2016-12-19 Victoria & Albert Museum Poster Saatchi & Saatchi
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Stewardship of Art in the Face of Museum “Sprawl”.

Ruth Osborne
2016-12-19 Zayed National Museum

Rendering of future Zayed National Museum. Courtesy: Foster + Partners.

 

 

 

 

 

Our recent post addressing corporate sponsorship and crowdfunding questions the funds behind the support of our artistic and cultural heritage in the past few decades. In that same vein, we felt it important to call to light where major collections are either dividing themselves across continents or are getting swallowed up by larger institutions. ArtWatch has been vigilant to address issues of collections stewardship and donor’s bequests since it became aware of the debate over the disruptive treatment and eventual move of the Barnes Collection from its original housing in Merion, PA in the 1990s. Our recent coverage has included such issues of museum “sprawl” as the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi (on which construction has yet to begin), as well as the British Museum’s promised loans to the Zayed National Museum (for which “[The British Museum] will receive a significant fee for the loan, which it needs to offset the impact of Government cuts.”). The following, we hope, helps paint a truer picture of how the art and museum world has been taking shape in recent years.

The issue at hand is: how is a collection being stewarded well, according to the original aims of its founders, when funds in the 21st century are more and more being diverted for large expansion projects and long-term loan relationships? Furthermore, what is the true aim behind such massive moves of artworks and exorbitant spending for new spaces by the latest trendy architects? What happens to collections that are forced to be broken up because of financial misconduct and over-spending on expansions? This has come into play in recent years with the Delaware Art Museum’s deaccessions (to shore up their finances after millions were shelled out for a 2005 expansion) and break up of the Corcoran Gallery of Art & College of Art + Design (when they lacked the $100 million needed to maintain their historic Beaux-Arts home in D.C.).

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

In the case of the Corcoran, both the collection and its historic building were acquired by mega institutions that, despite their professed best intentions, will likely end up simply swallowing the unique history of the Corcoran. This is already being seen in the great secrecy and mistrust that has characterized the first year of the College of Art + Design under helm of George Washington University. New administration has reportedly not let long-standing faculty in on important decisions regarding restructuring, and students (both old and new) are feeling ostracized as well, with enrollment down from 404 to 294 students. That’s a 24% decrease since the takeover two years ago. The effects this lack of transparency with professors and students is already being seen in those who are the beating heart of the school, those most dependent on its future and who care most about their school’s impact on the arts world.  With the Barnes Collection years ago, there was a similar – if more vocal – division between the vision of the new administration and the people on the ground actually being affected by their decisions.

While this isn’t expansion and sprawl on behalf of the now-defunct Corcoran, are visitors to the huge National Gallery of Art really aware of the unique origin of these works? Even recent remarks from NGA staff demonstrate that the Corcoran collection, established long before, is still renowned for its works that can now only “fill gaps” in the NGA’s own display. Works too similar to what the NGA already had, though important, were dismissed and offered to other national collections. Besides the small print in the label next to the artwork in whichever gallery building it ends up in, how else is the Corcoran’s history recognized? We hope the plans for the Corcoran to keep its congressional charter to operate as a unique non-profit with the mission to “encourage American genius” will help somewhat to continue its unique heritage. But that is still to be seen.

2016-12-19 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park London

Rendering of the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London featuring a 7-story museum with exhibit space for the Smithsonian. Courtesy: University College London.

Elsewhere in Washington, a merger was announced this year that promises to bring items from the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection over to London’s former Olympic Park alongside pieces exhibited from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. This occurred despite Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton’s hesitancy expressed to the public when it came to making a final decision on the project. The Institution ultimately confirmed plans to create a permanent collaborative exhibition space with the V&A, University College London, London College of Fashion, and other cultural institutions. Besides increased travel activity of artworks in the Smithsonian’s collection, this will also involve another risky factor: a requested nearly 10% increase to its 2017 budget to facilitate the new series of loans.This increased strain on Smithsonian’s budget that could be put towards its current needs, which include the hundreds of millions in infrastructural repairs needed on its Air & Space Museum, as well as the hundreds of millions more it cost to construct the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (just opened Sept. 2016). It nearly established its own independent wing at the Olympic Park, but that was put to a halt earlier this year, due reportedly to “annual operating overhead” that would expectedly “cast a big shadow over the primary objective” of increasing the Smithsonian’s international audience.

2016-12-19 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expansion Renzo Piano

Gardner Museum with recent expansion by Renzo Piano. Courtesy: Boston Magazine.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA also recently announced their $650 million initiative for a huge expansion of their public galleries and conservation spaces for a “new type of museum experience”. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum over in Boston may be proving an alluring example to the PEM, having proudly opened its new Renzo Piano-designed 70,000 sq ft wing, atop a demolished 1907 carriage house, in 2012.  So what is this new museum we have created in the 21st century? James Panero asks this same question in his recent article “The Museum Industrial Complex Is Thriving (But Did The Art Get Lost?”. He highlights major shifts in the attitudes of the public and museums themselves that move away from the art that was the reason for founding any museum in the first place.

2016-12-19 Victoria & Albert Museum Poster Saatchi & Saatchi

V&A Poster by Arden and Stark, for Saatchi & Saatchi, 1988. Courtesy: V&A Collections Online.

Some of this is an attempt to make the arts less “stuffy”, such as the V&A’s brazen 1980s advertisements as “An Ace cafe with a nice museum attached”. In the past few years, as outlined above, museums are increasingly spending billions on visitor services (dining, special events, etc.). What we don’t see in the press is how museums are investing in the fragile art within its walls by investing in preventative measures and curatorial staff. What we do see a lot of is art handled and interfered with more as it is shipped in traveling exhibitions around the world after which conservators are paid to touch up any damages that may have happened while in transit. Historic buildings like the Corcoran are crumbling and forced to give up their works to other institutions; or in the case of the Gardner, are being razed to make way for a perceived better space for visitors to experience.  The art that was placed in galleries decades ago is now having to prove why it should be there in the first place, and why we should take time to look at it.

In this respect, museums are now also turning towards promoting a museum as a space to encounter and participate in social change and self-reflection. Rather than looking at the art, visitors are now told they should come to look at the art as a mirror back onto themselves, something the author argues “it does not learn from history but to show the superiority of our present time over past relics”.  The present is more important. How you see yourself in the work of art is what advertises the museum to more new visitors on social media. But what about the art itself? The “socially oriented museum”, according to Panero, thereby stands in a “non-profit profit motive that seeks ever larger crowds, greater publicity, expanding spaces, ballooning budgets, and bloated bureaucracy – a circular system that feeds on itself – has turned the American museum into a neoliberal juggernaut.”

2016-11-08 Terracotta Warrioers British Museum exhibition
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How Much is that Rembrandt on the Gallery Wall?

Ruth Osborne

How Much is that Rembrandt on the Gallery Wall?

Do we question the money – and the hands holding the money – behind all the art world’s headline-grabbing exhibitions, restorations, and museum expansions? Furthermore, do we consider exactly how that money is being acquired? It may surprising to some that in the very act of fundraising for such projects that will supposedly help prolong an artwork’s lifetime and educational capabilities, the physical condition of said artwork is actually put at risk! Consider the following…

CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP

2016-11-08 Raphael Deposition

Raphael’s Deposition (1507), restored.

Throughout ArtWatch’s 25 years of intervening on behalf of art, we have seen much done hastily with the support of corporate sponsors. Take, for instance, Jaguar’s funding of Raphael’s Deposition in the Borghese Gallery (2005), which removed a not-so-old 1960s-70s varnish only to apply a new coat of “protective varnish” (which will of course yellow as well and have to be removed and replaced in another 50-60 years). Other well-respected restorers heavily questioned the treatment, insisting the work was actually in perfect health already. This is simply one example of restoration being done on a work of art without first establishing a consensus of experts on that artist, who would be able to more thoroughly consider the precise needs of the work in question. Each work of art is a unique living organism unto itself – and it must be treated as such.

