WALTHAM, Mass. — Back in 2009, Brandeis University announced that it would close its Rose Art Museum and sell off the entire collection, widely regarded as one of the best holdings of postwar and contemporary art in the country. The plan never came to fruition, and five years later, the school and museum are looking to receive a shot in the arm by commissioning Chris Burden to build and install a sculpture outside the front entranceway to the museum. The move, one hopes, signals not only a reengagement with the art world but also a renewed fiscal solvency on the part of the university.
In good part, the great terror that struck Brandeis in 2009 was a direct result of the Ponzi scheme run by investment guru conman Bernie Madoff. According to various reports, some of the school’s major donors lost hundreds of millions of dollars to Madoff. All of them (the donors, that is) were lured in by significantly higher returns on their investments than might be commonly expected. This sordid episode led to a uniquely large budgetary shortfall that Brandeis administrators hadn’t expected at the time, and coupled with the general malaise of the economy, it fostered an air of panic.
What happened next was a public relations nightmare, compounded by the general obtuseness of the university’s former president, Jehuda Reinharz. Quoted in the Boston Globe, he said this about the sale of the roughly 6,000 works of art in the Rose’s collection: “The Rose is a jewel. But for the most part it’s a hidden jewel. It does not have great foot traffic and most of the great works we have, we are just not able to exhibit. We felt that, at this point given the recession and the financial crisis, we had no choice.”
As it turns out the university did have a choice. After a huge outcry from all corners of the art world engulfed the school, order was eventually restored and a seminal contemporary collection was saved from dispersal in a historically soft down market — which bears mentioning (the down market), since these events are equally about the intersection of art and money as they are about art itself.
Interestingly, or perhaps, perversely, Burden himself was the victim of a Ponzi scheme in 2009 as well. Government regulators sidetracked his project “One Ton One Kilo,” created in conjunction with Gagosian Gallery and consisting of $3 million worth of gold bricks, when it was discovered that the bricks were sourced from a Texas businessman named Allen Stanford. Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison for running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in American history; it’s estimated that he cheated investors out of $7 billion over several decades. To date, Burden’s project is still being litigated.
For the Rose Museum, Burden has recycled, on a smaller scale, an idea he used to some effect for the space outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: a formation of antique streetlights. The East Coast iteration is smaller, with 24 antique lights rather than a couple hundred, and called “Light of Reason,” which alludes to a quote by university namesake Louis Brandeis. The piece features three sparse rows of lights, each one representing the torches, hills, or Hebrew letters on the school’s seal. The rather pedestrian installation has the feel of something you might find in a gated community somewhere (which indeed the university is), or at an upscale shopping mall. The reclaimed lights recall recently painted and restored props, more Restoration Hardware than a gilded tribute to either a school or an ideal. The lights are perched on poured concrete pedestals, which can be used as seats, allowing students and other visitors the opportunity to, one assumes, bask under the light of reason. The piece has a plainly inanimate and sterile feel to it, more like a brand-name corrective than something organic and distinct — transactional and self-congratulatory instead of authentic.
What was settled on here pertains more to solvency and a celebration of the potency of money than anything else. Burden was a “get,” as they say, an artist with a deep pedigree and of recognizable importance. To be fair, this seems like a collaborative misstep rather than any one individual’s fault. Institutionally speaking, you can’t blame Brandeis for wanting to break with the past. And certainly a project of this scale, involving an artist like Burden, must have been appealing not only because of the messaging involved but also because of the intensity and depth of Burden’s best work.
That being the case, Burden himself put it best when asked about public art in an interview with Nicholas Drake in 1994. In response to a question posed about Richard Serra’s fraught “Tilted Arc,” he said: “The last thing these institutions want is art … They’re looking for some sort of design to compliment the architecture. They’re looking for signage.”
Surely Burden is not referring specifically to museum commissions here, but his words underscore the difficulty of making engaging and complex art when so many suitors eagerly line up behind a single project.
Chris Burden’s “Light of Reason” is on permanent view outside the Rose Art Museum (415 South Street, Waltham, Massachusetts).