The Arts Beat: Masters of Arts

BACK IN JANUARY 2009, Brandeis University shocked the art scene (or at least the local slice of it) when it proposed closing its Rose Art Museum and selling off the 6,000-piece collection. Pitchfork-wielding alums and an alarmist press helped save the struggling Rose, but that fiasco served notice to other school museums: In these days of crunched budgets, either stay relevant or face the chopping block. No other gallery has reacted to that warning with the brio of Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center.

First, there’s its current Francis Alÿs show. This Mexico-based Belgian multimedia artist is at the top of the contemporary-art world, with a major retrospective opening in May at MoMA. Then on March 30, the museum welcomes Ghanaian-Nigerian artist El Anatsui, who creates mind-boggling tapestries and sculptures from recycled materials such as liquor-bottle caps. His 60-piece showcase will be an inaugural exhibit at New York’s long-awaited Museum for African Art, which opens in the fall.

“[The Rose controversy] opened up a conversation again about the role academic art museums have on campuses — that there’s a lot more at stake than the bottom line,” says Davis director Lisa Fischman. Just as important, she says, is preserving the works that have fostered so many enriching moments for students past and present. And if that supports the Davis’s ambition to showcase world-class contemporary artists, so much the better. “We want the Davis to be a hub of aesthetic and intellectual activity,” Fischman says. “There’s a whole new chapter here.”

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