Art and Advertising

Patrons of restoration and expansion projects at museums and churches are now taking full advantage of the benefits of sponsorship, turning important cultural and religious centers into commercial billboards for over-sized advertisements. And the benefits are large. Hewlett Packard’s campaign on temporary construction walls at the London National Gallery occurred in 2004, when attendance levels were at 5 million for the year, up over 13% from the year before, not including the monumental foot traffic at Trafalgar Square. Similarly, Benetton sponsored the $70 million expansion of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which will double the exhibition space and raise the estimated number of daily visitors from 4500 to 7000, with the stated interest of surpassing the Louvre as the premier art institution in Europe. Enormous billboard installations accosted visitors exiting the museum with a Renaissance version of the brand’s famous “United Colors of Benetton” advertising campaign of the 1980s. Nor are churches immune from this commercialized treatment. Milan’s Duomo has been under restoration since 2003, and the reproduction of a watercolor by Jean-Michel Folon is now flanked by two large billboards advertising a bank. One observer re-named the building on a website blog, calling it the “Duomo di Banca Intesa”.

Duccio(?) at the Met

In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, following the lead of Director Philippe de Montebello, made their most expensive acquisition in the history of the institution when they purchased a small painted panel attributed to the late Gothic Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna. This past summer, a debate ensued when ArtWatch President and Columbia Professor James Beck questioned the authenticity of the work, and the Met presented its case via the press. In response, Professor Beck sent the following letter to the New York Times, in an attempt to rectify certain fallacies that had appeared in an item printed on 8 July. It never appeared in the Times, nor was the letter acknowledged by its editors.

JULY 15, 2006

To the Editor,

Mistakes of fact and interpretation in the July 8 Times item entitled “Authenticity of a Met Masterpiece is Challenged” require comment.

(1) The Met’s claim that “virtually every scholar of Duccio accepts this picture as Duccio” is misleading. One expert, Professor Florens Duechler, who was himself a curator at the Met’s Cloisters, did not in his monograph of 1984. In 1997, a monograph by Andrea Weber (Cologne: Könemann) omits the picture altogether from his catalogue of Duccio’s works. In fact, the first known published reference to the painting was in 1901, at which time it was attributed not to Duccio of ca. 1300 but to Sano di Pietro, a 15th century Sienese artist.

(2) The central interview in the item was with Luciano Bellosi, one of the world’s few bona fide Duccio experts. He is quoted as highly enthusiastic about the Duccio attribution. What the item failed to report is that Bellosi has never actually seen the painting. In an interview with Lee Rosenbaum published July 10, 2006 (culturegrrl.blogspot.com) he admitted as much:

“No, unfortunately I didn’t see it with my own eyes, only by photographs….I know it is a very important question. It is always necessary to see the works of art in reality to be sure what they are….Art historians like Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy [of the Met] are very capable to judge the works of art with their eyes. I know their capacity. I trust in them for that.”

Actually, none of the experts who have written monographs on Duccio over the past 50 or more years ever saw it! As Bellosi himself acknowledges, it is of major importance from the point of view of proper connoisseurship.

(3) To support its Duccio attribution, the Met claims that the parapet or perspective shelf in their painting influenced a picture located in the Museo Civico of Montepulciano. The item failed to include my response, namely that the pictures are diverse in size, scale, format, function and derive from different artistic traditions. The Montepulciano Madonna and Angels has three standing figures within an arch, while the Met’s tiny picture is a rectangular tableaux with a single group, a conception congenial to 15th century Flemish and Italian portraits, where the parapet functions spatially as a plane in front of the sacred images. In making this claim, the Met asks us to believe the impossible: that an anonymous pupil copied the notion of the parapet from the master, yet it never again appears in any of Duccio’s
works, nor in the works of any of his great pupils, Pietro Lorenzetti, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. That scenario would be unique in art history.

(4) Contrary to the item, I first expressed my doubts about the authenticity of the painting directly to the curator Mr. Keith Christiansen in an exchange of e-mails one year ago this month. [Full text of e-mails available on request.]:
(4) Contrary to the item, I first expressed my doubts about the authenticity of the painting directly to the curator Mr. Keith Christiansen in an exchange of e-mails one year ago this month. 
[Full text of e-mails available onrequest.]: 
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2005, 2:28 PM
To: Christiansen, Keith
Subject: RE: greetings from Italy
Dear Keith: ……I would be dishonest if I did not mention to you that I personally have some problems with the painting….