It should also be noted that this Raphael restoration work involved the ENEA (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development). It is an Italian Government-sponsored research and development agency which, according to its mission undertakes research for the purpose of developing and enhancing Italian competitiveness and employment.

In some cases, an emergency repair is indeed required – such as Prada’s recent support for restoration of Vasari’s The Last Supper (which had been destroyed in the Florence flood of 1966). But oftentimes, treatment is taken not with the aim to improve the health or integrity of the artwork. For instance, the Estée Lauder-sponsored treatment of paintings by Tintoretto, Raphael, and San Giovanni at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence between 1999 and 2000.

2016-11-08 Tintoretto Exhibition Palazzo Pitti

Tintoretto Exhibition at the Palazzo Pitti.

Funds from Lauder did not prioritize care for works needing minor treatment that might go unseen by the public eye, which would actually be  appropriate, as any conservator’s handling of a painting should better reflect the original author’s hand rather than make obvious the conservator’s hand. Rather, the works selected for treatment were those the “erotic intrigues” of Venus that, according to former minister of culture Antonio Paolucci in the small catalogue for the exhibition of these completed restorations, served as a “deliciously effective public relations message.”

In 2007, Morgan Stanley sponsored a significant traveling loan from China to the British Museum: that of a squad of terracotta warriors from the excavated mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The warriors were included among over 100 fragile, and rather priceless, objects shipped from Xi’an, China to London. This exhibition was intended to draw more attention to on-going excavations at the site, even though the presence of increasing numbers of visitors since the discovery in 1974 has drawn greater concern over environmental damages to the works in situ. Concerns center on the deterioration of pigments on clay sculptures, in addition to other delicate materials such as silks, woods, and bronzes, with the corrosive elements, bacteria, mold, and other foreign pollutants in the environment  around the enclosed tomb. The British Museum show, which would also travel to the High Museum in Atlanta, ended up spinning off a second exhibition, “Terra Cotta Warriors”, which brought the ancient sculptures even farther afield – to Santa Ana, CA, Houston, Washington, D.C., and then New York City.

2016-11-08 Terracotta Warrioers British Museum exhibition

Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum exhibition. Courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images.

2016-11-08 Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum 2007

Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum exhibition. Courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images.

But the question remains to be asked: why are major companies and donors sponsoring millions in art conservation and loan exhibitions where the money goes in the door and back out again? Millions are being drawn on for temporary treatments that will only last till the next generation of conservators changes their minds, or temporary exhibitions that will only last a few months or years. The Bank of America Art Conservation Project, on which we have posted in here and herecontinues to be praised for the great impact and reach it has across many museums in the U.S. Meanwhile, many historic collections are drastically losing general operating support from donors and grant agencies that goes into the long-term care of works of art. Indeed, the breaking up of the Corcoran collection, the National Academy’s move, and the Thomas Cole painting in limbo in the Seward House Museum’s collection all point to the consequences of operating support going out the window.

2016-11-08 Credit Suisse National Gallery London

Credit Suisse at National Gallery 2015. Courtesy: National Gallery.

Other issues come along with major corporate sponsors of restorations or loan exhibitions, including the demand that their marketing campaign cover the historic facade and gallery walls of a museum. Last year’s exhibition of Goya portraits at the National Gallery (London), sponsored by Credit Suisse, also brought prominent marketing opportunities for the Swiss banking group. The banner that ran around the outside of the Gallery in Trafalgar Square featured Credit Suisse nearly as prominently as it did examples of Goya’s portraits for intrigued passersby.

2016-11-08 Albright-Knox Gallery Buffalo NY

Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. Courtesy: Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Exhibitions and restoration is not all that is getting funded where operating and research are left in the dust. Major building expansions are also carrot that pulls donors’ hands out of their deep-pockets. Take, for instance, the $100 mil Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery managed to squeeze out for an ambitious expansion.

The press release highlights four major points this huge gift will address:

  • “Provide much-needed space to exhibit the collection of masterworks […]
  • Create first-rate facilities for presenting special exhibitions
  • Enhance the visitor experience with new and better space for education, dining and special gatherings
  • Integrate the museum’s campus within Frederick Law Olmsted’s Delaware Park”

As to the specific ways in which the funds will improve curatorial and registrarial care for the works now going out on display, the press release continues with a more ambiguous statement below: “the museum is also seeking to increase its endowment funds to broaden organizational capacity and ensure that an expanded Albright-Knox can thrive in the twenty-first century.”
Sponsors certainly prefer to support the restoration of major mastorworks, rather than ones that might go unseen on the gallery walls. They like to put their name beneath traveling exhibitions that draw millions from around the globe, and in so doing put the artworks at greater risk to exposure or damage. The epidemic of promotional restorations, exhibitions, and expansions is one in which museums market their collection and their cultural relevency like one markets products. How is this trend in sponsorship impacting the care of collections for the future? We would like to pose a few questions as our readers consider other examples of corporate sponsorship today:

  • What are the strings attached with corporate sponsorship? How much restoration is now being used as a “come-on” for financial support?
  • How is a sponsor’s desire to stick their name brand on the walls of a gallery balanced with the actual work done on the art they are “supporting”?
  • How greatly is a company’s sponsorship of art restoration or a traveling exhibition diverting public attention away from some less scrupulous activities they are simultaneously involved in?

 

CROWDFUNDING RESTORATIONS

Historic collections are also increasingly given to crowdfunding from local residents for conservation projects, creating a sort of conveyor belt-type of system for ongoing work. In many instances, this involves an up-close and personal tour or event in the space or gallery with the collection. But what also occurs at these events are the heavy passed hors d’oeuvres and drinks that get added to the same space with the collection and that can, paradoxically, encourage the objects’ deterioration.

 

2016-11-08 Vatican Museums Wishbook Patrons

2016 Wishbook. Courtesy: The Patrons of the Arts in The Vatican Museums.

The Vatican Museums’ “Patrons of the Arts” program, which has been going on for over 30 years, sponsors restoration projects throughout its collections that are listed in the annual “Wishbook”. We reported on recent festivities to honor the support of these patrons – a five-day VIP treatment at the Vatican Museums, including “lectures on museum restoration projects, catered dinners in museum galleries, a vespers service in the Sistine Chapel … and even a one-on-one with Pope Francis himself.”

 

Do we really think we are helping aging works of art live longer by these activities? Issues of the frescoes’ deterioration acknowledged in recent years has brought forth a new call for funding that, instead of working towards a sustainable operating environment and visitor [maintenance] that could slow down deterioration, would enable the millions of annual visitors to view the frescoes enhanced by new LED lighting in the chapel. Instead of seeing a work close to the way it would have been experienced originally as an organic part of the larger structure of the chapel, this new lighting proposes we experience, as Michael Daley has reported  “ ‘a completely new diversity of colour’  […] the product of artificially selective sources of lighting, quite unlike anything found in nature and unlike previous systems of artificial light used in churches and chapels.”

2016-11-08 Vatican Museum Patrons

Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum.

Italy in particular has become known in recent years for unapologetically reaching out into the pockets of other countries. Major grants have been provided in the past nearly 20 years by the Washington-based organization Friends of Florence. This group of American funders provided $910,000 for the re-opening of the “Botticelli Room” at the Uffizi in Florence in just a few weeks ago on October 18th, where 19 works by the Renaissance master (listed here) were said to be restored before re-installing in two newly lit gallery spaces. As far as we know, there has yet to be published the thorough reasoning behind the restoration of all 19 works at once.

