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2017-11 - Saadiyat Island

Satellite Museum Dreams and Misgivings in Abu Dhabi

Ruth Osborne

The long-awaited opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum is actually happening. On November 11th, the site is set to open to fan-fare: “workshops, tours, music, and international performances and a few surprises along the way”.

 

2017-11 - Louvre Abu Dhabi

Courtesy: Christopher Pike / The National

This is all thanks to generous loans from the Musée du Louvre in Paris, a lending relationship we’ve covered previously. But it seems this Abu Dhabi satellite museum may not be joined by its loan-heavy partners – Guggenheim and Zayed National Museum – for another several years. These three museums, along with a Performing Arts Centre and Maritime Museum are all part of the world-class leisure destination and cultural center that developers hope Saadiyat Island will be.

News broke this week that the British Museum has prematurely ended their 2009 agreement to loan objects valuing up to £1bn to the ZNM. But this isn’t the full picture. A communications personnel from BM has told ArtWatch that the contract was actually “to deliver consultancy services” to ZNM in its development phase. Furthermore, “The Museum had never agreed a loan list with ZNM…To clarify the relationship hasn’t been terminated, but the development phase concluded in spring this year. The contract runs until 2019.”

Reports that the contract ended are, according to this representative, misguided, and “the ongoing development of the collection will be undertaken by a dedicated in-house team at TCA” [Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority]. But the ZNM is still experiencing construction delays. It was scheduled to open its doors in 2013, but now Foster + Partners, the architects responsible for executing the ZNM building, estimate completion in 2020.

And it was earlier this year that Thomas Krens, former Director of the Guggenheim Foundation, betrayed his own misgivings about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi site (scheduled to open 2012).  In an interview in March, Krens emphasized the naïvety to plan construction of so many huge museums all at once in Abu Dhabi: “we don’t need all five of them up and running at the same time”.

2017-11 - Saadiyat Island

Saadiyat Island rendering, with the Louvre (left), ZNM (center), and Guggenheim (right). Courtesy: Saadiyat Cultural District website.

So why is it that these seemingly beneficent plans for public museums in Abu Dhabi are fraught with mishaps and delays? Amidst the media excitement for shining new museum buildings and the optimistic promises of a center where global culture and art to intermingle, one thing that has been left out is the actual physical risk of transporting all these loan objects from London to Abu Dhabi. Art is fragile. It becomes accustomed to a climate and is open to risk of destabilization once it is shocked out of that climate. Once a work is removed from a gallery or from storage, it would be boxed or crated, would make its way to a large truck, be driven over roads and highways and loaded onto a plane, then raised thousands of feet in elevation for over 3,000 miles, touch down in Abu Dhabi, and then be trucked again and finally installed in a completely new climate. Works have been easily torn, broken, and warped in transit by major museums in the past. Increasingly so with the opening of international traveling exhibitions and satellite museums in different countries.

Those objects at risk in the Louvre’s loan agreement include:

Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronniere (Musee du Louvre)

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait (Musee d’Orsay)

Balthasar and Gaspard Marsy, Horses of the Sun (Palace of Versailles)

Paul Gauguin, Children Wrestling

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black

We encourage our readers to remember the implications of transporting these – and future – works of art. And also to ask – who is really benefiting from these initiatives?

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Installation 2011

UPDATE: Mucha’s “Slav Epic” in Transit

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Installation 2011

Mucha’s Slav Epic during installation in 2011. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper.

Readers – An update on our post of February 2017 – Mucha’s “Slav Epic” On Tour –  is in order, as the works by now have opened in exhibition in Tokyo, and the risks inherent in their travel will be made evident soon. 

Patrick Connors, a painter with 35 years of extensive professional practice, has written to ArtWatch, insisting that there is “little argument for any legitimate reasons that these fragile works should travel.” He writes on the cultural significance of the works themselves:

 

My mother’s family is Czech and much of  the family still resides in Strakonice, about 90 miles south of Prague. I have seen these marvelous canvases in person in Czech on several occasions. The Mucha canvases are a cultural legacy to the Czech people […] 

That they are now seen as simply a ‘cash cow’ for those in charge of their welfare is worrisome to say the least. On the impact of travel overseas on the canvases’ condition: Although it did not specify what type of tempera was used, it may refer to several vehicles, painting layers especially on large canvases are prone to physical and chemical instability when circumstances are good. The stresses and traumas that these works of art will endure as evident from their previous travel, ensures further substantial damage.

Essentially the three main components involved in these paintings: 1. canvas, 2. oil, and 3. tempera each have inherent physical and chemical properties that make adhesion problematic when atmospheric or physical changes occur. Each component expands and contracts at different rates and will cause a microscopic break or fissure with the other. Part of the insidious way oil paintings deteriorate is due to the damage not showing immediately but later with flaking, visible cracks and worse.   We hope this brings even greater light to the implications of traveling works abroad on blockbuster exhibitions.  

