Michael Rush tells Ted Loos about his new position as head of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State, his old one at the ill-fated Rose Museum at Brandeis, and how he got to be a curator in the first place.
Michael Rush has been through the wringer. He was director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Boston in 2009 when the school made a decision that ignited a firestorm of controversy: to shut down the museum and sell the collection.
Not since the moving and re-housing of Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection had a proposal galvanized such outrage in the art world. But this time, the hue and cry changed the course of events. Supporters brought a lawsuit, and two years later they won. (Although by then Rush was long gone, the museum reopened in late 2011 with its collection intact.)
Now, Rush has moved on and is heading a new college art institution, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, built with a $28 million gift from the über-collectors and designed by Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid.
A&A: Tell me about the new Zaha Hadid building.
MR: Some people think of it as a spaceship landing in the middle of East Lansing. It’s on a thin strip of land, which was the Home Economics building, so it’s very horizontal, and it’s all coated in pleated steel. It’s quite magnificent, I must say. There are lots of 90-degree angles, lots of places to hang art.
Its right on the main drag. It’s not buried in the campus, which is enormous—we have 47,000 students and hundreds of buildings.
A&A: It’s fully funded by Eli Broad?
MR: No, the Broads gave the key gift of $28 million. It’s a $40–45 million project, and $7 million of that $28 million is for operations and acquisitions. He’s a graduate of MSU and he’s from the Detroit area; he started his first business there.
A&A: And this will replace the old museum?
MR: Well, it’s interesting you put it that way, because it is the campus art museum, but it couldn’t be more different than the Kresge Museum was. It was the intention of the Broads that it be almost 70 percent exhibition space, so we don’t have a restaurant or an auditorium, or any of those amenities.
A&A: What do you think about that?
MR: Well, all things being equal, I would like those things; however, I like what’s behind the idea of having something that’s really focused on art and exhibitions, so in this 47,000-square-foot space, a great deal of it is devoted to art. We do have a little café area, which is actually rather magnificent.
A&A: What shows are on tap first?
MR: Two exhibitions: one is called “Global Groove: 1973/2012,” which is an homage to Nam June Paik, and it has representative contemporary video art from a dozen different countries. The other multi-object exhibition is called “In Search of Time.” It’s a combination of works from the Kresge Collection, which we inherited—it’s now the Broad-MSU collection—and some key loans from the Broad Foundation. It’s about an international human longing for memory.
A&A: I want to ask about the Rose, but first tell me about your highly unusual career path—how did you get to this place?
MR: I was a priest and a psychologist for several years—right after high school, I became a Jesuit. And my doctoral training was in psychology and religion. I lived in the Far East and did various things, interned at Bellevue Hospital and was on the faculty at NYU Medical School for a while. Severe mental illness was my specialty.
I did pursue theatre and acting too. I did television and commercials and Law and Orders and the typical New York thing. I ended up in New Haven, and these artists were putting on a show—this was in the early ’90s. They said, “Oh, you’re a writer, can you write something about our show?” I said, “I don’t know this world, but yeah.”
So I looked at the work and wrote this blurb for the show, and the New Haven Register called and said, “Would you be our art critic?” And I said, “Well this is insane, but this sounds interesting, this is challenging.” So I really got into art history. I started writing about the shows at Yale. It was serendipitous.
A&A: You ended up at the Rose.
MR: I was there little over four years. I’d still be there for sure. We were having a great time and we were going to build a new building.
A&A: Did the experience of the Rose make you apprehensive about another similar gig?
MR: Yeah. But MSU is an extraordinary global enterprise, a multiple-billion-dollar corporation with a presence in many countries around the world, including China, Japan, Korea, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Brazil, you name it. The huge attraction to me was to come into this international situation in an institution that really was the complete opposite of the Rose—that were really desirous of an art museum. They weren’t trying to close one; they’re building one.
A&A: It felt good in that way?
MR: It felt very good in that way. And it’s proven to be that way. Everybody’s very excited about it. Everything is “Go, go, go!”
The other great thing about what we’re able to do is this collection that we’ve inherited—a 7,000-object historical collection that goes back to Greek and Roman, Pre-Columbian, through some medieval and Renaissance. It’s a very good teaching collection. Before I got there, there had been some thought of having a Photography Gallery, a Renaissance Gallery, and a Contemporary Gallery, but I sort of said, “No, let’s not do that. We’re self-defined contemporary museum, a Broad-defined contemporary museum.”
