A few years ago a director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was chided for producing blockbusters that bust no blocks. Today, aside from its catering and retailing outlets, that museum – which once advertised itself as “An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached” – has a department exclusively dedicated to the production of special exhibitions. It generates eight exhibitions a year with a further fifteen travelling around the world at any one time (see “The world is her oyster”, in the Autumn/Winter 2013, V&A Magazine). As more and more of Art’s Flying Dutchmen encircle the globe, an awful lot of holes are appearing in the collections of great museums – as at the Louvre, as Didier Rykner has eloquently demonstrated (“The Louvre Invents the Gruyère Museum” ). This development is perverse as well as regrettable: a chief defence that museums make when seeking funding for expensive acquisitions is that they are needed to fill crucial gaps in a collection.
At the British Museum the number of loans (and therefore holes) doubled between 1985 and 2000, in which year 214 objects or groups of objects were loaned. That was for starters. In 2008, under its present globe-trotting director, Neil Macgregor, the museum got 2,500 objects “on the road” in Britain alone. In a submission this year to the Scottish Parliament, Mr MacGregor boasted that between 2003 and 2013 the museum had loaned over “over 30,000 (many very fragile)” objects, with only eight injuries. In 2006 the BM packed 160,000 visitors in three months into a (physically) small exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings, at £10 a head (plus takings from the catering and retailing outlets). Mr MacGregor ruefully claimed that three times as many tickets could have been sold had space permitted. The following year he announced plans for a £100m expansion of the British Museum that was reportedly triggered because it had had to turn down a unique chance “to show off” the largest collection of Tutankhamun treasures ever seen in the west (Evening Standard, 6 July 2007), works which went instead to the former Millennium Dome, now re-branded as “02”.
It would seem that nothing in museums is now safe from this international exhibitions jamboree – no work plays too important a role within a collection, or is too fragile, or too unwieldy, to prevent curators from taking a gamble with its welfare (in hope of reciprocal loans and a curatorial buzz). The Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of the most voracious recipient/organisers of exhibitions. It needs to be. Its special exhibitions, which are free, are the biggest justification for the museum’s whopping “recommended” $25 entrance charge (- the legality of which is under challenge). As we have seen, the present director of the Metropolitan, Thomas Campbell, once boasted that only his museum could have shaken-down (“Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders”) other great art institutions to get them to part with the fabulous Renaissance tapestries that were sent to a special show in New York.
The Metropolitan Museum will likely be the first international stop (after a six months stay-over at the British Museum) for a long-planned show of plum works from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that will take place should the Scottish Parliament oblige the Glasgow City Council by over-turning the prohibitions in Sir William Burrell’s bequest on all foreign loans and vulnerable works within Britain.
Next October in New York, the Museum of Modern Art will host a show of some of the most fragile and difficult-to-transport works of modernism. As Martin Bailey reports in the current Art Newspaper, (“Journey at Snail’s pace”) Henri Matisse’s monumental 1953 paper collage, The Snail, is to leave the Tate for the first time since the gallery bought it more than 50 years ago. It will be a star exhibit in “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs”, at Tate Modern next April, that will include its sister works, Memory of Oceania, 1953, and Large Composition with Masks, before travelling to MOMA in New York. Although the itinerary is set, what is not yet clear, Bailey discloses, is how the Tate’s giant and fragile work will travel or even how it will be be packed:
“The problem of how to transport the huge work, which measures nearly three square metres, has plagued conservators for years. Paris’s Grand Palais asked to borrow the work for a major retrospective on the artist in 1970, but was refused because of the risks associated with transporting it. Its original late-1960s glazing is being replaced with laminated glass, which will reduce the risk of damage during transportation. However, laminated glass is heavy: with its frame, the work will weigh around 300kg. If the collage is set at a 45° angle within a crate, it will fit more easily through doorways, but if the work is transported flat, it will need a case measuring around four square metres.”
Those keenest to lend and borrow lean heavily on the relative safety of international aviation, but with these particular monumentally large but flimsily constructed works, Bailey discloses that a spokeswoman for the Tate was unwilling to discuss transport arrangements. He has discovered, however, that they might travel by sea because there are almost no cargo planes large enough to carry them, and because the exhibition’s sponsor is… South Korea’s largest shipping company, Hanjin Shipping. Either way, as Nick Tinari of Barnes Watch has repeatedly testified, when Matisse’s mural La Danse was detached from its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, and sent off at a 45° angle on an open flatbed truck to the first stop (the National Gallery of Art, Washington) of a world tour, it was to return home badly damaged.
Not only are museums gutting themselves to feed international loan exhibitions, they are, as our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, discusses (“The Dismemberment of the Louvre: Travels to Louvre Abu Dhabi promise damages and leave Parisian Museum-goers in the Lurch”), beginning to do so on an even greater scale as part of international “rebranding exercises” in which museum annexes are created in improbable but rich centres so that museums may present themselves as pan-national or global brands (- along with Gucci now read Guggenheim). A lot of money is being made and a lot of careers advanced. Some journalists effectively double as cheerleaders for the tourism-fuelled cultural arts economies of centres like London and New York. However, along with these booming arts economies, risks are rising – and not just with the works of art: those who blithely authorise streams of loans risk putting their own reputations on a block.