 

By Ruth Osborne / Patrick Connors

2017-04-11 Conservator Rodin Absolution

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: Rodin’s Fragile “L’Absolution” Treated for Display & Travel?

2017-04-11 Auguste Rodin Absolution

Auguste Rodin, L’Absolution (c. 1900), before treatment. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper (14 March 2017).

Ruth Osborne

The Art Newspaper reported last month on an extremely fragile piece by sculptor Auguste Rodin, held in the collection of the Musée Rodin in Paris, that is now to go on exhibition and on the road.

The work, titled “L’Absolution”, was created from plaster and cloth by Rodin, approximately around 1900. Its complicated construction consists of over 6′ of plaster sculpture in three pieces created in the 1890s – the torso of a seated Ugolino [of Dante’s Divine Comedy], a martyr’s head, and the Earth – draped delicately over with a cloth molded by the artist in a thin layer of plaster. You can find archival images of the work in black & white from the Musée Rodin here.

The upcoming move is described by the new chief curator of collections Christine Lancestremère as “a little scary”, and the article acknowledges she also “[suspected] that its fragility prevented it from going on display before”. Then why is this display and move still happening? According to the report, the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death demanded this item go into the “Kiefer Rodin” exhibit (Mar-Oct 2017), which will highlight several works by contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer conceived as responses to sculptures and drawings by Rodin. The exhibit is also set to travel to the Barnes in Philadelphia in November, and will be on display there thru March 2018. After that, “L’Absolution” will move to the Musée Rodin in Meudon to be on permanent display there.  You can find a list of the sponsors of this joint exhibition on the Barnes’ website here.

But first, of course, a little handling by conservators to try and make the work more “stable” for travel and display. After all, the cloth makes structure of the work itself so delicate that it must be displayed behind glass “to prevent the fabric from moving with the wind”. Safe movement of the piece alone made some of the plaster on the cloth fall off.

2017-04-11 Conservator Rodin Absolution

Conservator examines Rodin’s L’Absolution. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper (14 March 2017).

Conservator examination of the sculpture involved:

(1) Recently fallen plaster restored.

(2) Securing fabric back into original position on the sculpture.

(3) “Cleaning” of the entire piece.

Meanwhile, there is very little documentation on the work itself from the artist. Lancestremère admits that they don’t even know if it is finished or not. All they had to work from in this treatment was one photo of this rather complicated 3-dimensional object: “Rodin did not make a marble or terracotta work from it, which is rare for the artist, and there is nothing in the archives about the piece except for one photograph.”

However, upon visiting the Musée Rodin’s online collections portal, we found these three black & white photographs, though they have no visible date associated with them.

The funding for the treatment was awarded by TEFAF for “restoration and reconstruction of the never before seen work”. TEFAF itself was originally founded in 1988 by a group of art dealers as an art fair, and has only 5 years ago established its Museum Restoration Fund. Upon ArtWatch inquiring about why TEFAF was chosen for funding the restoration, Lancestremère said that this was the choice of the Museum’s selection committee, and that the remainder of the operation was being financed by the Museum’s budgeted funds for restoration. TEFAF itself has an interesting, if questionable, history related to (1) forgeries appearing at its fairs (see here) and therein (2) vetting its own experts (see here).

A quick overview of TEFAF’s Museum Restoration Fund on the website shows that it “was launched to mark TEFAF’s 25th anniversary in 2012”.  Since then, it has restored a mixture of paintings and sculptural objects – including ancient Egyptian coffins and a sarcophagus – at major museums in the U.S. and Europe. But why is an art fair – which makes money off of the success of art sales and a space in recent years wherein one expects to uncover new “discoveries” and attributions – supporting such a questionable conservation project and exhibition?

TEFAF’s report at the announcement of the award itself is telling:

This is the first time it has been restored since its creation. Absolution resembles no other work by Rodin and it testifies to his bold and modern outlook. 

Being connected with such a rare, unique work is certainly a selling point for TEFAF as a “bold”, “modern” art fair. This statement also makes it clear that TEFAF is getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, of understanding and analyzing the work, as it is “the first time” there have been hands on this work other than Rodin’s. For technical details on how the conservation actually worked, TEFAF’s announcement went on to say:

The restoration of this work is particularly complex and requires two different kinds of expertise from two specialists: a painting restorer for the drapery and a sculpture restorer for the plaster elements. Currently, the three plaster sections have come apart, and need to be repositioned and fixed. The fabric pieces have lost their folds and shape and there are many losses in the plaster coating that held the drapery in place, with splinters that are in danger of breaking off.

