plans to monetize its trove of contemporary art. It includes masterworks by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollack and many others. Taken together the more than 7,000 pieces are like a time-capsule to a very particular, very important moment in the history of American art. The idea of selling even one painting horrified board members, artists, alumni — and Bedford.
"It resonated very deeply with me from afar, and I — like the majority of my peers — followed the story really, really closely," he said.
Bedford calls the outcome a victory for the art world and the school.
"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, it really did spell the beginning of an entirely new chapter. And so it’s a huge privilege to be able to help write that chapter," Bedford said.
And Brandeis officials are eager and optimistic about what Bedford will come up with.
"We really think he’s not only going to help re-establish the museum publicly, but I think he’s going to take it to some new heights," said Scott Edmiston, who directs the Office of the Arts at Brandeis and also chaired the search committee that picked Bedford among nine finalists for the museum director position.
"We wanted someone who had a balance between what was happening in the contemporary art world, but also had a keen understanding of the unique role of a university art museum in terms of scholarship and working with our own faculty and students, and Chris offered that balance," Edmiston explained. "It's a key hire," after all that anger and bad press.
"It is the critical decision," Adam Weinberg agreed. He's one of the countless Brandeis alumni who were floored, heartbroken and disaffected. He said trust is returning, but full trust is hard won. Weinberg graduated in 1971 and is currently director of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.
"What makes a museum is its collection, which is sort of like its genetic code," Weinberg said.
Now that the collection is safe and not going anywhere, Weinberg said the other thing that makes a museum is the people who run it. He's satisfied with Brandeis' choice.
"By embracing somebody at this level they are building this trust again by saying that they are making a major commitment to bring on an important person in the field to carry it forward the next step," Weinberg said.
That said, Weinberg warns that the art world will continue to watch Brandeis, the Rose Art Museum and Bedford closely.
"That’s the silver lining actually, for me, and actually that’s the kind of pressure I relish," the newly hired director admitted.
In fact, Bedford said the idea that all eyes would be on the Rose enticed him to accept the offer. He starts his new job in September, and said art from the museum’s famous collection will be hanging on the gallery walls at all times.
This program aired on July 12, 2012.