(5) The item also failed to include my response to the Met’s suggestion that its scientific testing proved the Duccio attribution. To begin with, it is most indicative that these tests were conducted after the purchase, not before. Besides these tests cannot prove an attribution—they can at best rule out certain kinds offorgeries or misattributions.

(6) The item failed to include my reasons for bringing the Duccio error to public attention. I believe that when a mediocre object is classified as a great work by a great artist, that artist is unfairly diminished and the public is misled.
Sincerely,

James Beck (Professor)

Goya Lost (and Found)!

Although larger and more ambitious exhibitions have become a mainstay of the museum calendar and a primary draw for visitors, the threat posed to the art objects selected for shipment are minimized by the museum officials responsible for the decision.

On the night of 7-8 November, a painting by the Spanish master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was stolen on route from its home in the Toledo Museum in Ohio to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for the exhibition Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History, opening on November 17th. The exhibition was designed to bring together 135 paintings from Spanish artists from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Children with a Cart, a tapestry cartoon painted in 1778, disappeared from a truck parked overnight at a Howard Johnson Inn near Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, while being transported by a professional art shipping company. It was ensured for $1 million, and the unnamed shipping company quickly offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to its return. Few details were released following the crime, which was investigated by the FBI.

The theft of the Goya painting is but a symptom of the drive on the part of museums to host grander exhibitions, ultimately accomplished through agreements to borrow artworks from — and loan artworks to — other institutions, particularly those that are never or infrequently removed from their permanent homes. Although the stolen work came from another American collection, the 27 October press release by the Guggenheim regarding the exhibition celebrates this “first-time” mentality prevalent in the formation of the blockbuster. The sub-heading on the release announced “Many National Treasures Travelling from Spain to the U.S for the First Time”. Emphasis is made on the shipment of works, especially the sixty-five paintings sent from Spain, including fifteen from the Prado and ten from the Reina Sofía.

Despite the theft, Jordan Rundgren, the public relations manager for the Toledo Museum, announced that the museum’s policy of sending works of art out on loan to other institutions would remain unchanged. Perhaps this is not as surprising as it seems, since the Toledo Museum — even in nearly losing a painting from its own collection — benefits from the shipment of artworks. Currently showing at the museum is the exhibition In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite, which features frescoes from five ancient villas of Stabiae. The museum’s website touts this “extremely rare exhibition of 2,000-year-old Roman frescoes that have never before toured the United States”.

The good news? On 20 November the FBI announced that the Goya painting had been recovered in central New Jersey, following a tip phoned in by a lawyer. It was one of at least three major art recoveries that have been celebrated in the press this year. Two other recent major art thefts, those of Benvenuto Cellini’s Salt Cellar and Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna, have also been returned to their respective homes. The Salt Cellar, valued at $58 million, was discovered in January after being stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2003. Likewise, Munch’s paintings, stolen from the Munch Museum in Norway in 2004, were discovered by Norwegian police in August.

Despite the public statement by the Toledo Museum that works would continue to be sent out on loan, the painting will not be sent to the exhibition at the Guggenheim, but rather will be returned to Ohio where it can be shared with the community. The Guggenheim’s Director, Lisa Dennison, said that it was “understandable that the Toledo Museum would want to bring the stolen painting back to its home after this nerve-racking experience.”

In a seeming lapse in logic, the Toledo Museum, understandably rattled but relieved, has returned the work to its institution, all the while vowing to repeat the same practices that put the work in unnecessary jeopardy. If the theft of art works does not lead to the reconsideration of lending policies, then these incidents will undoubtedly happen again, and possibly without the same fortunate results.

Paradise Lost?

In October, the stunning announcement was made that three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the East side of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, will make an unprecedented journey to the United States in 2007. The planned three-city tour will begin at the High Museum in Atlanta, where an exhibition is scheduled from 28 April to 15 July, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece.

