Loans for cash - a good idea?

November 27 2012

Image of Loans for cash - a good idea?

Picture: MFA Boston

Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe highlights how US museums raise funds by renting out their masterpieces:

[...] the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston], eager to raise revenues, is also renting out many of its most prized works of European and American art to for-profit enterprises. A total of 26 paintings, including the marquee “Dance at Bougival” and “Madame Roulin,” have been sent to exhibitions in Italy organized by a private company called Linea d’Ombra, for a large, undisclosed fee.

The combined loans and rentals have resulted in what Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director, readily admits is a “traffic jam” of missing masterpieces.

“We admit there is some crowding [on the list of masterpieces sent away],” Rogers said in an interview with the Globe. “Everything has come together at once.”

‘As an art history professor, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that certain canonical masterpieces are on display in the museum,’ said Jonathan Unglaub of Brandeis University.

The practice of charging fees for lending works is not new, but it remains controversial. The Italian shows currently showing works from the MFA, in the cities of Vicenza and Verona, are titled “Raphael to Picasso” and “From Botticelli to Matisse.”

I'm not aware of any UK museums doing this (at least not on a large scale). But I'm interested to hear what readers make of the practice. If a hefty fee is raised, should pictures be loaned for cash to not for profit organisations? Should, say, Unilever be able to rent a Gainsborough from the National Gallery, if it is ordinarily in storage? Gaps on walls are a Bad Thing - but if sensitively done, I can see the practice having merits.

Update - a reader writes:

British galleries have started to do this on some scale.  16thc Venetian paintings from the National Gallery of Scotland, including the Dianas, went to America to Atlanta, Minneapolis and Houston from October 2010 to August 2011.  That was for a fee. 

And further back, all the Courtauld Impressionists and Post-Impressionists toured for fees. This was at least from the late 1980s to raise funds for their move to Somerset House.

I would have thought English Heritage are getting fees for the collection from Kenwood currently touring America,

On the other side it’s difficult to tell if and how much British galleries pay to borrow material.  One of the few cases that have come to light is that of the National Gallery paying a fee to a local church in Spain to borrow its El Greco.

Another reader summarises the case thus:

Honestly, I do not see any problem in museums loaning works of art.

In fact, the idea of the museum as something "beyond" and "above" mundane matters as "money" is as démodé as the French Revolution!

Another reader adds:

[...] the Reina Sofia paid 3.5 million euros to the Picasso Museum from Paris for exposing its works in Madrid for three months while the [Picasso] Museum was closed for renovation (later, the same paintings grossed a significant amount of money on their journey through United Arab Emirates, Canada, United States, Finland, Russia and Australia).

Update II - another reader writes:

In principle I don't have a problem with this. Although having said that, and I'm surprised no one has already mentioned it; isn't there the issue of the fragility of works of art and the unnecessary stress that constant loaning and lending can place on an artwork (especially if lent to corporate companies who probably wouldn't treat them as carefully)?

While another is not so sure:

I feel more strongly than other contributors.  What does it mean to say that museums aren't 'above money'?  Of course they don't exist in a different plane where budgets are irrelevant, but that doesn't make them commercial enterprises driven to make a quick buck wherever they can.  They exist to preserve art and to display it to the public.  Rentals militate against both of these purposes.  Paintings shipped around the world are inevitably at risk of damage.  Brian Sewell's autobiography has some tragic anecdotes about paintings ruined in transit.  The NG even managed to break its own paintings when taking down an exhibition.  

 Dumbed down commercial blockbusters try to cram through as many people as possible, making it hard for anyone properly to see anything.  There are always major lacuna at major galleries, which have become more like lending libraries (as noted by Haskell & Penny).  Visits to more out-of-the-way collections are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and to miss half of their best paintings does a great disservice to people who have travelled to see them.  

There are more doleful examples of paid loans recently - including the NG paying to hire Leonardo's Cecilia Gallerani.  The Art Tribune has a good post on the impact at the Louvre, with pictures of many empty spaces.  The paymasters will see this as an opportunity to cut budgets, forcing perpetual prostitution of the collection to pay running costs.  It is most certainly a Bad Thing.

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