Protecting the Burrell Collection ~ A Blast against Risk-Deniers
In a remarkable development the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has served notice to the trustees of the Burrell Collection of the grave risks they would be undertaking if they were to loan the collection abroad against the terms of Sir William Burrell’s magnificent 1944 bequest to the city of Glasgow.
As the Herald Scotland reports (6 September), Dr Penny has attacked the “deplorable tendency” for museum staffs to deny the grave risks that are run when works of art are transported around the world. In his submission to the Scottish Parliament committee now considering the bill to overturn the terms of Burrell’s bequest and his specific prohibition on overseas loans (to which committee we will be appearing as a witness this month), Penny, who has had knowledge of 10 major accidents during his career in museums and galleries in Britain and the US, offered to give details of the cases, in confidence to a trustworthy individual to be nominated by the Scottish Government. News of this offer and of Penny’s views broke when Herald Scotland spotted an accidental posting of his submission on the Scottish Parliament’s website.
Unsurprisingly, Penny’s bombshell has caused consternation among those wishing to send the collection on tour during a refurbishment of the building in Pollok Park which is expected to take four years and cost £40m. (We have have expressed bemusement in the past at the nicely rounded figures of building restoration costs which so often come in at sums like… £40m.)
The body “Glasgow Life” which runs Glasgow’s museums is reported to have been “flabbergasted by this”. If it is surprising that a museum director should be outspoken on this sensitive subject which involves a number of art world vested interests, there can be no surprise to readers of this site about the reality of the risks and the adverse material consequences of which Penny complains. In honour of Artwatch International’s founder, the late Professor James Beck, the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal (No 22) carried a thirteen pages long report on the dangers of art loans – “Blockbuster Exhibitions: the Hidden Costs and Perils”, by Michael Daley and Michael Savage. For the full text of the report, click on this PDF. (Michael Savage has posted a response to Penny’s intervention on his Grumpy Art Historian blog.) On 13 December 2010, in response to an appeal from Polish curators and conservators to help halt a further loan of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (“An Appeal from Poland”), we disclosed the extent of an injury to a panel painting by Beccafumi that was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery (see top, right). That photograph (and an internal report on the incident) had been given to Artwatch by Dr Penny when we commented in our Journal on news of the incident carried on the National Gallery’s website.
On 11 July 2011 we reported (“Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”) on how the Tate had paid a £3.5m ransom to Serbian gangsters in order to recover two Turner paintings that had been stolen when sent (without a Tate courier) to a small, badly protected German gallery.
The Herald Scotland reports that Glasgow Life is proud to have “formed a partnership with the British Museum, one of the leading authorities on loaning items, to benefit from its expertise”.
It is true that under its present director, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum is a hyper-active dispatcher of art around the globe (- over 4,000 objects in 2006 alone). It should be appreciated, however, that practice does not make perfect in this hazardous arena. As described in our Journal 22 report, when the British Museum packed the peerless, desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings and sent them all to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 16 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s low doorways were too low. No one, presumably, had thought to measure them first. It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darren Day, explained in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes. When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they, too, would not pass through the door of the reading room, even when the door’s frame was removed – some expertise?
A restorer in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” with regard to loans. As described in our 8 February 2011 post (“The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”), since 2003 it has been a declared ambition of the European Commission to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, the EU urges that loaned works of art not be insured, on the extraordinary conviction that accidents can always be remedied: “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”
The simpliste Eurocratic view of restoration is the more alarming because, travel accidents aside, with increased volumes and velocities of loans come an explosion of needless, often themselves destructive, conservation and restoration “treatments” that are undertaken prior to loan exhibitions as lenders seek to protect themselves by having their works “put in condition” for travel. This is done in order to be able to identify and establish (for insurance or blame-allocation purposes) the origin of subsequent injuries. Unfortunately, putting works into restorers hands in such bids to attain supposedly optimally secure condition for travelling itself presents hazards. We discussed one of the most spectacular examples of needless injury in our post of 8 January 2011. On that occasion an owner put his prized and beloved Renoir into the hands of a pair of leading restorers simply to lay a couple of small blisters and then to dispatch the picture from Washington to Paris. The restorers, without any authorisation, presumed to clean, reline (and wreck) the painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, as the distraught owner, Duncan Phillips, later confessed. On arrival in Paris, the newly restored Renoir was at first rejected as a Renoir. Having long enjoyed pride of place in the home of the great collector, Phillips moved it on its return from Paris into an anteroom. Today it enjoys pride of a place in a hideous over-scaled modern extension to the delightful period house that Phillips bequeathed, along with his collection. The present administrators of the museum have refused all requests to inspect the records of treatment on that painting, and, generally seem rather more animated by mounting their own special exhibitions than in ministering to the original and perfectly self-sufficient collection:
“Intersections is a series of contemporary art projects that explores —as the title suggests— the intriguing intersections between old and new traditions, modern and contemporary art practices, and museum spaces and artistic interventions. Whether engaging with the permanent collection or diverse spaces in the museum, the projects suggest new relationships with their own surprises. “Many of the projects also riff on the nontraditional nature of the museum’s galleries, sometimes activating spaces that are not typical exhibition areas with art produced specifically for those locations.”
Burrell be warned. Awful as recent “developments” at the Phillips have been, the United States has witnessed an even greater betrayal of a bequest: the wresting of the entire contents of the Barnes Collection from its, also bequested, delightful purpose-built original home and grounds, in order to place it in a worse than awful modernist pile a few miles away, hard by a noisy polluting freeway in the centre of Philadelphia. The denouement of the Barnes Bequest hike began (as is proposed at the Burrell) with a vast international travelling exhibition. At the Barnes, as now at the Burrell, the jaunt was premised on the morally-coercive “conservation” justification of putting the building itself “into condition” on behalf of the great collection of works. Humbug has rarely appeared so rank. The specially commissioned “site specific” Matisse mural was detached from the walls of the museum, packed on a flat-bed, open truck – against all reassuring conservation-compatible promises – and carried at an angle (see photographs, right) to Washington. Nick Tinari, who is to submit testimony to the Burrell Inquiry, has informed ArtWatch “I can state unequivocally that damage was done on the tour to the Matisse mural, the Seurat Models and a Picasso. I have documentation for all three.” Tinari further points out that, as with the intended Burrell tour, the Barnes tour – which netted $7m – breached the benefactor’s express prohibition on foreign loans. Far from serving to make the collection safe, that earlier exercise paved the way to a full takeover. More generally, it served as a template for trustees everywhere who might wish to harvest cash value that is otherwise locked into permanently housed works of art.
Clearly, Dr Penny’s intervention addresses much more than the welfare of the Burrell Collection, precious and vulnerable though it is. It is greatly to Penny’s credit that he should have spoken in such frank (and brave) terms. It is also greatly to the credit of the Scottish Parliament that it should be engaging in such an open exercise before another art world horse may be induced to bolt.
On 7 September, Herald Scotland reported the submission of written evidence made by Dr Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch:
“Dr Selby Whittingham, of Donor Watch, says in his submission: ‘There can be a case for departing from the terms of a bequest when those are incapable of being carried out wholly or safely … but that does not apply in the Burrell case in this instance.
‘This bill is a consequence of the current vogue for loan exhibitions and for using outward loans as barter for inward loans. This vogue is not wholly benign. It deprives visitors to a museum of works which they may expect to see. And we are not convinced that the transport of works of art is as free from hazard as the advocates of this measure optimistically maintain…'”
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