Another organization that provides Italian works of cultural heritage with funding for restoration is the International arm of FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano, founded in 1975), organized to promote American and English, as well as broader European, support. Its New York chapter states on the website that it aims at: “safeguarding of that culture through the organisation of events, trips, conferences, seminars, exhibitions and concerts throughout the States.” As American art appreciators and donors are increasingly approached to sponsor restoration, exhibition, and expansion projects at museums both at home and abroad, we would encourage a heightened level of awareness for the long-term impact their support can have on the works themselves.

 

2016-10-20 Sistine Ceiling Secret of Michelangelo Alexander Eliot
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Sistine Ceiling, Before and After Restoration: Looking Back In Order To Look Forward.

Ruth Osborne

Several years ago, ArtWatch helped produce a film on the changes that occurred when the Sistine Chapel ceiling underwent restoration in 1980-1994.

It considers the frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarroti before and after the massive restoration treatment. We would like to share with you some outtakes of the film that we believe may enlighten viewers to the importance of considering how a work is treated when restored, as well as paying attention to its care post-restoration. ArtWatch UK has recently provided studies on these new developments here and here. For the full film, click here: “ArtWatch: The Scandal Behind Art Restoration” (2005)

What is most compelling are the interviews of those who had seen the frescoes up-close and personal before 1980 – artist Frank Mason and writers Alexander and Jane Eliot. Have a look at the clip posted above, as well as the Eliots’ 1967/68 documentary The Secret of Michelangelo below, which provides unique coverage of the ceiling before treatment. Artists may not have been consulted before the 1980s-90s restoration, and no condition reports were done to address the particular needs and options for treatment. But now, though it’s taken 20 years, the artistic and broader public are now more aware of how significantly restoration can alter and damage a work of art irreversibly. Perhaps, with the current concerns over increasing atmospheric pollution, overcrowding, and visibility amidst deterioration, those responsible for this expansive work will reconsider such reckless techniques. For the book that takes an extensive look at this and other restoration damages, Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and The Scandal (1996), copies are available via our New York office or here.

 

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art
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Remembering the Consequences of Mishandling Art.

Ruth Osborne

Every so often it is useful – indeed, instructing – to take a glance at the current environment in the art world and see what recent developments show about what the future holds. For ArtWatch, this means considering again the consequences of collections across the country that we have seen dismembered or mishandled over the past few years. We cannot remain in the dark about the damages done to art when its appointed stewards forsake their responsibility. Keeping one eye always open and aware is the key keeping in check the mishandling and greed that always has the potential to consume what unique artistic and cultural heritage has been handed down to us.

Washington, D.C.

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

The former Corcoran Gallery and College of Art + Design has been reeling since its dissolution two years ago when the collection was handed over to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the art students and faculty were brought under the mantle of George Washington University. Both have suffered at the hands of the behemoth institutions that now own them. Corcoran College faculty and students are experiencing a culture clash as GW, a primarily research-led university, enforces curriculum changes and struggles to connect with the non-capitalist-driven founding principles of the College. Faculty did not even review student portfolios for its first admissions  process with GW. Relates one student: “At one point, a career counselor went into a Corcoran class and told students that art was a hobby and to look for real jobs.”  And just this May, after only 1 school year under GW’s wing, Corcoran professors experienced massive layoffs – over half its faculty – including several department heads. This not only left many students concerned for who would come on next to continue guiding their artistic education, but it also left course listings for this fall’s semester looking rather without direction, as they lacked any named professors for some time. Said one student of the faculty cuts: “This is atrocious on the part of the GW administration and it is not something that should be swept under the rug.”

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

Corcoran Collection installed at the NGA 2015. Courtesy: Molly Riley / AP.

Meanwhile, the 17,000 piece Corcoran collection was removed from its historic landmark Beaux-Arts home of 117 years and sifted through by NGA staff with much secrecy as to what made the cut for accession into their collection and why. Many in the arts world have questioned the NGA’s aims to “fill gaps” in their own collection; while the larger issue has been raised of what it means that one of the first independent museums in the country, with its own unique collecting history under its founder William Wilson Corcoran, to be removed from its unique context and stuck within a larger federally-owned collection. The context of late 19th century American art and collecting, with Corcoran’s own relationships with artists and dealers, is lost. The personality of the collection, its social and economic context, is harder and harder for the viewer to grasp at.

Wilmington, DE

2016-10-15 Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum, founded in 1912 with the one of the nation’s most extensive Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood collections, in addition to that of Brandywine River School and Ashcan School artists, has gone through several deaccession sales and a blacklisting by the American Associations of Museums in an attempt to pay debts on their 2005 expansion.  Ironically, an upcoming fundraiser for a local non-profit being hosted at the Museum is titled “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”; the evenings program will have guests solve the mystery of a “masterpiece” that has gone missing from the Museum’s walls. Now, the curatorial staff must work under a Board whose respect for the stewardship of a collection and its founding mission is questionable. Meanwhile, the dismissal from the AAM network is not boding well for their line-up of exhibitions and loans from other AAM-accredited institutions, whose previous agreements for collaboration are now invalid. Meanwhile, the pay-off for selling the selected works – one by Alexander Calder, one by Andrew Wyeth, another by Winslow Homer, and another by William Holman Hunt – wasn’t ideal. While the Calder fetched its estimate, the Hunt fell far below what was expected and the Homer and Wyeth were forced to sell privately. Though it has been over a year since the last two were sold, their prices remain undisclosed, even after inquiry by ArtWatch. Their most recent financial report relates that the second two deaccession sales yielded $9.5 mil in proceeds, so, considering the $4.25 ($4.9 with premium) brought in by the Hunt and the $10.6 mil brought in by the Calder, the Museum still falls at least $5 mil short of their over $30 mil+ deficit. The Museum also received a new CEO and Executive Director this April, Sam Sweet, who, unlike the former CEO and CFO Mike Miller, actually possesses an art history degree (from Columbia). Miller will return to his formerly held position as part-time CFO.

2016-10-15 Winslow Homer Milking Time

Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875. Private Collection (formerly, Delaware Art Museum).

*Interesting side note: Sweet also served as the Corcoran Gallery of Art/College of Art + Design’s COO from January 2008 thru June 2009, a rather short stint just before the cracks in the armor of the now defunct institution were beginning to show in 2011-2012. In fact, the deaccession and sale of 10 paintings from the Corcoran’s collection was announced under his directorship as the first “rare move” in a series of steps “toward refining the museum’s focus and providing funds for purchasing future works.” This announcement came after failed attempts to raise funds for repairs, to rise above its recurring $1 mil+ deficits, and, of course, an “ambitious” $200 mil expansion by Frank Gehry.

Auburn, NY

2016-10-15 Seward House Museum

William Seward House in Auburn, NY. Courtesy: Preservation Association of Central New York.

The Seward House Museum in upstate New York had kept a central painting in the collection – Thomas Cole’s Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) – in storage for over two years after new owners of the museum, the Emerson Foundation, began to consider its sale in favor of the millions with which it could help spill over into its own pockets. This resulted in a replica of the original painting being left on display in the museum while the original languished in storage while being considered for sale.

2016-10-15 Thomas Cole Portage Falls

Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, 1839. Courtesy: Emerson Foundation / Seward House Museum.