So from this, one would be remiss to ask how did the three plaster sections come apart? Did they fall spontaneously or were they moved? According to our conversation with Lancestremère:

It seems that the three plaster subjects remained together until the 1980s. We do not know when exactly they were dissociated, but it is probable that it occurred perhaps on the occasion of a move from one reserve to the other […] the whole was considered too fragile, and it was preferable to separate the most prominent elements, the head of the Martyrdom, and the body of the Earth. The elements did not fall on their own because they are not broken. On the other hand, the textile had already had to slip and the folds to be discarded because, in the 1980 photographs, there are already numerous losses of material and a positioning of the drape which is not compatible with the remains of plaster present on the textile.

So the damage due to the piece over time and various potential moves while remaining in storage was not well documented. But if damage occurred to a piece that has only ever been in storage, would this fragility not concern the conservators in preparation of its travel outside the Musée Rodin to two different locations? When asked about how the multi-part piece was stabilized, Lancestremère let us know that the splintered pieces and the plaster-coated textile were stabilized by a mixture of adhesive and magnets: The three gypsum elements were reattached to each other with a reversible system composed of metallic elements fixed on the plaster by bonded resin studs (reversible adhesive) inside the plaster test. In the case of draped plaster fabrics, the gypsum scales raised were fixed with a fixative on the fabric. And the textile is held in place thanks to magnets of different sizes.

The piece has since gone on display at the Musée Rodin, where we will see how well these repairs hold up under the gaze of thousands entering the galleries. ArtWatch has also asked Lancestremère if, given the vulnerability of the sculpture, the Musée Rodin is concerned about its vulnerability in traveling overseas, but the exhibit opening it seems has kept the staff quiet for now. We will keep you posted on this development. In the meantime, take a look at their press packet for the exhibition here, which shows this photo (below) of the work on display in the center of one of the galleries.

L'Absolution Kiefer-Rodin exhibit

L’Absolution on display in Kiefer-Rodin exhibit, Musée Rodin, Paris, March 2017. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris.

 UPDATE:

We’ve just received an update from the Musée Rodin in Paris on the treatment of Rodin’s L’Absolution and its travel status for the Kiefer Rodin exhibit. We would also like to thank the Musée Rodin staff for the below photographs of the work during treatment.

Lancastremère writes:

the Absolution sculpture will not go to Philadelphia. It is much too fragile for such a long and complicated journey […]The very large presence of the textile, which can not be supported or genuinely wedged, makes the packaging very complex and inevitably very “fragile”. Vibrations and other shocks are a risk both for assemblages between the different subjects in plaster and for the textile coated with gypsum, the very fine scales of which are liable to fall.

2017-04-11 Absolution Rodin Conservation

Treatment of L’Absolution. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris/ph. P.Hisbacq.

2017-04-11 Absolution Rodin Treatment

Treatment of L’Absolution. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris/ph. P.Hisbacq.

 

 

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Veletrzni Palac Prague

Mucha’s “Slav Epic” On Tour: What Story Will the Canvases Tell after Two Years of Traveling?

Ruth Osborne
2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Slavs in Original Homeland

The Slav Epic No. 1: The Slaves in Their Original Homeland (1912). Courtesy: Mucha Foundation.

In one month, an exhibition of turn-of-the-century Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic (1910-1926) will open to the public at the National Art Center in Tokyo.

The artist’s grandson, John Mucha, has been fighting this action for the past several months.  The contracts have been signed, the decision gone to court, and the massive works will now likely be flown from their home at the Veletrzní Palác (leased to Prague’s Czech National Gallery, where the works have been housed since 2010) to go to Japan, then China, then possibly Korea, and afterwards America. These twenty massive canvases (largest measuring nearly 20′ x 26′) could be traveling for up to two years. So why does this still matter to ArtWatch?

Because the decision made by the owners of these artworks will cause irrevocable damage to them without promise of securing a permanent home for them, as was stipulated upon the artist’s gifting the works to the city of Prague with American philanthropist Charles Crane in 1928. When canvases this large are rolled up, transported on airplanes (despite whatever preventative measures of safety are taken), then unrolled again for several shows over the course of two years, the works will no doubt experience alterations in their makeup. The works themselves are composed of both oil and tempera paints applied to canvas, which will react uniquely to the change in temperature and humidity from Eastern Europe to Asia to the North America.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Installation 2011

Mucha’s Slav Epic during installation in 2011. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper.