A&A: Are you going to be doing a lot of mixing of eras? There’s been a lot of that in the last few years.
MR: Yeah, a teaching museum, and it’s a matter of educating ourselves and our audiences about where all this art comes from. We’re one of the few contemporary art museums that happened really by chance to have inherited an historic collection. We want to participate in the conversation at a high level. We have this really great opportunity, to create these synergies and dialogues. It’s very exciting.
A&A: What’s it like working with Zaha?
MR: I’ve had some contact with her. Her people, her representatives, come over once a month, and they are fantastic and careful and on top of everything. As is she. I’ve only spoken to her a couple of times. She’s been very friendly. She’s really having a moment—she was hired 5 years ago, and since then she’s really taken off. It’s hard to pin her down. It was also hard to get an opening date, between her and Eli and the President of the University.
A&A: Does the Rose experience still catch you up short? Do people come up to you and say “How did that happen?”
MR: Yeah. It was such a turning point for so many issues in the art world. And a complete turning point for Brandeis University. People still say, ‘Oh, you were the one.’ It was an enormous learning experience for me—there were things that I would just as soon not have needed to learn ever in life, about what leadership is and isn’t. When you have an experience like that, resulting in one losing a job…much of it day-to-day was so awful that it sort of steels you for the future, too.
A&A: You can handle anything now.
MR: When you’ve gone through something so extreme, it puts other things in a relative situation. Which is good. Especially when you’re trying to launch something new. The Broad Museum is real start-up. We’ve had to do everything from scratch, including creating the vision for the place. It’s extremely interesting and extremely challenging.
A&A: I think people were afraid that they were going to see a wave of mass deaccessioning after the Rose, but it didn’t happen.
MR: I think part of the reason is that the outcry against what happened was so enormous that it would really give someone pause to go through that.
It’s a cautionary tale. You know, when you live day to day within these walls, so to speak, you start thinking that that’s where the whole world is. You forget there’s a much bigger world out there. Even a school as broadly focused as Brandeis—it’s a terrific school, internationally well-known—your thinking can become very insular. So, to think that one could shake up one’s entire cultural heritage and not have a reaction… It was amazing, we heard from so many countries around the world.
A&A: Was there someone you didn’t know who reached out to you?
MR: The most meaningful thing was from a member of Louis Brandeis’ family. The family is from Louisville, and Louis Brandeis was a lover of art, and they were very influential in starting the University of Louisville. We were sent his old letters from a family member, and they read, “The first thing I want you to attend to is an art museum.”
A&A: Are there lessons we can learn?
MR: It shows what can happen during times of panic. This plot finally emerged in January 2009, but it was being hatched long before that. It seemed like a quick fix to a problem that was big, but the situation at Brandeis wasn’t dire—the kids weren’t going to be eating cat food all of a sudden if the art collections weren’t sold. I think the mistake in thinking was: Here we’ve got this asset, and we’re too small a school for that. We don’t need something like this. It was valued at $350 million, even if it wasn’t worth that at that particular time.
A&A: Short-term thinking.
MR: Crazy stuff. The most insidious thing about it was that they thought it was clever to close the art museum, because then we wouldn’t be bound by the ethics of the art world. So we could sell. We could sell because we’re not a museum anymore.
I remember being told, and as I was walking away, I said, “Do you have any idea how much shit is going to hit the fan in like an hour?” It was enormous. It shows really how the art world can come together, as widely diverse and as unregulated and as scary as it can be, it can really come together at different times.
A&A: How long did you have from the decision to get out?
MR: We spent six months, from January to June, going “No, no, no!” and fighting and holding rallies. And then there was an ugly six months being a museum director in reverse, shutting things down. The closing of the museum, it was just a complete reversal of what life was about. Life should be devoted to creating programs, and making relationships and building a board. What was great about it was that the staff, my colleagues, we came together so well, we huddled every day around supporting each other.
A&A: A year or so later, the Broad job landed in your lap. Not bad, right?
MR: I have no complaints. In fact, quite the opposite. To have this come along, which was so much of what I wanted to do, to create a new institution—that’s what I love doing.
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Rush Jobs.”