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2007-02-05 - Lorenzo Ghiberti Gates of Paradise Baptistry

Paradise Lost?

In October, the stunning announcement was made that three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the East side of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, will make an unprecedented journey to the United States in 2007.

The planned three-city tour will begin at the High Museum in Atlanta, where an exhibition is scheduled from 28 April to 15 July, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2006-05-03 - Andrea del Verrochio David bronze

Louvre Atlanta, 2006-2009

The phenomenon of the traveling exhibition has always been a powerful tool, used by museums to boost attendance rates and bring works of art to a population that otherwise might not get the chance to see them.

But at what cost? ArtWatch has raised the issue of the danger of transporting works in the past, most recently when the Bargello Museum in Florence shipped Verrocchio’s bronze David to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art for an exhibition from November of 2003 to February of 2004, followed immediately by a two-month residency at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Celebrated as the first time that the sculpturehad ever left its native Italy, the work, as frequently is the case, was restored for the occasion. New David, new venue, and large crowds.


The motivation is not purely altruistic, but a financial one. Attendance for special exhibitions far outpace those of the regular collections, and that increased attendance is reflected in sales. The High Museum, for example,had a record year in its gift shop the year it sponsored an exhibition of Olympic rings, and the <b>David</b> was intended to produce the same results. Hence, as the show drew near, Florentine paper products were imported to entice museum-goers. The High Museum’s new expanded site at the Woodruff Arts Center also doubled the size of the museum store and, hopefully, revenues. Also more than doubled in the last few years is their museum entrance fee, which was $6 in 2000, and is now $15.

Based on the success of previous exhibitions, the High Museum has now embarked on a more ambitious program of importing art objects, teaming up for a three-year deal with the Musée du Louvre in Paris. For a price of around $13 million (the actual sum has not been disclosed, though the compensation has been called “substantial”), the Louvre will lend to the High Museum (or, the “Louvre Atlanta”) some of its most famous artworks for a series of exhibitions. Already slated for shipment is Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, author of  The Book of the Courtier, which will be in Atlanta for the first of nine shows, “Kings as Collectors,” from October 2006 to March 2007, at which point it will be replaced by Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. While those works may be the superstars of the loan agreement, approximately two hundred other works will be shipped from Paris to begin their long-term stay in the new Anne Cox Chambers wing of the museum. While some of the objects chosen for travel have never left France before, also unprecedented is the length of their absence from the Louvre. It is also the first time in the Louvre’s history that they have agreed to lend not just single objects, but entire collections to another museum for an extended period. At the end of the loan, much of what had been sent to the High Museum will find its new home in the new $100 million Louvre satellite museum in the city of Lens.

So what has led to this unprecedented situation, wherein the Louvre is literally renting out its great masterpieces? It seems as if the Louvre, while getting 60% of its operating budget from the French government, is looking for other ways to raise capital in response to recent rumblings that the museum may be receiving a cut in its federal funding. These financial concerns are surprising in light of the record attendance reported for 2005 at 7.3 million visitors, up from the previous record of 6.7 million in 2004, with the increase largely credited to the popularity of The DaVinci Code. Yet the Louvre is seeking greater autonomy from the French state, and part of the money from the “Louvre Atlanta” deal, contributed by American corporate sponsors, will be used by the Louvre to fund facility improvements, specifically the remodeling of their 18th century rooms.

As part of the partnership, the two museums will trade staff members as well, so that the Parisian institution will also get a closer look at the marketing strategies, corporate sponsorship, and fundraising techniques that American museums have been employing for quite some time. And undoubtedly they can learn a lot from the High, who had such tremendous success in their capital campaign that their chief fundraiser was jokingly nicknamed the “pickpocket.”

Despite the geo-political veil that has been cast onto the agreement — showing the collaboration of two countries that have had considerable tension over the past few years — many have been critical of the program, viewing it as a prestigious museum renting its objects out to the highest bidder. As can be expected, much of the criticism has come from within France, with the argument that the French people, rather than the museum itself, own the works and that they should not be made inaccessible to the people of that nation for the financial benefit of the Louvre. There is also some resentment that smaller French museums have had a difficult time procuring loans from the Louvre in the past, yet their shipment to Atlanta can be accommodated for the right price.