News of its sale has not yet emerged, but a recent inquiry to the Museum staff revealed that it is still in storage and there are no plans to return it to its historic setting in Seward’s home. Meanwhile, one of its popular tours, called “The He(art) of the Seward House”, continues to be offered to visitors, though a central piece in the collection has been potentially forever replaced by a “museum-quality” replica”. According to their website, the tour promises guests a view into “the fabulous and fascinating artwork of the Seward House moves from the backdrop to the foreground in this art-centric tour. Learn how aesthetics framed the world – and home – of the Seward family, as well as which artists and art movements caught their eyes.” Meanwhile, a grassroots group committed to returning the Cole painting to the Seward House reported in March that the New York Attorney General’s office (who had been active in prohibiting the sale of the painting back in 2013) was still ” ‘actively’ involved in the discussion regarding a ‘solution’ to this issue.” We encourage you to write Asst. AG James Sheehan, Charities Bureau Chief (Office of the Attorney General, The Capitol, Albany, NY 12224-0341) in support of returning the original painting to its historic home.

 

New York, NY

2016-10-15 National Acadamy Museum New York

One of the two National Academy Museum buildings on 5th Ave. Courtesy: National Academy Museum & School via Facebook.

The National Academy Museum went through its own deaccessioning crises back in 2009 to pay for general operating expenses and owed debts. That fiasco ended in a loss of two important Hudson River School works, works that marked the basis for the Academy’s founding in 1825 New York City, in addition to sanctions from the American Association of Museum Directors. But only recently was it forced to sell its historic townhouses on 5th Ave. in favor of putting its works in storage until they can settle in a supposedly less-expensive new home. This simply looks like a black hole for the historic collection, which points to a crucial point in the development of the arts in the young United States and which, if broken up like the Corcoran was when it couldn’t support its own up-keep, would lose this value.

 

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain
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Architectural Restoration & the “Blank Space”

Ruth Osborne

What is a restorer to do when only a fragmented portion of a historic building, or work of art, remains?

2016-06-14 - Sebastiano del Piombo Adoration of the Shepherds Fitzwilliam Museum

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Adoration of the Shepherds, 1510, before & after restoration. Courtesy: Fitzwilliam Museum.

News reports this month have been lauding the 10-year long conservation on a terribly wrecked picture by 16th century Italian artist del Piombo at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. But what happens when the work is a building that is missing significant parts of its infrastructure?

Spain appears to be having a bit of an identity crisis on its hands when it comes to architectural preservation. First, a 1,000 year-old Moorish castle tower was “restored” with white walls beneath its stone walls. Then, in keeping with using modernist additions to treat a centuries-old structure, aluminum windows were installed by the owners of a 400 year-old tower in the town of Ombreiro in the northwestern region of Galicia. This also was done by the same architects who worked on the Moorish castle tower, Carlos Quevedo Rojas and the Carquero Architecture firm.

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain

Newly-restored Matrera Castle. Courtesy: Architzer.

One critic in particular has said of the project: “They’ve got builders in rather than restorers and, like we say round here, they’ve cocked it up.” But the finished project, it seems, has begun to be accepted by some, even going so far as to win the prestigious international architectural prize from Architzer A+ awards in the restoration category. According to the statement from the firm:

2016-06-14 -Ombreiro Tower Spain

Ombreiro Tower restoration May 2016. Courtesy: Altas España /The Local ES.

“It tries to approach the work in recognition of the ‘memory’ in its physical consistency and its dual polarity, aesthetic and historical, in order to transmit the future. Therefore, the proposal aims to avoid the aesthetic mimicry that involves falsification or loss of value of authenticity…”

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain restoration

Matrera Castle before and after restoration. Courtesy: Architzer.

What supporters of this modernist pastiche approach to architectural restoration have insisted is that the work of Quevedo is in keeping with recent trends. But how exactly is a “trend” an appropriate response to preserving the materiality of a structure from its own distinct moment in history? Do these blank modernist additions not appropriate it into the aesthetic preferences of those who restored it? Going back to the firm’s statement on the award-winning project, “the essence of the project is not intended to be, therefore, an image of the future, but rather a reflection of its own past…” How does one accomplish this with white Bauhaus-like right angles jutting out from the historic fabric?

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation website

Menokin website showing projected vision of restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Meanwhile, a small historic house museum in Virginia – the Menokin Museum – has recently become known for its vision to restore the shell of the 18th century home by replicating what’s missing with a glass covering. The Menokin, which retains 80% of its original structure, will feature a new glass roof that will reveal the inner workings of the building fabric and design. You can see by the drawings that, while this is indeed a modern building material, the intended effect will be to reveal a more detailed vision of the original 18th century building. According to one of the conservators and the Manager of Architectural Collections (also involved with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation): “If you were to reconstruct the house, you’d cover up some of the most interesting parts. With glass, we can actually see how an 18th century building comes together.”

2016-06-14 - Menokin cross section

Cross Section of the Manokin plan, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Does this differ from the approach of the restorations in Spain? Or will it have the same unfortunate impact?

2016-06-14 - Menokin interior restoration

View of interior restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation dining room restoration

View of the Dining Room restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned
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The Uncertain Future of Local History & Preservation.

Ruth Osborne

Last week, we saw a significant decision that will shape the future of architectural preservation and local history in New York City. And perhaps not for the better.

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GVSHP member at the City Planning Commission hearing last week. Courtesy: NY1 / GVSHP.

On Wednesday, the City Council held its final hearing on Mayor de Blasio’s “Zoning for Quality & Affordability” (ZQA) plan, which last week was approved (9-3-1) by the City Planning Commission. As of Wednesday Feb. 10th, the City Council had approved the ZQA, thus allowing more oversized developments throughout the city’s varied historic neighborhoods – neighborhoods that have seen tall buildings go up in recent years without the city requiring any affordable housing units. This is not just an issue in New York – debates over height restrictions and historic district preservation are also occurring over Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue.

Our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) have been tirelessly working to demonstrate that the ZQA will in fact not help either quality or affordability, but will surely have detrimental impact on the fifty years of progress made in preservation in the city’s neighborhoods, and in so doing will “[turn] back the clock on years of progress to protect community scale and character.” Their work, as demonstrated by this recent testimony, is not based on conjecture or opinion, but on data from City Council and site-specific studies as well as a thorough understanding of real housing needs. Interestingly enough, GVSHP also reports that: “Many [City] Councilmembers have expressed serious reservations about the plan, but as has been widely reported, the Mayor has been doing quite a bit of horse-trading to try to secure the votes necessary for passage.” What this plan could put into place is the lifting of height restrictions to allow for new development in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has also recently spoken out against the Mayor’s ZQA, saying that the City Planning Commission has “[ignored] community concerns” with their vote in favor:

We support the goals of increased affordable housing, but “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) amounts to a “bait and switch.” It doesn’t guarantee affordable housing but it does overturn local planning. It will toss aside agreements that communities have forged with the City over decades. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH) will result in units that remain unaffordable for residents in many part of New York.

What this new development is reflective of, in addition to the renewed proposed landmarks legislation we are sure to hear about in months to come, is that efforts against preserving history and local character are only increasing. This is all happening despite the Landmarks Law having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – something commemorated at many events in 2015. But commemorating Landmarks Law is not just about patting the city on the back for having done a good job at not tearing down places like Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, etc. It should demand a response to the immediate seen and future unseen needs to continue conscientious development and historic preservation in the city. Or else, wouldn’t we just look like a bunch of hypocrites?

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Loopnet Realty ad showing the collapsed section of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany. Courtesy: Loopnet Realty.

Speaking of preserving local history, the capital city of Albany is in a bit of a mess over one of its historically and artistically significant houses of worship. The Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, built in 1850 on a major thoroughfare for the local Episcopalian congregation, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. It has also been on the list of Albany’s most endangered buildings for the past ten years. Now, it risks not only rapidly increasing structural damage as a result of its lack of upkeep and maintenance. There is also, as history demonstrates, the potential for the church to be ripped from its historic setting by a larger institution that boasts the finances to preserve it in a new location. This is just one example of the growing trend of local history reluctantly yielding to bigger conglomerate collections or wealthier cities that have the concentrated funds that smaller sites simply don’t have. We saw this with the Corcoran Gallery in 2014 and the Barnes Foundation in 2003.

