The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum, one of the most important collections of postwar art in New England.
The decision to close the 48-year-old museum in Waltham, Mass., and disperse the collection as a way to shore up the university’s struggling finances was denounced by the museum’s board, its director and a wide range of art experts, who warned that the university was cannibalizing its cultural heritage to pay its bills.
“This is one of the artistic and cultural legacies of American Jewry,” said Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the museum’s board of overseers, who said that “nobody at the museum — neither the director nor myself nor anyone else — was informed of this or had any idea what was going on.”
Jehuda Reinharz, the university’s president, said in a statement that the decision, made on Monday by the university’s trustees, was agonizing but necessary as Brandeis faces a deepening financial crisis, with its endowment, once $700 million, significantly diminished. “Choosing between and among important and valued university assets is terrible, but our priority in the face of hard choices will always be the university’s core teaching and research mission,” he wrote.
The museum’s collection includes some 6,000 works — among them seminal paintings by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — that are believed to be worth $350 million to $400 million, although they could bring less in the current ailing art market.
“It couldn’t be a worse time to sell expensive art,” said Robert Storr, the prominent curator and art historian. “It is not only unprincipled, but bad economics.”
He added: “This sets a terrible precedent. The Rose Art Museum has been known for four decades as a hospitable place to show serious and challenging art in an academic context. They are throwing away one of their prime assets.”
Johns, represented in the collection by the 1957 painting “Drawer,” which was on view in a large exhibition of his work last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said when notified on Tuesday of the closing: “I find it astonishing. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Emily LaGrassa, director of communications for the state attorney general, Martha Coakley, said that Brandeis had informed the office on Monday of its decision, but had not consulted with the attorney general in advance. The attorney general has approval powers over certain actions of nonprofit institutions in the state.
LaGrassa said that in the case of Brandeis, the attorney general would review wills and agreements made between the museum and the estates of donors to determine if selling artworks violated the terms of donations. “We have not yet offered any opinion on any aspect of the proposed sales,” she said, adding, “We do expect this to be a lengthy process.”
Dennis Nealon, a spokesman for the university, said it would have no comment on any legal questions related to the proposed closing and the sale of the art. The university said in a statement that the Rose would shut down by late summer and be turned into a teaching center with a gallery.