A French editorial in  La Tribune de l’Art asked if American museums were more “transparent” than those in France, after noting that even after American online sources broke the story of the “Louvre Atlanta” deal, the Louvre was less than forthcoming about the objects that were to be sent abroad. To wit, criticisms have been made of the museum’s “culture of secrecy” that are, in reality, not dissimilar to those complaints made of American institutions for their unwillingness to openly share information about their collections and operations.

The aura of international diplomacy aside, big business is a much larger player in the newly brokered deal. In order to raise the $13 million to facilitate the agreement, private donors as well as corporate sponsors had to be tapped. In addition, once the Louvre deal began to arise, the costs of the High Museum’s remodeling increased as well, as amenities were added to accommodate the expected crowds, bumping the overall project budget to $163.9 million, with other reports hovering at $178.4.

While some of that money came from private donors, Delta Airlines came aboard as the lead corporate sponsor of the venture, despite having filed Chapter 11 last September and suffering a net loss of $1.2 billion in the last quarter of 2005. Delta will provide air travel and cargo shipping for the exhibition. Other corporate sponsors for the venture include Coca-Cola, Turner Broadcasting, and UPS.

The Louvre’s unprecedented action — renting out a portion of its collection for an extended period of time — has upped the level of concern regarding the loaning of artworks. Not only do the objects continue to be subjected to the substantial dangers of transport, but museums have continued their descent into corporatocracy, with no end in sight.

2000-03-01 - Raphael Madonna of the Chair with St. John the Baptiste as Child

On Traveling Exhibitions

The business of exhibitions puts masterpieces at risk.

In recent months a controversy has re-erupted in the press and among art experts in Italy which is gradually spilling onto the international scene. Its impact upon the habits of displaying art treasures cannot be underestimated. The influential, skillful and politically adept Soprintendente of Fine Arts of Florence, Dr. Antonio Paolucci, the man who recently supervised the widely acclaimed restorations in Assisi after an earthquake rocked the basilica there, has been organizing a mammoth exhibition of Italian Renaissance art to be sent from Italy to Japan. Others shows of a similar nature have quietly been sent to Asia over the past few years, without much outcry. This one is far more encompassing in terms of the fame of the objects as well as their sheer number, in the hundreds, which will be wrapped, crated and shipped in temperature-controlled containers. Paolucci, whose impeccable curriculum vitae includes a stint as Italy’s Minister of Culture in a previous government, has been publicly attacked for his plan.

Serious objections have been raised about the dangers of shipping rare art works – Titians, Leonardos, and Michelangelos – even from Paolucci’s own usually solid ranks (e.g., the Soprintendente of the Veneto, Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso), as well as from art historians, including Professors Carlo Bertelli (who was formerly a soprintendente) and Alessandro Parronchi, the dean of Italian scholars, not to mention restoration specialist Professor Francesco Guerrieri of the University of Florence. The attacks this time have not come from art rights groups who have long ago pointed out the dangers, quite specifically when the Barnes Collection was sent around the world, but the art establishment itself, including the respected editor of London’s Burlington Magazine, Dr. Caroline Elam. Has there been a sea of change?

Blockbuster exhibitions have been a cornerstone of museum operations, at least for the past generation, being regarded as central postate in annual programming almost everywhere. These art spectaculars, looked upon with relish by the institutions’ fundraisers, the curators who participate in the planning and the structuring of the shows, the art restorers who get the objects in shape for display, not to mention socialites and firstnighters, publishers, and the press, have never before faced such a serious challenge to their legitimacy.

Positive aspects of blockbusters, and there are some, can be readily enumerated. Increased revenue which normally is expected to result from a successful blockbuster is nothing to sneeze at, planting the possibility in the minds of the cynically inclined that such is the main motivation. To be precise, increased entrance fees are not the only source of the infusion of money from the big shows. Catalogue sales, which can run into the tens of thousands of copies and even more when external sales are calculated, can produce decent revenue. Specialized products sold in the ubiquitous museum shops constitute yet another element that benefits from blockbusters, bringing the balance sheet further into the black. As a spin-off as well, the museum bars and restaurants are busier than usual when the postate are open. And, one should not forget that with the expanded attendance annual membership figures climb, and, after all, every little bit helps.