The exhibition, which has been in the works for a number of years, was organized by the High Museum in partnership with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which conducted the restoration of the doors. After the High Museum, they will travel to The Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The panels selected for shipment are all from the left door, illustrating the Biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. They will be accompanied by four other figures from the left door frame, two standing figures and two busts.

The 3-ton doors, of which replicas have been placed in their original location since 1990, have undergone an extensive restoration campaign, one panel at a time, that has lasted for more than a quarter of a century. The last of these panels, depicting scenes of Noah, has only recently been completed, and was unveiled on November 3rd in Florence, one day before the 60th anniversary of the flood that was blamed for much of the damage to the doors. Even though the restoration project was not the result of the planned exhibitions, the issue of restoration will be a primary one for the 2007 show. In preparation for this, the High Museum instituted a workshop in Florence to study the creation and treatment of the doors. In addition, of the two standing figures and two busts to be shipped with the panels, one of each will be shown in its pre-restored state as a means of demonstrating the effects of the modern cleaning campaign.

Increasingly, art restoration has been tightly linked with these blockbuster exhibitions, and hence with tourism. The High Museum in the past has used the incentive of restoring a work of art as a means of bargaining for more and more high-profile loans. In 2003, the High funded the restoration of Andrea del Verrocchio’s bronze David, with its same interest in the scientific and technical aspects of the cleaning, in return for its loan to the Atlanta museum for a nearly three-month period in late 2003 to 2004. In fact, the exhibition, which was the first time in its over 500-year history that the statue left Italy, was entitled Verrocchio’s David Restored, emphasizing the notion of discovery via new technology over the object itself. This idea that something must be made “new” in order to entice visitors to the blockbuster show is something that underlies the Ghiberti exhibition as well.

It is true that the High Museum did not assist in the financing of the Gates of Paradise restoration, which was funded by the Italian government with assistance of the American group Friends of Florence (who pay for the restoration of high-profile objects, including the recent controversial cleaning of Michelangelo’s David). Nonetheless, financial support of a future restoration project was promised in return for the loan: the High Museum has agreed to fund the cleaning of the Silver Altar of the Baptistery, now housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

There seems to be an awareness of the risk of sending these irreplaceable objects on a three-city trans-Atlantic tour, as well as of the fragility of their state. Even after restoration, the doors will never be returned to their original outdoor setting on the eastern face of the Florentine Baptistery. Nor will they ever travel again, according to Italian officials. Instead, they will be placed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in hermetically sealed, oxygen-free cases, in order to protect them as fully as possible from environmental threats. Special cases are being designed for their transport, and the panels will travel separately.

Regardless of any attempts to ensure the safety of those pieces of Ghiberti’s doors, there are risks involved in the shipment of any art object, ranging from damage caused by transportation, the threat of catastrophic events such as airplane crashes, to theft. The question is, does the financial benefit of the partnership between the High Museum and the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence warrant the assumption of those risks, especially in the case of an object so precious that the decision has been made never to take those chances before, or again in the future? The Director of the High Museum referred to Ghiberti’s doors as a “major pilgrimage,” which is undoubtedly true. But it is up to the pilgrim to make the journey.

Another Anniversary

Timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the death of Andrea Mantegna (born c. 1431) in 1506, three Italian cities in which the artist executed some of his major works are hosting exhibitions in the artist’s honor: Mantua, Padua and Verona, each set to run from 16 September 2006 until 14 January 2007. Mantua’s exhibition, Mantegna a Mantova: 1460/1506, will be held at Palazzo Te, Padua’s Mantegna e Padova: 1445/1460 will be held at the Eremitani Museum, while Verona’s Mantegna e le arti a Verona will be at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia.

As is often the case with large blockbusters, the organizers have emphasized several opportunities for the visitor that make the show a must-see. It has already been announced that when the exhibitions end in January, the San Zeno Altarpiece in Verona, one of Mantegna’s most important works, will undergo an extensive two-year restoration campaign, making this the viewer’s last chance to see the work for the near future. The exhibition also offers the opportunity to see the Ovetari Chapel frescoes in the Eremitani in Padua, which were shattered into 80,000 small fragments following an airstrike in 1944. With the help of new computer software, they have been recomposed and will be on view as part of the anniversary celebrations.

