Museum Director Chris Bedford transforms The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University
By Suzy Marden — Photographed Carolyn Ross
In a very short time as new director of The Rose Art Museum, you’ve managed to get great press and simultaneously placed the Rose back out in front as a leader in contemporary art museums. Where does this kind of vision and confidence come from?
The quality of the collection at the Rose, the depth and breadth of our exhibition history, which is an admirable legacy to build on, and the incredible support of the administration here at Brandeis University fuels my vision. We have a really sophisticated brand new board, which understand what the museum can be, and the niche that we can occupy in Boston. As I see it, the ecology of cultural institutions in this city is a really healthy one and there isn’t actually too much overlap in emphasis. The Rose’s unique place is as an institution that can narrate a history of art from 1945 to the present like no other institution in this city. But, we do need a couple of things to realize that goal. Principally, additional space, so that will be an emphasis in the next three to five years. But, the genuine authentic need that the institution has for a greater mindshare, greater space, greater visibility, greater support, is what drives my efforts and gives me confidence in the things I say about and for the museum.
Chris, You have been on an upward career trajectory, you could have taken more visible roles at other museums. Why Brandeis’ Rose Museum?
Everything that happened to the Rose, (2008 – 2009) everything that has been rectified since is a dramatic story of correct principals winning out. The museum going from the brink of collapse to a new and incredible prominence is very compelling. Because the arc of that story has attracted so much attention we are in a potentially positive position to capitalize on that by rewriting our place in history based on an objectively glorious institutional history. Because the world is now watching and because we are well positioned through board and staff and university support to be successful, it is a moment of unusual opportunity.
You’re making some gutsy, not always obvious, choices in art acquisition. By commissioning the Burden installation you’re creating a more interactive relationship between art, campus, community, are you not?
For me, it is really essential that the museum announce itself to every community it endeavors to serve and to integrate itself generously within those communities. Our acquisitions, like any other museum, build on the core collections, but I want to announce our collecting strategy in a more public fashion and I want to do that by spilling beyond the museum walls and creating a very literal connection with the campus. Chris Burden’s “Light of Reason” sculpture will be exactly that for us – it will be a portal in and out of the museum – it will be an icon for the institution, and it will be a social gathering spot for faculty, staff and students. I feel really strongly that we need to make the effort to go beyond our museum walls, just as our visitors need to make the effort to come into the museum. So this ideally will be the portal for that exchange.
Burden is one of, if not the, most accomplished artists of the latter part of the 20th century when it comes to making social propositions through his work. I’ve always been compelled by his course from performance artist, to sculptor, to public sculptor. This spring, we’ll bring a near comprehensive exhibition of his small-scale Erector set bridges to the Rose. And, with the “Light of Reason” sculpture and his use of lamps, I think he’s arrived at a new language of public art. And, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. I don’t think that vocabulary has been updated many times throughout the history of art. There’s been the pedestal-bound, figurative tradition that began in ancient Greece; the tradition of abstract sculpture that we associate with artists like Richard Serra; and, then with Chris, we’re seeing something like sculpture in the expanded field – that exists somewhere between the abstract and the figurative tradition, created within a socially relevant context. I love being on the forefront of that!
The Art world is watching you and how you influence the next chapter of the Rose Museum. That is a lot of responsibility. Do you thrive on that kind of pressure?
I’m not alone in this venture. Our new board chair Liz Krupp, a very prominent Boston-area philanthropist and a great collector herself, who has a deep investment in the social goals of Brandeis University, is a wonderful partner. She, as do I, see an alignment between those possibilities and the college’s core philosophy. It’s compelling to me to partner with somebody who sees the world in exactly the same way – and she’s helped me populate the board with a very prominent group of artists (Mark Bradford and Lisa Yuskavage), very powerful Boston area philanthropists, some incredible collectors, and members of the academic community, including Brandeis president Fred Lawrence. It’s a rich and diverse group. We see our institutional future in the same way, and that excites me.
You seem to have an intuitive gift for choosing the “Right Art” for the time. Your choices are both relevant and provocative with an inherent “social consciousness.” Is it part of your mission to educate?
Civic institutions exist to serve metropolitan populations, but the Rose exists to serve a university audience – although that is just the first of three or four concentric circles that we seek to address through our programming. I believe that academic communities galvanize in an interesting way around institutions and can enhance and complicate their programming, particularly in exhibition making and acquisitions. Brandeis University’s emphasis on social justice across academic departments is something I’m trying to instill in our programming, enhancing what we do and distinguishing us from other university-based art museums.
Boston is absolutely the home of academic art history and so we are perfectly positioned on the cusp of collecting, exhibition making, and academia, to lead the way in that area. I want the outside world to understand that Boston is a place for knowledge production for the visual arts, and that university art museums are at the forefront of that effort. That is absolutely my aspiration.
Chris, you may just be having the time of your life steering the Rose into what may be it’s most provocative time to date. What would you like Bostonians to know about the Rose and why should they visit?
I’ve very enthusiastic about the Mika Rottenberg exhibition, which will occupy the Foster Wing in Spring 2014. It will be a major statement for her and for us. Her work is both incredibly sophisticated and very, very accessible. The materials she uses are like no other artist – the way she integrates the moving image with sculptural environments is incredible. She will effect a radical transformation through her own sculptural materials, through architecture, through sound, through light, and through the moving image. It will be a remarkable show.
How is the student body responding to all of the attention focused on the Rose?
The student body at Brandeis is incredible, amazing. Pound for pound the level of rigor and engagement here is like nothing else I’ve seen at a university-based art museum. There is very real aspiration on the part of students to involve themselves in art history as a discipline – so that accounts for part of the engagement, and then I would say that the student body is very advanced and naturally curious, and eager to associate with the museum.
Who would you be collecting at this time?
Right now is a pretty terrific time for abstract painting – if I were a collector, I’d be looking at young and mid-career artists working within the discourse of abstraction in 2-dimensions. I would do your homework, do a lot of looking, and then delve into that area.
In closing Chris, as I look for my next interviewee – if there was one person in Boston that you could ask one question to who would it be?
Artist Matt Saunders, who teaches at Harvard, has always interested me. Grounded in painting, Saunders’ work crosses boundaries between that medium, photography, and short animated films. He is compelling to me because his work is both local and global, and he’s made the decision to stay in the Boston area and teach here. ⚔