 

The tourism, and with it the political quotient, obviously comes into play, which is specifically the case with Paolucci’s Japanese show, an event that could not be contemplated without governmental support. The explicit intention is to demonstrate the grandeur of the Italian tradition by placing on the circuit Michelangelos, Raphaels, Titians, and Donatellos, among others. Presumably the display would add stimulus for increased tourism in Italy, just as Sensation has done so for Brooklyn, if not for all of New York. From it, we can anticipate that the waiting time in front of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David at the Academia will lengthen beyond the current two or three hours. Peddlers may very well benefit too by selling more postcards and knickknacks to the well-disciplined but bored tourists waiting their turn for enlightenment. The major cities with great collections, like New York, Washington, London, Paris, Madrid and St. Petersburg, have very deep ties with museums, arguably the principal tourist attraction in these cities, and all that they signify for the hotels, restaurants and shops. Art is big business and a gigantic attraction. If the blockbuster is sensational enough, everyone seems to benefit, that is, except the art works.

Less direct but equally sought after benefits of blockbusters include the publicity which inevitably can be counted on from the media. Is there a journalist who does not love an exhibition of the Young Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Ingres Portraits, Egyptian Gold, a Real or Fake Michelangelo Cupid, or Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors? These postate are even advertised in the mass media and in the metro to get the highest attendance possible. Together with more money and increased attendance, good will is banked for the future at the Metropolitan, London’s and Washington’s National Galleries. An analogy made be drawn with fundraising for public television which must be regarded as self-advertising that is transmitted with frustrating frequency. Over the past few years, the corporate sponsors are being rewarded with mini-ads for their largess. Are similar compromises also necessary in the function of museums?

2000-03-01 - Raphael Madonna of the Chair with St. John the Baptiste as Child

Raphael, Madonna of the Chair with St. John the Baptiste as Child, c. 1514. Courtesy: Palatine Gallery.

Together with the public relations value and the effects of expanded tourism, museum rhetoric is quick to proclaim the value of spectacular shows upon scholarship, which is regarded as a sacred cow. Scholars and specialists are able to see, compare and contrast to their hearts content, works by a given artist, school or region all at the same time. They do not have to go to dozens of far-flung museums, remote churches, obscure private collections, and dingy drawing cabinets. They can see all the objects together. To confront versions and contemporary works in a single space seems to be a unique and incomparable opportunity, and can result, the line continues, in scholarly insights and discoveries. Many, and in some cases most, of the objects of a given category or by a selected artist can be seen, one by one, until the eyes get bleary.

I cannot resist commenting that for me seeing two hundred Cezannes, or two hundred works by anybody else, makes my head spin, and in the end I get very little out of the experience except a slight case of nausea. These monstrous piling-ups are effectively less informative than a carefully and thoughtfully selected, much smaller exhibition in which a curator uses his critical skills and makes judgments based upon a studied but personal view of a given artist or school. Some sort of informed selection has been offered by the specialist, and not left to an uninformed helter-skelter viewing. In this instance, there seems no doubt that more is less, anyway. Of course a disciplined viewer might decide to go to the blockbuster eight or ten times, and look at a small number of objects each visit, but perhaps that is asking too much. Ironically, the way in which the blockbusters present an artist’s oeuvre was never even available to the creating artists themselves, for works disappeared from the studio through sales and commissions.

And there is a practical spin-off of the transport of artworks as well. The museum staffs get numerous free trips to the great cities of the world, for the purpose of scouting around during the early stages of the process while in the later one, they supervise and often accompany the travel of the art objects from their institutions. And one could hardly expect them to travel economy or to stay in second-class hotels.

