Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Rose

Anyone who lives in the Boston area and has seen a newspaper or TV news program in the past few months is well aware of the heated controversy surrounding the Rose Museum of Contemporary Art at Brandeis University.

In January, the university President with the support of the college trustees issued a statement that due to financial strain resulting from a declining endowment, it will be necessary to sell the collection of major contemporary works held in the Rose and redeploy the building for use as a functional studio space for Brandeis students.

It’s a complicated debate, and I am not going to take a strong position about the fate of the Rose museum here on this blog – although I’m strongly in favor of keeping the Rose open – but would rather like to offer an observation concerning what I view as a double standard that exists between the visual and musical arts.

It seems to me that music has always been a poor uncle in the large but somewhat dysfunctional family of contemporary art. Except for a very small cadre of composers who, for the most part, work in Hollywood or produce music for TV commercials, contemporary music has virtually no monetary value. On the other hand, the market for select visual art – painting and sculpture in particular – seems to be thriving, and has even been holding steady in the current recession from Hell. Contemporary art is viewed by many as “an investment.”

Just a few years ago the top brass at Brandeis University debated closing several academic departments, and the PhD program in Composition and Theory was on the chopping block. This frontal attack on contemporary music didn’t make a noticeable dent in the mainstream news. It went unnoticed by all but a few students and professionals in the field. In the end, the composition department narrowly survived the ax and was put in the awkward and humiliating position of defending itself to the power brokers of the university strategically, fiscally, and politically. But compared to the high-profile national attention in the media the Rose museum has generated in recent weeks, the plight of Brandeis composers never even made a blip on the radar screen of public consciousness.

Disdain for the arts emanating from hard-edged administrators is nothing new – even at distinguished institutions of higher education and enlightenment such as Brandeis (my alma mater). As a composer, I’ve come to accept this state of second-class sub-servitude as part of the deal. As a viable trade where one can earn an honest living, the profession of “composer” simply does not exist, and nobody ever made claims otherwise. But one would hope that, from time to time, there is at least a smattering of interest in serious musical work, and that even in difficult economic times, subterranean environments such as the university will continue to support art and music out of a sense of responsibility, if not guilt or public shame. Even in the best of times, contemporary art needs the maintenance of “life support,” but the niche of new music has always been extremely vulnerable and requires “intensive critical care” for its continued survival.

It seems that we are in a different age. Responsibility has fallen by the wayside, and the negative press generated by guilt can be managed by a publicist. Today we are reading about loss of vision and abandonment of responsibility concerning the Rose Museum, about corrupt and incompetent AIG Executives who shamelessly cash their fat public-financed bonus checks, as well as the repercussions of the Madoff meltdown (which have impacted the Brandeis endowment as well as others).

I believe the sad predicament that plagues the new music business is largely related to inferior public relations and the lack of a proper market. Dealers and traders who work in the contemporary art space have managed to create a functioning system of perceived value. Commissioning and purchasing a painting or sculpture by individuals has grown quite commonplace. But for some reason, the idea of commissioning or paying for a musical performance is rare beyond belief – unless there is a significant tax deduction for high-net worth individuals or corporations associated with it. It’s true, you can’t hang a piece of music conspicuously on your wall and later resell it at a handsome profit, but you can enjoy it for the moment and share the unique experience with others.