NEWS UPDATE 26-11-13
The Guardian today carries this letter from ArtWatch UK:
“You illustrate the new exhibition of Turner seascapes at the National Maritime Museum with a giant reproduction of the artist’s now badly wrecked, many-times restored ‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ without issuing any kind of art conservation health warning (Eyewitness, 21.11.13). A clue to the extent to which this picture is no longer a remotely fair representation of Turner’s work is found in the picture’s full title, ‘Rockets and Blue lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water’ – for this was once a painting of two steamboats in distress, not of one. The now lost boat was recorded in a large chromolithographic copy of the painting that was commissioned in 1852, and in a photograph of 1896. Viewers who compare your present image with the recorded earlier states of the picture will likely marvel at the transformation by twentieth century restorers of the sky, and at the losses of storm-driven smoke from the funnels of the original pair of steamboats, one of which vessels has now disappeared under the waves along with its originally depicted crew members.”
In the ArtWatch UK Journal No 19 (Winter 2003), we carried an article by the artist Edmund Rucinski (“Ship lost at Clark. Many records feared missing. Establishment unfazed.”)
Unfazed the establishment was then – and, evidently, so remains today. Despite the disappearance of the second boat (and its smoke) in a recent cleaning, the owners of the Turner, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, USA, had included the work in a travelling exhibition (“Turner – The Late Seascapes”) that ran at the Clark from June to November in 2003, before transferring across the Atlantic to the Manchester Art Gallery in January 2004 and then on to Glasgow in March 2004.
At a public lecture at the Clark Institute, on 2 August 2003, Edmund Rucinski (who knew of the 1852 chromolithographic copy shown right) had been astonished to hear the restorer, David Bull, claim that the picture had originally depicted a single boat and that the second, now-removed, boat had not been painted by Turner but was a restorer’s addition made, possibly for Lord Duveen around 1910. That claim slowly sank. When Rucinski spoke to David Bull and asked on what authority the second boat had been removed, he replied that it was on a photograph of a single-boated copy of the painting that had been supplied by the Clark Institute’s senior curator, Richard Rand.
On 15 October 2003, the Times’ arts correspondent, Dalya Alberge, reported that when asked how it had been established that the second boat could not have been painted by Turner, Mr Bull had said: “The answer is we don’t know. It was a general consensus.” Thus, what had been presented publicly as a historically verified certainty was downgraded within a couple of months to a best guess, collective assumption. That position was maintained for several months and was reiterated in the Manchester Evening News of 14 January 2004, which reported: “The American owners of the painting and the restorer…say a second boat may have been added by an early 20th century restorer”.
On 28 March 2004 the show moved to Glasgow and the Glasgow Herald reported that the Clark’s senior curator had said “We have always maintained that the original Turner had two boats”. The importance of heavy promotion for travelling exhibitions was demonstrated in October 2003 when the Tate, which had not taken part in the travelling exhibition, nonetheless issued a press release that ended with the following claim:
“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water”, 1840 which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA”.
In additions to newspaper reports of critisms of the restoration, many interventions were made by scholars, as below:
“Since ‘Slavers’ and ‘Rockets’…have ended up in collections geographically so close to each other, it struck Hamilton [James Hamilton, the show's curator] as a good idea to show them together, arguing that Turner had intended them as a pair. The first snag was that Boston decided that ‘Slavers’ was too unstable to travel, even to Williamstown, so it was not in the show at all…But there is a danger that Turner has become a guaranteed crowd-puller, to be had recourse to at the expense of equally interesting but less certainly popular subjects. This is not a development to be welcomed, if only because Turner’s works are exceptionally vulnerable: the paintings, to the stresses of travel on their experimental construction; the watercolours to the exposure of light. He is not a resource that can be exploited indefinitely…”
~ The Turner scholar, Andrew Wilton, in a review for the Burlington Magazine, March 2004.
The ‘Slavers’ of which Wilton spoke, is Turner’s oil painting Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on. In 2000 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which owns the painting found it to be damaged and “extremely unstable” on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite having been “glazed and sealed against changes in relative humidity, the picture [had] reacted significantly to the voyage” and lost flakes of paint. An unfazed (and institutionally unrepentant) Tate spokeswoman said in response to disclosure of the damage:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.”
Indeed they are. So why the incessant demands from temporary exhibition organisers to keep borrowing them? And why the systematic attempts to deceive the public into believing that the most restoration-wrecked pictures are the “stars” of the shows?
For our part, we have repeatedly drawn attention to these travel-induced injuries. On 24 October 2007 the Daily Telegraph carried this letter from ArtWatch UK:
“Sir – The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and the dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition. A Tate spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.’ This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”
Clearly, the question still stands.
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