Paintings restorer at the Slovak Academy of Sciences Zuzana Poláková states that “The more Mucha is handled, the less Mucha there is […] Works from Mucha’s Epic have been exhibited abroad several times in the past [during Mucha’s lifetime] and they have always needed restoration. Damage is caused by the repeated rolling and unrolling of the canvases and changes in climate.” Not only are conservators making appeals for the works’ well-being, but so is the Association for the Conservation and Development of Cultural Heritage in the Czech Republic. This nationally-recognized group of conservators has noted one piece of the Epic‘s history that the city of Prague would like to forget: a 1936 investigation by the city council recommending the works not be permitted to travel abroad after having been seriously damaged. While Alphonse himself was still around to restore damages in the 1930s, he is no longer should anything come of this new tour. The works were reportedly hidden during WWII and resurfaced afterwards to be displayed at a chateau in the Moravian town of Moravsky Krumlov in 1963, where they were housed until being wrestled from the town in 2010 and sent to Prague. According to Czech news sources and grandson John’s interview last year with Radio Prague, there are already damages incurred during their installation at the Prague City Gallery.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Veletrzni Palac Prague

Mucha’s Slav Epic installed at Veletrzni Palac in Prague. Courtesy: The Naked Tour Guide Prague.

 

2017-02-13 Mucha golden donut gallery Prague

Visualization of the proposed golden donut gallery. Courtesy: Radio Prague/Arpema/Neovisual.cz.

John has further stated that : “[Alphonse] gave it to the city of Prague on condition that it build a pavilion in which it could be exhibited to the public. But the city has not fulfilled that condition.” This issue is a whole other kettle of fish on its own, as the city council’s desire to rehouse the works in a new “golden donut” gallery building without consulting the wider public has been criticized – by one of its district’s own mayors. The works were, in John’s words, “given to Prague, but only as a vehicle, as a gift to the people and the Nation,” NOT to the city Gallery, and “crown jewels don’t usually travel. It was reported by The Economist that, while the city of Prague is arguing they own the works and therefore they have the ability to do with them as they please, that they are also arguing that they cannot be held to account for the artist’s stipulation that the works are provided a permanent exhibition space. Documents from the city’s archives are serving to support the city’s argument that it Crane, not Mucha, who gifted the works. Essentially, they want every benefit that owning this art provides – money from visitors to their gallery, money from exhibit loans – without actually caring for their ongoing preservation if they are to be enjoyed. None of the long-term duties of caring for the works as their original creator thought he had secured. What a surprise! Representatives from the city of Prague (owner of the Prague City Gallery) as well as the National Center for Art in Tokyo have still refused to give comment.

It can be obvious when those in positions of “ownership” of a building or a work of art will have their way, despite the opinions of others in society who care. It can feel pointless to work against one side in favor of having its way because the other side is working against the current of “just the way things are”. But maintaining awareness of wrongs done is not pointless. Opening up dialogue on what is truly the best way to care for art is not ineffective. To say that is to assume that one person’s actions need not be held accountable because they are not impacting another group. To say that is to assume complacency, and take a naïve view that there are no serious wrongs done to things that matter and have an impact on people. To deny dialogue about proper care for works of art is to deny their impact on society.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic Apotheosis of Slavs

The Slav Epic No. 20: The Apotheosis of the Slavs, Slavs for Humanity (1926). Courtesy: Mucha Foundation.

We’ve covered the case of another massive – and extremely unique – canvas being taken from its long-time home to travel around the world, and then be installed just down the road; in this instance, it was a large Matisse installation from the Barnes Collection being rippled and torn while in transit. For details on Barnes’ Matisse – painted in-situe in the collector’s original home in Merion, PA – before and after it was transported to its new home in Philadelphia, see herehere, and here. More recently, the Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY had decided it would be better to replace its original Thomas Cole – commissioned specially for the house’s owner and given a place of honor in his parlor – with a replica that would supposedly be easier to care for. And, perhaps, so that the operating Foundation could benefit from the sale of the original? While staff at the Seward House have confirmed to ArtWatch that the original has still not returned to the House nor appeared at auction, the staff also remain unaware of what the Board’s intentions might be in the future.

The city of Prague’s ability to rationalize sending Mucha’s Slav Epic on a two year tour also echoes the attitude of the Delaware Art Museum’s Board, when it decided a few years ago to leverage some of its works in order to pay off loans from a recent building expansion. It seems neither the artist nor his/her surviving works have much say in how they are treated less than 100 years after their creation.

If the court decides in favor of the city of Prague, the works will be on display for just two months at the National Art Center in Tokyo (8 March-5 June 2017), before traveling to China, where the works will be shown for just shy of three months at the Nanjing Museum (14 July-8 October), the Guangdong Museum (November-January 2018) and the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha (February-May 2018). Venues in South Korea and the US are reportedly being negotiated.

2017-02-13 Mucha Slav Epic

Alphonse Mucha with the Slav Epic in the 1920s. Courtesy: Mucha Trust.

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.

 

A Look at Art Conservation in the News.

Ruth Osborne

In order to get a better sense of how conservation is presented to and perceived by the public today, ArtWatch has undertaken an overview of art conservation as it has appeared in the media over the past year.