Specialized studies, inevitably accompanied by weighty and usually unreadable catalogues, are claimed to be, and with a certain justification, the most prestigious art scholarship of the moment. This scholarly component, sub-vented by willing sponsors – international oil companies, cigarette manufacturers, local and national banks – gives increased legitimacy to the blockbuster and make wonderful gifts to their clients.

What is not taken properly into account is that very soon if not already with a modicum of effort, technology will be available to create high quality, exact-scale facsimiles. By substituting such computer-generated images, the questioning of the viability of shipping precious art works around the world indiscriminately will be mooted. If my assessment is correct, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end for blockbusters as we have known them, and the concomitant risks to the art objects will be radically reduced.

Another incontrovertible benefit will accrue. No longer will the normal permanent exhibits of museums be disrupted by the removal of ‘stars’ from their collections. Nor will the famous works be pulled out of churches and museums. After all, who wants to go to Rome’s Borghese and not see Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (despite its recent harsh overcleaning) or Milan’s Brera and not see Mantegna’s Dead Christ? Leave the objects in their original homes or in their acquired ones, should be the rule.

A further advantage of using facsimiles, which need not be glossy, is that they can, ironically, be more accurate than the originals as they have come down to us. We know paintings have been cut down over the centuries, they have been damaged by natural disasters, and they have been severely modified by repainting and overcleanings. Reconstructions can be offered in exhibitions which aim to give the appearance of the original, and even several alternative interpretations can be presented at the same time. Furthermore, facsimile images can be updated and corrected by the computers that generate them in the first place as our knowledge expands. Of course the specialist will always need to view the objects in their current state, but that eventuality involves merely moving a few people, without threat to the safety of the art.

The facsimile alternative should turn out to be a bonanza in terms the usual goal of blockbusters for completeness. There are always works which, for one reason or another, cannot be shipped, including frescoes (except when detached), paintings and sculptures in collections with rules against loans, not to mention bulky monuments. These can all be supplied with relative ease, low cost, and considerable accuracy. The goal of what might be termed completeness is something of a pipe dream, anyway. To have all the works of a Matisse, even from a limited period, is an impossibility, if one takes into account the works that an artist himself may have destroyed, and those that have been lost or have otherwise disappeared. All the more difficult is the re-creation of total oeuvres of artists from the more distant past.

The claim on the part of museum executives is that expanded public attendance, which is a sought-after goal of blockbusters, is automatically desirable. The argument is double-edged, however, for more may not really be the merrier. That the Sistine Chapel, following its widely publicized restoration, draws double the number of persons it did before 1980 does not make visiting the chapel a sensitive aesthetic experience. The spectacle atmosphere, as with blockbusters, means that the viewer sees the back of heads instead of the Old Testament scenes and Michelangelo’s heroic Prophets and Sibyls, in an atmosphere where the noise level is crushing.

Yet ‘the more the better’ is a fixation among museum directors. Pile them in, get the mass public in the vicinity of an art work, and by an alchemical process they will be informed and enriched. Oddly enough, we do not use this argument for a concert of a Bach cantata, which needs musical sophistication and a certain amount of musical education. By merely attending a prestigious exhibition, does the uninformed viewer really benefit? Perhaps a few might be motivated to see more, but this could be more effectively accomplished by other means. After all, the permanent collections of the Louvre, the Met, the National Gallery, and the Prado are so impressive that there is no need to import other objects to get people inclined toward the appreciation of art.

Finally, the obvious danger to the objects from travel and changing environments is spoken of openly. Even if the transport and packaging skills are improving, there is no doubt that works get shaken up when in transport just as we human beings do, on those bumpy roads to and from the airport, and even by jolting movements in the plane. Beyond that, the ever-present possibility of a mistake or an accident cannot be denied, planes crash and ships still sink.

On a less material level, further questions surrounding the blockbuster can be raised. Is the circus atmosphere and the Disneyland overtones which surround them desirable? Is art served by being made into a spectacle? These issues open vast areas for cultural discourse concerning the treatment of art in a modern society which are best left for independent consideration on their own. Suffice to say that for many, art is the repository of spiritual and ethical values. It requires a commensurate treatment.