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Interior of the Church of the Holy Innocents as it appeared in The Annals of Albany, Vol. X, 1870. Courtesy: Robarts / University of Toronto.

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Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, NY, late 19th century. Courtesy: Paula Lemire / Albany History Blogspot.

As our colleague, Albany historian John Wolcott, provides insight into its historic and artistic significance:

The Episcopal Church was designed in 1850 by architect Frank Willis. In 1866, a chapel was built by lumber baron William DeWitt as a memorial to his children. It was designed by architects William L. Woollett and Edward Ogden. The church (with adjoining chapel) features a small garden and the interior work of John Bolton in its stained glass windows; it is an example of the mid-nineteenth century early Gothic Revival style that so proliferated not only in New York City but throughout upstate New York and gives much of the state’s nineteenth century landscape its enduring character; to attempt to list the number of related structures in upstate New York’s history of Gothic Revival architecture would be overzealous, but suffice it to say that this structure holds much aesthetic and cultural significance for the members of the area.

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Collapsed part of the Church, captured by local news in Albany last May. Courtesy: WNYT.

The church is currently owned by Hope House Inc., a residential recovery program next door. As Hope House a non-profit organization not designed to care for a historic structure, it isn’t surprising that news report of its collapsed roof and corner arrived last May.  Once its immediate stabilization was accomplished, the Historic Albany organization has been monitoring the church’s maintenance. Our colleague in Albany has also written to “Partners for Sacred Places” on the importance of its preservation and maintenance as a historic landmark in Albany, and has been in contact with Historic Albany regarding the urgency of this work:

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Church of Holy Innocents as of May 2015. Courtesy: John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union.

This entire matter here has been something of an awful mess for years and became worse than ever of late in spite of constant spin doctoring, but please hang in with it.  If you have received a copy of the Realty ad [see above photo]; the main photograph shows a view looking from the nave toward the chancel.  Though not too clear here; the chancel arch is completely collapsed. This means that the lettering of a portion of the 23rd Psalm along the lower edge has also been destroyed. One of the most key spiritual artful and historic features of the church. However, in studying recent photos of the debris; it appears that with careful tedious, painstaking sorting the letters could be reassembled to either cement back together but probably to replicate on new stonework that would  faithfully replicate that which collapsed. 

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Interior of the abandoned church, c. 2015. Courtesy: Chuck Miller.
A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000.

A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000. Another option is, unfortunately, to remove the artistic structure and put it back together at another location or museum that boasts the funds to display salvaged architectural remains. Places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have certainly worked wonders in this respect. But if we take a step back from the nineteenth-century cast-iron staircase or bank facade that we’re looking up at in amazement, can we ask ourselves a more serious question?: How can this be beneficial to the stewardship of our local artistic heritage? To tear a historic structure from its original context and setting, which demonstrates its connection to the local community and the cultural and artistic development of an area that has lost many other buildings from this period? To place it in the hands of a museum that would likely have an over-abundance of other significant items from this period? Are we forgetting about the authenticity of place? Authenticity of place is exactly what was lost when Albany saw another of its unique nineteenth-century churches collapse (and subsequently be demolished) due to neglect. Trinity Church (1848) had been designed by renowned architect James Renwick, Jr. – the same who worked on Saint Patrick’s and the Smithsonian Castle.

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Trinity Church in Albany, which collapsed in 2011 and was subsequently demolished. Courtesy: (c) Chuck Miller / TimesUnion.

Its stained glass windows, however, were the only pieces salvaged, and which may or may not return to Albany.

Former Met director Philipe de Montebello himself has stated on the importance of authenticity in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust:

For museums, this should derive from their collections and comprise an absolute commitment to authenticity and to the museum’s authority, which should never be compromised […] It goes without saying that probity should be expected of the museum […] But probity should be found deeper still embedded in our mission, in our thoughts, and in our intellectual approach. For starters and quite simply , since what we promise is authenticity, that is what the public expects to find within our walls. So there must never be any question of a reproduction, a simulacrum, taking the place of a work of art […]

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Church of the Holy Innocents, 1918. Courtesy: Coll. Mrs. Weldon J. Vail / Albany Group Archive.

How can we presume to celebrate the authentic and original while at the same time stealing it from its authenticity of place or destroying historic context with disjointed developments? The case for historic preservation presented at Albany’s Church of the Innocents is an example of the fight to retain an important piece of local history in its setting. What makes something historically, artistically, or culturally significant to the point of necessitating its preservation for future generations? Or even to simply retain a visual reminder of a past moment in that region’s history? The character of a historic environment, a historic architectural setting, or a historic neighborhood in New York City is important – it is unique, it tells the story of a community or a people or an artist that makes up a larger culture and society. Those who don’t care to deal with the financial and legal burden of caring for local history and neighborhood character simply attempt to gloss over its importance.

While saving architectural remains from what would otherwise be lost to time is sometimes the only option, ArtWatch would like to ask readers what this means for the future of preserving our local history and cultural heritage? What does this mean for neighborhoods in New York that will in 10 years be unrecognizable after historic structures have been torn down, local merchants removed, and all our architectural history is relegated to sit in fragments against the clean walls of a large gallery? These once were real and thriving buildings and streets, and if we consider ourselves at all connected with their history, there should be conscientious development into the future.

Should all our heritage end up at huge institutions that leave the works disjointed from their original environment? Nevertheless, this what is happening with collections management as well as funding for the arts and history – larger institutions that get the grants and the big donors are financially equipped to subsume smaller collections, which leaves less diversity in museums and less physical presence for local historic collections. 

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Giotto and Business as Usual

The tragic events which unfolded on the 11th of September in New York and Washington are so far reaching and so momentous that it might seem superfluous to bring up issues concerning the world’s artistic heritage at this time.

James Beck, Professor and President of ArtWatch.
October 10, 2001

Upon reflection, it is precisely those values and traditions which also lie at the core of what is at stake. All one needs do is think back to the bombing of Uffizi Gallery in Florence just a few years ago or the devastation of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan even more recently. The world’s artistic and spiritual heritage appears at risk along with other aspects of our civilization.

Whatever ones views may be concerning the nuances of culpability and retribution, we can all agree that the icons of earlier art — from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes to the dome of Florence’s cathedral — are statements that must be preserved if we value mankind’s genius. Since, along with equivalent monuments all over the world, they constitute symbols of past attainments, we must guard, preserve and maintain them with all our energy. And given what might be regarded as a state of emergency which now exists, it seems to me ironic that the danger to the very integrity of such objects and institutions can come from within the system as well as outside of it.

The mania to spruce up the masterpieces sees no signs of slackening on the part of the restoration establishment and on the part of the officials in charge, and no pause for reflection seems in the offing. What is occurring in Italy is “business as usual” with regard to its treasures.

A highly risky (and expensive) restoration of Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova are just beginning to be carried on under what many, including the undersigned, regard as an ambiguous methodology. The usual sycophantic praise by certain art critics is a disappointingly blind reaction to a potentially damaging intervention. Obviously not all cleanings in the past were successful: sometimes they were downright bad and in other instances they were harmful. Despite warnings by nearly fifty Renaissance specialists from all over the world, half of which are Italians, we may soon witness a totally unnecessary and clearly dangerous cleaning of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi. Essentially it is little more than an under-painting anyway, making it quite impossible to bring back its “”original glory,”” as the usual rhetoric would have it. A “”cleaning”” of Michelangelo’s David (as has just been done to the Moses in a spectacular but useless endeavor) has also recently been proposed, although it has been indoors for a century and a half, and looks pretty good right now.