Thoughts and opinions on the purpose of conservation have developed and changed over the past 150 years as society considers new scientific technologies.  Noticing trends in news coverage of conservation interventions, as well as the state of the field as a whole, will allow for an understanding of the role of conservation as it is understood in the 21st century. This post will consider the following:

(1) How are conservators represented in relation to the works they’re treating?

(2) What is given precedence in reports of current conservation treatment, the work itself or benefits for the field at large?

(3) According to news coverage, what is the ultimate goal of modern conservation and what is being put in place to further this goal?

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Patricia Favero, conservator at The Phillips Collection, with Picasso’s The Blue Room and showing its under layer. Courtesy: Evan Vucci/AP.

Art conservation as a field was born of the need to care for works of art as they experienced the ravages of time and misuse. Taking this into consideration, would it not come as a surprise that so many news stories covering the work of conservators focus on the promise of discovery instead of preserving the physical nature of the work from further deterioration? Is the act of prodding for findings beneath layers of paint with infrared imagery to discover an underlying image that the original artist painted over considered “conserving” the work from future deterioration? Regardless of how this fits into contemporary or classical theories of conservation, research into Picasso’s The Blue Room was still presented in the media last June as being part of the work’s conservation.

Just this week, The New York TImes reported on a new “discovery” of Jackson Pollock’s technique revealed by conservators treating his 1947 Alchemy at the Guggenheim Venice. His intentional, rather than random, paint-splattering technique has in fact been acknowledged by scholars before. Time magazine’s art critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1982 that: “…Pollock–in his best work–had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them, the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous; he would often retouch the drip with a brush.” It is certainly interesting how computer imagery can unpack the layers of this painting. But cannot the eyes of connoisseurs already perceive his technique by examining the painting and its underlying grid in a thorough visual analysis, instead of relying on computer analysis to reveal his method?

But dialogue is being pulled away from connoisseurship and its capabilities and towards a heavy reliance on science to achieve “objective” proof. Is science truly as definitive and free of error as is assumed by the media?

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Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronière, 1490-96. Courtesy: Louvre, Paris

After announcement was made in February 2014 of the Louvre’s plan to restore the extremely vulnerable La Belle Ferronière by Leonardo, and after Michael Daley of ArtWatch UK questioned the safety of this plan, several months later it was revealed that it was to be the first Leonardo to show in the Middle East. Its planned transportation to the Louvre’s new satellite museum in Abu Dhabi was released to the press in October. This risky proposal to transport an extremely important confirmed Leonardo was precisely what necessitated its conservation, no doubt, as Louvre representatives related: “For such an important painting it is very important for us to have time. The first [restoration] committee met last week and now we will restore the painting and take all the time we need [and then] we will be very proud to show the restored painting.” But how does one simply gloss over the danger of transporting an already vulnerable painting overseas for temporary exhibit? Is it to be assumed that restoring it will make it less susceptible to damage? We have already had our share of works severely ruined on transport within the same country – even within the same museum building.

On another Leonardo panel surrounded by much controversy is his Lady with an Ermine, which has been altered by several restorers over the centuries.  In 2007, ArtWatch reported on the promise of the picture’s digital reconstruction through a multispectral high-res camera. In these investigations, the role of conservation proposes to help undo the work of past ill-treatments and restore a more authentic version of the original. However, as we wrote:

“It is critical to remember that the conclusions drawn as a result of these diagnostic tests are not necessarily correct. Even the most ‘objective’ scientific evidence requires interpretation, and so many of the public announcements that have been made, touting the newest discoveries of the original intentions of the artist, are not universally agreed upon, nor should they be…the concern lies in the knowledge that historically latest technologies have often been used to promote rather than replace restorations. The fear in this case is that believing to fully understand what lies beneath the surface of an artwork will embolden restorers and justify their aims to go looking, with their preconceived notions, for what they now expect to find.”

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Digital imaging showing three different versions of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. Courtesy: BBC News.

Come 2010, ArtWatch UK argued against its traveling to London on loan for a National Gallery exhibition. To prevent damage in transit, and to ready the painting for blockbuster exhibit, pieces are often sent to the conservator’s studio with the hope of increasing stability in the work. But the more a painting is handled and touched, the more its integrity is altered, no?  BBC coverage last fall revealed conservators were still working with the panel to reveal “extraordinary revelations” about Leonardo’s work through this process. The reporter highlights the promise of new discoveries about Leonardo’s method as this digital digging has used “intense light” emitted from a multi-lens camera to make visible three different stages of the canvas. Who knows what this might mean for any future proposed traveling exhibitions on Leonardo’s process for which this work could be put at risk again?