In order to orchestrate the events, the Ministry for the Cultural Heritage and Activities created an 82-member National Committee (Comitato Nazionale per le Celebrazioni del quinto centenario della morte di Andrea Mantegna) composed of scholars and government officials. In a nearly unprecedented example of the mass-shipment of works of art, 140 museums and collections agreed to lend works of art by the artist and related masters, 352 of them in total. The website for the project calls the undertaking “a completely new type of exhibition” in terms of its scope, with each of the cities hosting not only their share of the primary exhibition, but numerous other related shows at secondary sites. On behalf of the exhibition, Alpitour is offering 2- and 3-day travel packages to all of the shows, for E135 and E245, respectively.

As in the case of most large exhibitions, the works are undoubtedly put at risk by their shipment. Some daunting statistics are offered on the exhibition’s website: The collective insured value of the works is E647,000,000, and fifty-five works were restored for the shows, with a total cost of E271,000. The exhibition also touts the obligatory “new discoveries,” such as the Madonna della Tenerezza, a formerly unknown painting in a private collection, which is annexed to the Padua show (on view at Palazzo Zuckermann).

Not all of the loans were easily acquired. Vittorio Sgarbi, President of the Mantegna Committee and curator of the Mantua exhibition, requested that the city of Bergamo loan Mantegna’s Madonna and Child, currently housed in the Accademia Carrara. Bergamo, which refused the loan citing the painting’s fragile condition, subsequently distributed 20,000 free passes for entrance to the Accademia to see the work.

Other loan requests by the organizers of the Mantuan exhibition were met with similar reluctance on the part of the institutions. The Brera Gallery in Milan refused to send Mantegna’s Dead Christ, also citing its delicate condition. Sgarbi claimed that the museum was “telling lies,” since the work had been shipped to Mantua in 2002 for another exhibition: “It is not possible for a work to have been in good condition four years ago, when it was loaned to Mantua, and ‘sick’ now. Someone is not telling the truth. We send troops to Lebanon, but not paintings to each other”. Despite pressure applied by Sgarbi, who claimed that the absence of the Dead Christ and the St. Sebastian from the Ca’ d’Oro would cost E1.6m in entrance fees, approximating that 200,000 fewer people would attend, the Italian Culture Minister and Vice Prime Minister Francesco Rutelli initially supported the Brera’s decision.

Sgarbi wrote an open letter to Rutelli:

“Dear Minister, Get them to tell you the truth. Brera will not loan us Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Ca’d’Oro refuses to give us the Saint Sebastian. The galleries are making it a health issue, saying that the paintings cannot be moved because they are unwell. Do not allow yourself to be bullied by deceitful officials: intervene so that we can have them”.

Sgarbi argued that the works were in a satisfactory condition, and therefore should be sent to the exhibition, but that if they were in fact that fragile, it was wrong to let them deteriorate further and his committee would fund their restoration.

Initially, Rutelli held his ground and did not overrule the technical judgment of Brera officials. The ministry defended the decision of the Brera, citing the unusual methods of the painting, which is tempera on canvas. Then, in August, Rutelli announced: “I approved that the Dead Christ of Brera be sent to the Mantegna exhibition in Mantua after an in-depth technical inspection. We have also made available some other works that were requested by the organizing committee and the city mayors, with the help of the Ministry. I feel that guidelines should be decided for loans and exhibitions, and that is why I have set up a Commission with a high scientific profile, in order to help requests be made with greater certainty.”  Rutelli has since announced the formation of a Committee to establish official state guidelines for the lending of works of art.

Like the Brera, the Ca d’Oro in Venice also had objections to the lending of one of its Mantegna works, a Saint Sebastian. Their refusal was multi-faceted. First, they argued, the work was currently undergoing restoration, which could take an additional few months. Secondly, they argued that the museum’s collection was substantially diminished by its absence.

With anniversary exhibitions on the rise and an ever greater interest in more complete shows with more impressive loans, the Mantegna exhibitions in Mantua, Padua and Verona have set a very dangerous precedent. No longer will the fragility of an object be a hindrance to the loan of any work deemed critical for an exhibition, even if — or especially if — the need is a financial one.