There has been an unwitting campaign over the past couple of decades which will, in my opinion, be regarded as highly questionable to our art treasures by future commentators. The real problem has been an inability on the part of art scholars, art restorers, art managers, and museum curators and directors to create a truly open and generalized debate about what has been accomplished in the recent past, what is going on currently, and what goals should be created for the future. Considering world conditions, is this not the appropriate historical moment to pause in the “business as usual” syndrome and formulate a wide-reaching debate on these issues, including that of shipping art objects around the world, before making irreversible alterations to the original texts?

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Modern Restoration & the Renovated Crucifix in the Duomo of Crema

At the risk of appearing obvious, it occurs to me that there are three categories of modern restoration which are effectively operative for paintings and sculptures:

(1) those for the art trade and private collectors

(2) those for museums and public collections

(3) those produced for a specific religious purpose, in churches and chapels.

In the first, the treatment of works destined for the art market, whether to be sold privately or at public auction, the art trade has certain demands and realities. Once an object finds its way into the hands of dealers, the tendency is to take considerable liberties in order to make it saleable. The dealers seem to know what their clients want, and they tend to give them exactly that. Very frequently, especially in the past, dealers actually did their own restorations, or at least had a restorer in-house who did them according to instructions. In such antiquarian restorations, the governing notion is to make the object as attractive as possible and, to be sure, authentic-looking.

The second category pertains to works in museums and public collections. Whether the institution is public in that it is controlled by a city, state or nation, or it belongs to a foundation, certain controls can be expected, at least in Europe where most nations have Art Ministries and Art Superintendencies with a certain level of jurisdiction. The operative goal in this category is the notion of “legibility.”

Third category, the one that concerns me in this essay, includes works which belong to religious entities and which continue to function as originally conceived, such as wall cycles with strong didactic overtones, or altarpieces with a current ceremonial and theological role.

As a parenthesis, another category can be constructed somewhere between the second and the third, as the church/museum is, in fact, reflective of the newest trend in Italy. Churches like Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, for example, have a dual role, both to fulfil the needs of the faithful and to act as custodian for the Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio, Masolino, and Filippino Lippi. A decade ago, the chapel was transformed into a communal museum at the Carmine with a special entrance, and a prescribed path for viewing the various highlights including a quick visit to the Brancacci Chapel. I suspect those church members especially devoted to Saint Peter will have to do without the Brancacci.

Similar actions have occurred more recently across the Arno at Santa Maria Novella which is more generically a communal church/museum, with an entrance fee and those abominable electronic guides. Accommodations have been made for the faithful, but I suspect they should avoid looking at Masaccio’s recently restored Trinity, or risk the cost of the entrance fee. San Lorenzo in Florence has not one fee, but several: there is one to enter the main body of the church along with Brunelleschi’s unequalled Old Sacristy, another for the New Sacristy (which has long been a museum), and yet another for the Laurentian Library. One should not pick on Florence, however, since many churches in Venice operate under the same principle of the church/museum. In terms of restoration, the question of what is the appropriate mode for such an hybrid institution is particularly perplexing.

I seek here to consider only the third category in connection with an issue which was brought to my attention and which encapsulates a number of vital questions connected with modern art restoration theory and practice, especially in Italy. The object in question is a miraculous, over life-size, painted wood Crucifix which was created for and remains in the Duomo of Crema, a Lombard city not far from Milan. The work, of unknown authorship, probably dates to the 1340s and is neither of exceptional beauty nor is it significant by usual art-historical criteria. Nonetheless, a nexus of challenging issues can be related to it. They include two remarkable, not to say out-of-the-ordinary, characteristics: (1) a historical tradition which connects the Cross with the liberty of the city of Crema, giving it a civic quality; and (2) the tradition of the Cross as the subject of miracles. Especially relevant is the miraculous event which occurred during civic strife in 1448, when an evil man ran into the Duomo, grabbed the Cross and placed it on a fire on the main square. In order to avoid being scorched, the sculpted figure of Christ lifted his feet from the flames, an action which explains the fact that His feet are a few centimetres away from the wood plank to which He is attached.

The sculpture has accrued a black surface over the centuries whose origins are not known. The coloring does coincide with the tradition that it was in a fire, and that may explain this “iconographic” detail. Alternatively, the painted surface might reflect an effort to give the sculpture the look of being of bronze, which turns dark. In any case, the black surface has been a feature of the Cross known and revered by the faithful for centuries. How to deal with it has become the central issue for the current restoration (2000-2001). Should the old, traditional and revered – but not original – black be retained or should it be removed? If the object were housed in the Metropolitan Museum in Art in New York, or the Bargello in Florence, the answer would be much easier to achieve: it would have been removed without much thought. But the Cross is housed in the Duomo.

The situation surrounding the restoration of the Crema Cross has unexpected aspects. The restorer in charge, the Cremese Paolo Mariani has taken a position favoring a minimal intervention, supporting the retention of the black coating. The same view was originally expressed by the Bishop of Crema. The Soprintendente per i beni artistici e storici per le province di Brescia, Cremona e Mantova, with headquarters in Mantova and the authority over Crema, is ideologically on other side.

To complicate this case, the commission to carry out the restoration did not originate from the superintendency, but from the Bishop with the financial support of a local bank. In 1999 the Bishop sought a conservational restoration (“restauro conservativo”) of the Crucifix in conjunction the with Jubilee Year of 2000. Work on this object, most sacred in the hearts of the people of Crema, was handed over to the respected restorer, who is also a professor of restoration. He wanted to make the restoration open to the public at fixed times and was determined to undertake all possible tests to determine the physical condition of the work, including a TAC examination which was actually done at the local hospital. Basically Mariani sought to create a conservational intervention, without altering the traditional appearance of the Cross, thus to maintain what the people were used to seeing. His point of view was consistent with that of the Ufficio Beni Culturali of the Diocesi of Crema.

In contrast, the Soprintendente Dott. Giuliana Algeri intervened with a letter of 19 August 2000, insisting upon the removal of the black surface in order to “recover” the verist aspect of the original. The Soprintendente went on to describe her methodology, which included the “intuition [sic] that beneath there was antique painting which was confirmed by micro-stratagraphic study” (“intuizione che al di sotto ci fosse una dipintura antica che veniva confermata da indagini microstratigrafiche”). Besides she believed that the original painted surface – the one placed immediately on top of the priming layer of gesso and glue – could be found. And further it was expected to liberate further the surfaces in order to recover a chromatic aspect more compatible with the “epochal credibility of the polychromed sculpture” (“veridicta epocale della scultura policroma”). In these remarks we find the authoritarian rhetoric of official modern restoration.

The restorer was clearly in complete disagreement, asserting that “if one were to bring back to their original states all the artistic and architectural works of the past, eliminating all of the events which had occurred in the interim, Italy would be a country in which the works of art would be reduced to embryonic idols” (“se si dovessero riportare allo stato primitivo tutte le opere artistiche ed architettoniche del passato, eliminando tutti gli eventi che si sono materialmente sedimentati nel tempo, l’Ialia diverrebbe un paese nel quale le opere d’arte sarebbero ridotte a larvali feticci”). On a technical level, Mariani claims that what is regarded as original application of flesh tones is in actuality a coat that was applied after the fire of 1448, and not the fourteenth-century surface. But even this – let us call it the second surface – is highly incomplete. The original painting, which can occasionally be seen beneath this one, is present only in a minuscule percentage of the surface.