Conservators’ abilities to unravel mysteries about the artist and his subjects with the help of technology was certainly a popular theme in 2014.  It was seen in the multiple reports on the “artist’s original intention” that emerged from Gustave Cailleboite’s Paris Street; Rainy Day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Revelations about the artist’s true palette and the canvas’s true dimensions abounded. Here, the conservator serves to uncover a truer version of Cailleboite that had been “hidden” for decades since its last restoration (of an unknown date). Under old varnish, the sky was found to be a more saturated blue and to contain greater light and movement in its surface gradation. Sharper details overall, according to this report, have now altered relationships between the figures and buildings in the composition.

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Art Institute of Chicago conservator Kelly Keegan with Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. Courtesy: Art Institute of Chicago.

One article on the Art Institute’s website even suggests that: “The result is a transformed sense of light and atmosphere that is likely to change the way viewers respond to Caillebotte’s vision of 19th-century Paris and its people.” But does the woman’s hand inserted into the central man’s arm not still indicate their relationship as walking partners? Though the skies have cleared up a bit, wasn’t it presumed this would happen with cleaning of the varnish? Even if the sun may be about to come out, does it really reveal all that much about the artist’s true intentions, as the figures’ umbrellas are still up to protect from rain?

Meanwhile, the The Wall Street Journal reported that this treatment is now the reason to confirm the artist’s designation as an Impressionist: “As a result, curators now believe Caillebotte is likely to be viewed more as a bona fide Impressionist and less a traditional realist.” But wasn’t this already assumed by scholarship? Is this treatment really a breakthrough, as the media might have us believe?

These breakthrough discoveries were only made possible by a series of scientific tools, including infrared imagery, microscopy, and UV light and X-Rays, apart from the actual cleaning via swabs. While it is certainly important to have a solid understanding about a work’s makeup before treatment, will all works now expect to reveal hidden secrets every time they are cleaned? Have the expectations on a work of art increased, and will this help or hurt the integrity of works in the long run? The notion about conservation revealing hidden secrets in a painting continued in coverage of Villanova’s two-year treatment of the Triumph of David in September. In this case, the news report touted the x-ray and infrared tools that allowed conservators to “see into the painting.” According to this coverage, conservation once again aims to return works to, what is presumed to be, a more authentic state.

In a related issue, conservation has also been promoted for its “forensic” capabilities for authenticating authorship of works. Last March it was reported that two canvases by the nineteenth-century American romantic painter Martin Johnson Heade underwent testing at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center to prove their authorship through the existence of the artist’s finger print and brushstrokes, after being denied by Harvard’s Fogg Museum. In this press release, lab testing is referred to as “forensic science” that should take precedence alongside the connoisseur’s trained eye: “…the public needs to realize that connoisseurship has to adapt to a new and demanding educational standard. That standard I believe will become the future of proper art attribution…”

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Henry Lie, Director of the Harvard Straus Center for Conservation. Courtesy: Index Magazine.

Hand-in-hand with the claimed abilities of science and technology to do what the human eye is no longer trusted to, came unreserved praise for new high-tech conservation lab techniques. Reports on the newly re-opened Harvard Art Museums emphasized above all the dynamic influence of science in the origins of modern conservation: “it was really the beginning of the field…the first time a science-based approach was taken to looking at these materials.” Meanwhile, the role of new “optical illusions” was the focus of one article on conservation studies at American universities. According to this article, the microscopy, nanotechnology, and x-ray tools conservators use allow them to bring back to life that which was once considered lost. Terms like “forensic tool” are used. But can we truly bring back something from the past? Will all traces of time truly be wiped away? That seems to be what this reporter would have his audience believe is possible.

Finally, the last line from an article entitled “What does a conservator do?” adds rather presumptuously: “Above all they are soothsayers, probing cultural materials to reveal the secrets of how and when they were made, and how they will survive into the future” (emphasis added).

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Conservation “Discoveries” & the Art Above Them: Picasso at the Philips Collection

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Picasso’s The Blue Room under microscope in the conservation studio at the Philips Collection. Courtesy: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Ruth Osborne

Traditionally, conservation and treatment analysis has been carried out on a work that requires such attention to ensure its physical stability.

Removing layers of grime and dirt or a yellowing varnish is the standard conservator’s diagnosis. With the invention of the blockbuster exhibition in the 1970s, more and more paintings were sent to the conservator’s studio in preparation for international travel to ensure works looked bright enough to appear before an audience of millions. Recently, more paintings have been placed under the microscope simply for the thrill of a hoped-for discovery.

This week’s case in point: Picasso’s The Blue Room at the Philips. Reports were made of a “hidden man” revealed beneath the top layer, shown to the conservator’s eye by the light of thermal imaging. It had reportedly been “long suspected” that there was something hidden beneath its surface, as connoisseurs’ eyes noticed an inconsistency between the brushstrokes in this area with the rest of the composition. Suspicion noted in a conservator’s letter from 1954 finally found justification with X-ray technology in the 1990s that was confirmed in 2008 by infrared imagery that allowed conservators to view the bearded man’s face.

