Brandeis President Defends Art Museum Sale

As president of Brandeis University, Jehuda Reinharz has seen the school's endowment shrink and donations decline. Reinharz discusses the school's decision to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off much of its collection.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Yesterday, we noted the decision of Brandeis University to sell much of its highly prized collection of modern art to address its financial problems. The collection at Brandeis's Rose Museum is valued, according to newspaper accounts, at about $350 million. The president of Brandeis, Jehuda Reinharz, considers this a painful, but necessary step, and he joins us from Waltham, Massachusetts. Welcome to the program.

Dr. JEHUDA REINHARZ (President, Brandeis University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, to clarify, you do not intend to sell the entire collection of the Rose Museum, I guess.

Dr. REINHARZ: Absolutely not. The decision of the board of trustees did not mandate in any form or shape how much to sell, when to sell, if we decide to sell. If the economy, God help us, changes quickly, we will need to sell much less or perhaps none of the art.

SIEGEL: How big is Brandeis's financial problem right now?

Dr. REINHARZ: We have a $10 million hole right now which we have taken care of. The problem is not this year or next year. The problem is that because the endowment has lost much of its value and because fundraising is down, even when the economy recovers and the stock market recovers, it's going to be reset at a much lower level, which means that we are not going to have any gains for at least five or six years.

SIEGEL: When you speak of the losses of the endowment, what have the losses been of the Brandeis endowment?

Dr. REINHARZ: Well, we are sort of in the middle range of the institutions. We are at about 25 percent.

SIEGEL: Twenty-five percent of your endowment has been lost?

Dr. REINHARZ: That's correct. On June 30th of 2008, we were at $712 million.

SIEGEL: So, your endowment has gone the way of many of the 401(k)s of your faculty, I assume, and of the parents of your students, as well.

Dr. REINHARZ: Absolutely. And that's the other problem. Many students have parents who lost their jobs or are unable for one reason or another to pay tuition because they lost money in the market or elsewhere. Our commitment is to make sure that we do not send any student home who can't pay his bills right now. And we will do everything in our power to make that possible.

SIEGEL: Among Brandeis University's most generous supporters, if not the most - I believe the most generous supporters of the university have been Carl and Ruth Shapiro who were thought to have lost more money than anyone else that they invested with Bernard Madoff. Their foundation and their personal investment combined, more than half a billion dollars. To what degree is this a Madoff problem that you're experiencing?

Dr. REINHARZ: I don't know that we can attribute anything to Madoff right now. It's much too early to speculate on that.

SIEGEL: We had a conversation here yesterday with one man who had donated - he and his wife had donated a Rosenquist print to the Rose. And while he understood that if it must be done, it must be done, he wasn't happy about it. Have you had many conversations with people who gave works of art to the Rose in the past 24 hours?

Dr. REINHARZ: I had a call - you know, it's funny that you should say this - I had a call from an art dealer who gave us an extremely valuable painting, a Warhol, a seven-figure piece. He said to me, look, if you have to sell it, sell it. It's more important to keep the first-rate faculty intact. It's more important to give scholarships to students than to keep this work of art, as great as it is. And I must tell you, it was the best one I got yesterday.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you a question. As you consider what to do with that Warhol painting over the next couple of years, how much does it condition your decisions that 2009, while it may be a terrible year to try to borrow money, could also be a terrible year to try to sell a painting? It could be the worst market just because there isn't so much money around?

Dr. REINHARZ: We are not compelled to sell the art quickly. We will not violate donor's intent, and we don't intend to simply give the paintings away. We realize, of course, the market is depressed, the art market is depressed, and this is not a good time to sell.

SIEGEL: Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. REINHARZ: Thank you.

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