Notwithstanding his personal opinion, the restorer believed he was obliged, despite his philosophy and his intimate knowledge of the object, to follow the instructions of the Superintendency. He apparently felt that his knowledge and experience was such that it was better to continue to do the restoration rather than to be replaced, presumably by someone with less experience, and therefore salvage the salvageable.

Several conclusions can be reached in this case: (1) the Soprintendente has the final word on the treatment of art in her territory, which generally speaking is an important safeguard against whimsical, parochial interventions; (2) the Soprintendente was neither sympathetic nor aware of the distinctions between the different “kinds” of restorations listed at the beginning of this item and, perhaps unaware, she applied a museum standard; (3) the Soprintendente was much taken with the modern rhetoric of restorations regarding the recovery of ancient splendour, even when very little of it exists; and (4) the restorer, like many of his confreres, is caught in a unenviable situation to either follow the “orders” of the authorities or lose the job; Mariani seems to have chosen the course of inflicting the least possible damage to the work. Should he have refused to follow the instructions of the Soprintendente? My intuition is, probably.

The lesson, if there is one in this case, is that the system does not provide for any significant appeals over the authority of the Soprintendente. Should a system be created in which committees of disinterested individuals can, like a judge, weigh the evidence? Undoubtedly. Such a system would probably have prevented what is unfolding in Crema where the removal of the sacred, traditional aura is perpetrated in favor of a pseudo-ancient one.

Critique on Restoration Methods

Mona Lisa (on the left and hypothetical restoration on the right)

Mona Lisa (left and hypothetical restoration on the right)

A word on the practice of removing old restorations on paintings.

One of the least defensible and intellectually questionable concepts raised in the often vitriolic debates surrounding art restoration practice over the past few decades is that of “readability.” A a vague and shifting goal, it continues to be advocated, especially by the museums and state officials around the world. Apparently readability rests at the foundation of French restoration policy. For example, M. Jean-Pierre Mohen conservateur général du patrimoine, directeur du Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France is an unequivocal advocate of readability. (cf. Le Monde des Debats, Septembre, 2000). He states in no uncertain terms: ” La lisibilité devient donc une notion extrêmement important: elle est garante de la part d’authenticité de l’oeuvre, de son état de conservation et de sa capacité a transmettre son message esthetique el culturel.”

If one were to suggest that a Bach Cantata should be transposed and reconstructed to make it “listenable” to a wide audience, many would find the proposition unacceptable. The same might be said of remaking T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland so that the poem would become “understandable” to neophytes and school children. The situation surrounding a painting from the past is rather different in one crucial aspect, however. Re-writing Bach’s musical score for a new redaction or Elliot’s poetic structure for another less complex one does not affect the original text. The correct, uncorrupted text is still there and can always be consulted. Such is not the case with a painting which has been made more readable. The restoration operation requires that making the object more readable be conducted on the original, unique and only text itself.

How does a restorer go about achieving M. Mohen’s much treasured readable image you might quite reasonably ask? Generally speaking any old varnish is removed along with “dirt” from the surface of the painting. In the nature of things, varnish often darkens in time and can turn warm in tone. Of course the removal of such varnishes with solvents can strip the picture of the often admired natural patina achieved over time. Besides, removing one layer on the surface does not guarantee that the layer beneath is not affected.

Restorers almost automatically remove old restorations from a painting. In their place, they tend, in differing degrees, to replace them with modern corrections, under the assumption that we moderns are better at guessing what the correct appearance should be. Usually, too, there is an effort to make the colors themselves more vivid. In consequence the painting becomes increasingly more accessible and attractive to the public. In the process of restoration, especially when readability is the key standard, outlines, edges, contours, which help define the imagery, are reinforced. Even if the original is relatively readable, it can be made more readable. And in areas where the original surface has been lost over the centuries, the restorer repaints them without compunction, in the name of readability. All this happened at the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes are today definitely more readable than they were before 1980. To be sure critics and artists have found that the imagery appears to be too much like highly readable Walt Disney illustrations.

Even if the culture could decide what might be acceptable standards of readability, arguably an impossible exercise anyway, will those standards remain the same in 5 years, 10 or 20? Tastes change, as art styles do, and sometimes very fast. One thing is certain in the history of art restoration: experts can quite confidently identify the restoration of one period from another. Thus the time and taste behind the treatment is left indelibly on the unique text.

The concept of readability appears to encompass another characteristic: an aura of democratization. The art object needs to be made assessable to the lowest common denominator. The notion is similar to the one behind Classic Comics, where Dante’s Inferno or the Holy Bible is cartoon-ized for school children. Or consider those nefarious summaries of Moby Dick, The Raven, or Hamlet condensed into several dozen easy-to-understand pages. The process is known today as “dumbing down.”

Readability harbors an hidden agenda: tourism. The tourist industry is one of the leading business of the grandest cities in Europe and America and in places like Paris, New York and Rome, it represents the single greatest income producer for the local economy. In order to make the art palpable to mass tourism, the assumption is that the art objects should be readable, so that the visitors are satisfied in their rushed visits to the Louvre, the Met, the Uffizi. That is interpreted to mean that the paintings must be bright and shinny, and the sculpture scrubbed and sandblasted. In this way, the thinking implies, visitors may wish to return and tell their friends about the marvels they saw.

One cannot forget that restoration is carried out by skillful artisans, steady hands, and the activity being in the final analysis is not science but craft, for want of a better word. Whether in the cleaning stage at the beginning or in the reintegration or repainting stage at the end, the crucial factor is the manual ability and good judgment of the operators. And if the superintendents and museums directors want readability, they can get it only from these individuals, who being human, interpret the pictorial surface, evaluate what clues there are, and make a product which is regarded by the officials as “readable.” This does not even imply that the result is, somehow, correct, original, accurate, or in harmony with the artistic statement of its creator, but merely that it is “readable.” An application of the “readability” approach is the recently completed Last Supper in Milan. Finally, you could say, after centuries of confusion the mural is readable; but the problem is that it is false. As little as 20 percent of what you see is by Leonardo da Vinci and the rest has been painted by the restorers, including the crucial head of Christ which is a highly readable image, datable to circa 1998.

Even bringing the theories of the sacred cow of modern restoration is not necessarily useful nor a legitimate claim to right reason when it comes to modern restorations. The notions of Cesare Brandi, who was neither a scientist nor a restorer but an art historian developed his ideas over 70 years ago. After all if you were to cling to a theory of aviation before the introduction of the jet, or of energy before the atomic revolution, or medicine before antibiotics, the subsequent discussion would prove to be irrelevant to a contemporary situation. When it comes to art restoration there is a far better, safer and more accurate solution to the “readability” requirement, so dear to the official French position. And it is one which preserves the integrity of the original art work at the same time that it employs modern technology.

In order to give the viewer, whether a sophisticated one, a beginner, or a school child, a tangible impression of the art of the past as well as the probable intention of creating artists, I propose that state-of-the-art computer technology be employed to generate to-scale facsimiles and that these be placed side-by-side with the “originals” when they are not very “readable.” This idea surfaced publicly a few years ago when French authorities were considering a thorough cleaning of the Mona Lisa. Complaints had come from museum experts and arts scholars alike over the appearance of the painting, with its darkened, discolored varnish. It was, in effect, difficult to read, and many opined how wonderful it would be to see it freshened up. Good sense prevailed, however, with the recognition that the surface was so delicate and that Leonardo’s process so fragile that losses could have occurred in the restoration. The suggestion was put forward in some quarters to produce a facsimile as one imagines the original appeared. In this way a viable imagine could be offered to the public and for educational purposes, at the same time that tampering with such a basic creation would effectively be avoided.