For the past five years, scientists from major conservation departments in the Northeast have been working on getting a clearer vision of the figure in the painting. These include important players like Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and Cornell University. Researchers are now on their own path attempting to pin down just whom the portrait depicts. [1]

News reports proudly announce the new advantages brought to studying art thanks to new scientific methods. As an article in Popular Mechanics relates revealingly:

“These days infrared technology is revealing all kinds of secrets about decades- or even centuries-old works of art. Phillips Collection associate conservator Patricia Favero, who works on this project, talks with us about art sleuthing with science…”[2] 

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The mustached man beneath The Blue Room. Courtesy: AP Photo/The Philips Collection.

So far, the Picasso has undergone technical analysis by means of multi-spectral imaging technology and X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping. But this treats artistic heritage as objects to be poked and prodded at for the sake of discovery. According to the press office at the Philips Collection, their Picasso was under the microscope for reasons unrelated to its upcoming travel for exhibition in South Korea in 2015. We suspect it was being studied not in the interest of maintaining its physical integrity, but instead for the sake of uncovering the hidden figure beneath the surface. But at what risk to the finished image by the artist?

Recent “discoveries” like this one at the Philips have been highlighted in the media that praise the new advances in imaging technologies allowing modern conservators and scientists to hover closer over important artworks.  These include a whale found beneath overpainting in a seventeenth-century Dutch seascape, a women painted over by Van Gogh, a Leonardo mural hidden beneath layers of old whitewash, and an ancient Roman fresco hidden under the work of nineteenth-century artist Giampetro Campana.[3] But one important thing news articles have failed to address is the impact of such thermal imaging on the paintings that allows them to make these discoveries.

For instance, the same high-intensity X-rays that exist in a particle accelerator were those used by a materials scientist and chemist in Belgium to scan the Van Gogh. Words used to describe the process are troublesome: “powerful X-ray bombardment caused atoms in the picture’s layers of paint to emit ‘fluorescent’ X-rays of their own.”[4] How does a treatment so forceful as to cause activity in the chemical structure of the painting not pose a threat to its overall stability?

As to the Picasso at the Philips, Director Dorothy Kosinski’s statement is emblematic of the rather voracious appetite with which collections are tossing works into the conservation studio:

“Our audiences are hungry for this. It’s kind of detective work. It’s giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle…The more we can understand, the greater our appreciation is of its significance in Picasso’s life.”

No doubt this five year-long examination is sure to go on until those involved find the gem they’re looking for. This discovery holds the possibility of making their Picasso world-famous for its hidden secrets about this household-name artist.  Major exhibitions and travel are upcoming for The Blue Room; after it tours to South Korea next year, it will be the center of a major Picasso exhibit for 2017.

 

[1]Brett Zonigker, “AP Exclusive: Picasso painting reveals hidden man,” Yahoo News. 17 June 2014. http://news.yahoo.com/ap-exclusive-picasso-painting-reveals-hidden-man-065651732.html (last accessed 19 June 2014).

[2]Darren Orr, “Discovering a Hidden Picasso,” Popular Mechanics. 18 June 2014. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/extreme-machines/discovering-a-hidden-picasso-16904979 (last accessed 19 June 2014).

[3] “5 Lost Images Found Hidden Beneath Famous Paintings,” Gizmodo. 19 June 2014. http://gizmodo.com/5-lost-images-found-hidden-beneath-famous-paintings-1592796080 (last accessed 19 June 2014); “Whale tale: a Dutch seascape and its lost Leviathan,” University of Cambridge. Research News. 4 June 2014. http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/whale-tale-a-dutch-seascape-and-its-lost-leviathan (last accessed 20 June 2014).

[4] “X-rays reveal Van Gogh portrait,” BBC News: Europe. 31 July 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7535574.stm (last accessed 20 June 2014).

 

2007-12-29 - Leonardo loan protest
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Art on Loan

One senses that the ante has been upped in the deal-making world of art loans. Quite a few “first-and-only-time” loans have been made this year.

A conspicuous example has been the traveling exhibition of three panels and several smaller pieces of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, which are in the midst of a nearly year-long journey from their home in Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Seattle Art Museum, the last of these a late addition after intensive lobbying. Much hyped is the rarity of the exhibition, presented as the only time they will travel outside of Florence, due to the undeniable risks posed. A curator at the Art Institute has commented, “Sculpture doesn’t travel well, in general, and so the fact that three of the panels from the Gates can travel at all is remarkable.”