In fact, the possibility of showing carefully produced scale facsimiles should put an end to the readability alternative with all its built-in threats to the authenticity of the work and the wide margin of error in interpretation. In this way, the text is maintained, never repainted nor brightening up on the basis of one reading or another, even the most qualified. The original remains there and merely requires maintenance. The interpretations, which are inseparable ingredients of restoration, would be limited to the facsimile and could readily be changed from time to time, as our knowledge expands. Under any circumstance it would be more “correct” than any dangerous and essentially experimental treatment of the unique original and would better guarantee the aims of the Restoration Establishment. Let us once and for all eliminate from practice the pernicious and inherently dangerous notion of readability, as outmoded.

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City of Florence to Charge Admission at Santa Maria Novella

Should churches charge admission fees to see art?

The recent decision by the city of Florence, with the approval of the Superintendent of Fine Arts (Soprintendente ai beni artistici) of Florence Dr. Antonio Paolucci together with church authorities to charge admission to visit Santa Maria Novella has raised a host of questions pertinent to the culture as a whole. One should keep in mind that this is by no means the first time churches in Italy (and elsewhere) charge entrance fees. At the top of a growing list is, after all, the Vatican which for decades has been requiring a fee or really a ticket to visit the Sistine Chapel. Of course the Vatican is not Italy. And strictly speaking and with considerable finesse, the Sistine Chapel has been defined as part of the Vatican Museums and by so doing any ethical ambiguities have been effectively sidestepped. Museums customarily, though not universally, have been selling admissions for centuries.

The same ‘solution’ has been applied to the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, more recently, following an extensive not to say brutal restoration of the frescoes by Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. In this instance the comune of Florence, museum-ized the chapel, lumping it together with the little museum that was always there. Furthermore they eliminated an entry to the Brancacci Chapel from the church itself, effectively eliminating its religious connection. As with the Sistina, the fiction was reinforced that one was not actually paying to enter a church, but rather a museum.

The situation surrounding entrance to the Baptistery, Dante’s bel S. Giovanni, with encrusted marble decoration outside and glistening late Medieval mosaics inside, is slightly different. The tourists must now pay to visit the unforgettable building which stands in the piazza of the Duomo, across from its façade and Giotto’s bell tower. The same has been true for decades at Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli where Cathedral authorities have been collecting entrance fees for their marvelous buildings: the Camposanto, the Duomo, the Baptistery. The holy buildings are grouped with the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral and the Museum of the Sinopia on a “cumulative ticket,” for which there is a discount off individual admissions.

Now the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, located a stone’s throw from the train station from which its name derives, will have an admission fee amounting to 5,000 Lire (about 2.50 in Euros). The art in the church and in the cloister is of the highest quality and rivals that in most public museums. Chief works of Cimabue, Giotto, Orcagna, Masaccio, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, and Paulo Uccello are here. The decision to reclassify the building, in modern jargon, into a “chiesa-museo,” results from two events: the clean up which was conducted for the Jubilee and the restoration and repainting of Masaccio’s unequaled Trinity, painted in late 1425 or 1426.

Once the total cleaning of the Brancacci frescoes across the river in Santa Maria del Carmine had been completed in 1988, and probably not for the first time, the fame-hungry sponsor (who has since disappeared from the restoration scene) was anxious to become associated with the restoration project of the Trinity, so as to monopolize the Masaccio market. The intervention was postponed until 1999, when officials, taking advantage of the fact that the church was closed in preparation for the Jubilee, moved ahead. Now the fresco will be ready for tourists again. In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that the same fate would await the Trinity and the church itself as the Brancacci Chapel.

Masaccio’s Trinity fresco is, in terms of the history of art and the history of culture, extremely influential. Here for the first time we find a thorough explication of the new perspective, along with the rendering of monumental human figures of decided gravity. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continues to amaze and baffle even the most sophisticated critics. In the Trinity, for the first time, profile portraits of the donors are rendered on a large scale. For good reason, then, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art as a seminal painting, surely worth the price of admissions: half the cost of a movie or a sit down coffee at Rivoire.

But the ethical question remains to be confronted: should churches charge admission at all? This apparently simple question encapsulates diverse elements. First of all ownership needs to be established. Who owns the artistic treasures of the past? Actually in the fifteenth century, the Florentine government provided quarters for several popes at Santa Maria Novella, and there too Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci prepared their cartoons for the battle murals for the Palazzo Vecchio at the beginning of the following century. Does Santa Maria Novella belong to the Holy Roman church in the larger sense, or to the particular order, in this case the Dominicans, or, perhaps, to the Florentine commune which provided funding? What about the Italian state; or better yet, the entire world?

The city of Florence has assumed the right to create a not-for-profit company (“un’associazione senza fine di lucro called Opera Santa Maria Novella”). As for the state, de facto authority has been assumed by the Superintendent of Fine Arts who reluctantly signed onto the new system. The rarity represented by Santa Maria Novella begins with the facade which was designed by Leon Battista Alberti, sufficient on its own to make it qualify as a world treasure. So far, looking at it is free. Surely, Masaccio’s Trinity stands out even in the most august company but so does Brunelleschi’s rare wooden Crucifix and Orcagna’s unrivaled Strozzi Altarpiece. Thus the inclination persists to advocate world ownership. As things now stand, the Italian government has a good deal of authority, because after all, at least the responsibility for the treatment of the building and its contents, and in the case of the restoration of the Trinity, lies with the government. The issue of ownership requires serious debate.

But if the ownership of Santa Maria Novella represents a thorny issue, the need for an injection of funds is obvious and represents another path for inquiry. The building is visited by thousands each day during the “season,” although Santa Croce in Florence probably has more. [Will this church soon follow?] Such traffic requires every category of maintenance, supervision, guards, cleanup, restorations. Then we can imagine a modern, fully stocked shop which is a sine qua non in every museum worthy of the name these days. Unquestionably the tiny group of Dominican Friars has an overwhelming burden. In other words, they need the financial relief, and if possible generate some income from their treasures. I realize that an infusion of funds would be highly welcomed and necessary. So, gentle reader, you may quite properly ask what is all the fuss about; why am I raising the issue at all?

For an answer, let us return momentarily to the Brancacci Chapel. The frescoes there have been an informal academy for artists since they were painted, and were studied by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Cellini who regarded them as a kind of touchstone for art. Even after World War II, artists and art students continue to slip into the Carmine virtually as a ritual to pay their respects to Masaccio, who in his short life had altered the course of art. All that has ended partly because no one wants to get in line, get a ticket, pay, and be admitted for a short and finite visit, en masse.

What is the proper conduct for such institutions as Santa Maria Novella? How should the culture approach the question? It seems to me that one approach is that related to education. Very few would deny that the provision of an education, up to the age of sixteen or eighteen or even through university, is the responsibility of the commonwealth, the state, the constituted society. Such a responsibility rests at the very heart of state, like health care, road building, providing for defense and protection of its people. Perhaps art should be placed into this same equation. In Italy, where art is ever present, one could make a persuasive case. To be sure, the central government already does take on many responsibilities over art, especially in terms of its care, which includes restoration. Should we expect that government accept the responsibility of keeping a church-museum like Santa Maria Novella open, functional and free?

If the state is unable to do so, for whatever the reasons, one might expect that the European Union might be called upon to step in. A perfectly good case can be made to preserve the “free” status of the rare objects housed in the church.

And if all the avenues of various levels of government fail, payment in the form of a voluntary contribution might be instituted which removes the onus of a mandatory fee. After all among the visitors are relatively penniless artists, art students, younger travelers, tourists with families, and those who might wish to come back again and again, as the Trinity of Masaccio demands.

A true cultural debate seems to be in order.