Regardless of the educational and altruistic rhetoric, that these are works that are traveling to offer an unprecedented opportunity for people to study and learn about certain treasures, the reality is that objects are being moved primarily for economic reasons, whether they be international or local. While the entire Ghiberti tour has been seen, undoubtedly somewhat simplistically, as reciprocal arrangement following the donation of funds by the U.S. group Friends of Florence for the restoration of the doors, there are local benefits as well. In the case of the Seattle stop, at least one local hotel is offering the “Gates of Paradise Package.”

2007-12-29 - Leonardo loan protestPerhaps an even more impressive deal was made by British Museum  to secure the loan from China of twenty terracotta statues of the warriors of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, dating to the third century BCE. The twenty are just a small fraction of the 1000 figures that were unearthed in 1974 – about 7000 still await excavation – but it is the largest amount of this material to ever leave China. Previous exhibitions in Germany and Austria were composed of copies only, though still drawing impressive crowds. The Chinese government has recently made claims that a current exhibition at the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology is made entirely of copies, and the museum has been forced to offer refunds to the 10,000 visitors who have seen the show since it opened in late November.

With the demand high and hype higher, the British Museum show, entitled The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, is a guaranteed blockbuster. By mid-October it was announced that 200,000 tickets at $25 apiece had been sold, and by late November, tickets were sold out straight through February. The tremendous visibility of the show has also attracted a major corporate sponsor, Morgan Stanley. As a way of further validating their support, Morgan Stanley has made the analogy between their role in being the first to bring international investment services to China, and their role in bringing these statues for the first time from their native land.

And the show doesn’t stop here. After it completes its engagement in London, the terracottas and a collection of 120 objects in total will travel to the High Museum in Atlanta. And while the museums and the sponsors involved have gotten great benefit from the arrangement, China stands to benefit as well. Britain has sent three shows in return, and in addition to this exchange, China will undoubtedly see the added effect of stirring interest in Chinese culture in the wake of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Atlanta’s High Museum, which will host both of these shows, is setting the new standard for international art loans – they engineered not only “first-and-only” shipments of the Gates of Paradise and Andrea del Verrocchio’s  David, but also made the partnership with the Louvre Museum in Paris to send a series of exhibitions to Atlanta, all following the High’s recent $85 million addition which doubled its space. And other museums are following suit, both nationally and internationally. Seattle Art Museum also recently doubled its special exhibition space – and like the High, has arranged to show rarely-shipped works from the Louvre’s collection early in 2008.

The Museo del Prado in Madrid likewise just opened their expanded space by Rafael Moneo, with an additional 237,000 square feet, at the cost of $219 million. The Prado remodeling will bring to light many works that have been languishing in storage. But at the same time, the project was driven by the desire to be a “world-class” institution in terms of attracting blockbuster exhibitions and large numbers of visitors, a record number of which are expected this year, as well as meeting the expectations that are now the norms for museum goers: restaurants,  education rooms, and shops. In an effort to make-over their venerable institution, the Prado also sought “rebranding” by Studio Fernando Gutiérrez, which created for them a new logo, signage and a new marquee aimed at attracting commercial sponsorship and raising money for temporary shows.

Perhaps a less audacious loan in terms of scale, but noteworthy nonetheless for the rare stirring of opposition it caused, was the shipment of Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, which resides in Florence’s Uffizi Museum, to Tokyo this past spring as the star attraction of the exhibition, The Mind of Leonardo – The Universal Genius at Work. The show was part of a larger promotional event called Primavera Italiana 2007, which had as its primary goal the promotion of Italian culture and business ventures in Japan. The loan was not without controversy, especially as it could potentially be viewed as violating a 2004 Italian law which forbids the loan of any object considered essential to its home institution. Although facilitated by the Italian Culture Minister, Francesco Rutelli, prominent critics included the director of the Uffizi Antonio Natali and Italian senator Paolo Amato, the latter of which staged a protest outside of the museum when it was moved.

But the issue is not just single, and supposedly, one-time instances of loans. Large-scale loans by some major institutions are becoming par for the course. The Vatican has recently announced its most substantial collection of objects ever be sent to the southern hemisphere, on a 2008 tour for the exhibition Vatican: The Story, The Art, The Architecture that will include the Auckland Museum in New Zealand and Sydney. As in the case of many recent blockbusters eager for the notion of exclusivity and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the director of Auckland Museum has stressed that these works will probably never travel there again. The more than eighty objects, which include portraits by Titian and Bernini, as well as an early cast of Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà, are of such value that they are requiring government insurance and a high level of security to guarantee their safety.

Other recent “firsts” include the current Van Gogh retrospective at the Seoul Museum of Art, Van Gogh: Voyage into the Myth, with sixty-seven works on loan from the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is the first Van Gogh exhibition in Korea, and the largest Van Gogh exhibition held since the one marking the centennial anniversary of his death in 1990.

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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.

2007-02-05 - Andrea Mantegna San Zeno altarpiece
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Another Anniversary

James Beck

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.