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Art Review: Museum Collections & Exhibitions

The Long and Short of Displaying Art:
Permanent Collections and Temporary Exhibitions

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Long & Short of Displaying Art: Permanent Collections & Temporary Exhibitions [1] from DFeller2 [2]

Permanent: Lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely.
Temporary: Lasting for only a limited period of time; not permanent.

On a chilly, rainy September morning in 1978, the thirty-year-old artist found herself well positioned on a line that had grown exponentially behind her since she had arrived early enough to score a ticket for the King Tut show soon to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fleeting entertainment during an otherwise long and dull wait on Fifth Avenue came in the form of then Governor Hugh Carey emerging from Central Park in running shorts, accompanied by a bodyguard. One had to wonder whether the office-attired chaperone was required to run alongside his charge as the latter enjoyed his morning jog.

On the last stop of its multi-city tour, the peripatetic Treasures of Tutankhamun had attracted crowds and money wherever it opened (Fig. 1), while repeated packing and unpacking had taken its toll on the objects, adding to the already high costs of the exhibition. Such was the power and some of the drawbacks of mounting these high-profile extravaganzas.

So it was that in 1977 when Philippe de Montebello took over the reins of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Thomas Hoving (the man whose name became synonymous with blockbusters like the aforementioned) that the new director, acknowledging his predecessor’s unmatchable contributions to the growth of the museum, staked out his own territory. Where Hoving had expanded The Met with new wings, programs and gallery reconfigurations, de Montebello would take advantage of a new management structure that gave to a president administrative functions and left him, the director:
“[…]to allow for a total concentration on the collections, the activities and programs related to them, and the gifted people charged with their preservation, exhibition and interpretation.”

In that statement, de Montebello reminded his audience of the core functions of a museum, adding:
“The Museum’s basic mission is not only to acquire and conserve great works of art but also to make them more intelligible by recreating their historical context for the visitor[…]to sharpen the aesthetic experience and engage the intellect as well.”
He hoped, too:
“[…]that the public will respond to imaginative presentations and reinstallations of permanently-held works of art with the same eagerness that it now responds to special exhibitions.”

Forty years later, museums seem to have given up on letting art speak for itself, becoming addicted to temporary exhibitions and their accompanying glitzy technology that at times overwhelms the objects. In order to increase attendance to levels necessary for sustaining burgeoning operating expenses of ever-expanding physical structures, some museums have temporarily permitted shows to silence permanent collections entirely.

When The Met Costume Institute’s Manus & Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology took over the Lehman wing, Impressionist and other paintings became inaccessible (Figs. 2 and 3). Likewise, the Costume Institute’s use of the Asian galleries for the display of fashion in the 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass eclipsed the art with discotheque lighting, adding music to further the effect (Figs. 4 and 5).

Museum goers have been enticed, too, with seemingly infinite variations of shows on celebrity artists like Caravaggio, Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, et al. Breaking from the pack, in the fall of 2016–determined to introduce a lesser-known artist to the viewing public–Keith Christiansen co-curated with Annick Lemoine, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio (Fig. 6 and 7).

Showcasing an artist who for years had been of great interest to him, Christiansen resisted the pressure to include one of The Met’s Caravaggios since none of them would have been in the field of vision of Valentin or his Roman cohorts in the second decade of the seventeenth century. The curators couldn’t escape the opportunity, however, to add the name of the better-known artist to the show’s subtitle.

As curator and now chair of The Metropolitan Museum’s European Paintings Department, Christiansen has assembled many old masters exhibits but he has also been at least equally committed to the permanent collection, believing that a “museum redefines itself through its acquisitions and [thus] remakes with equal vigor its visitors’ experience of the great achievements of the past.”

Staying alert for any chance to fill collection gaps, Christiansen acted quickly in the summer of 2008 when learning of the availability of Valentin’s The Lute Player (ca. 1625-26, Fig. 6). Before the end of that year, the painting had become The Met’s only work by the artist. Perhaps the acquisition added fuel to the slow-burning fire of Christiansen’s desire to someday see as many as possible of his artist’s extant works brought together under one roof. In a dream come true, he and Lemoine successfully gathered forty-five of the known sixty, including all six belonging to the Louvre, providing scholars with a feast for their eyes and minds–one of the best justifications for taking the risks entailed in creating such shows.

After joining The Met’s family, Valentin’s Lute Player seems to have had some trouble getting comfortable. It settled for a time in a gallery with three Caravaggios, a location that celebrated Valentin’s Roman residency and Italian Baroque leanings (Fig. 7), but when last seen outside a special exhibition, the painting was living in a gallery with a distinctly French flavor (Fig. 8). Joining other seventeenth-century compatriots with ties to Italy (including Nicolas Poussin), Valentin ceased being acknowledged for his allegiance to Caravaggesque naturalism and dramatic lighting, and became instead identified by his country of origin.

Before appearing with its siblings in the large exhibition, The Lute Player found yet another purpose, appearing with Caravaggio’s Musician’s and Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Music in a boutique show of Met-owned period instruments that were depicted in the three paintings (Fig. 9). The grouping of objects explored the possibility that knowledgeable viewers–then and now–might hear music when looking at the two-dimensional art. Not until the major retrospective would The Lute Player take its rightful place as a constituent of the Caravaggesque oeuvre of Valentin de Boulogne (Figs. 10 and 11).

The peregrinations of Valentin’s painting highlight the impermanence of collection displays and the holes left behind in the wake of special exhibitions that can empty a museum of all the holdings of one artist’s work. In the case of the Valentin de Boulogne show, visitors to the Louvre for several months did without and then when the exhibition relocated to Paris, those at The Met could do no more than take pictures of The Lute Player’s absence.

Encyclopedic museums like The Metropolitan, shelter within their walls thousands of objects, offering infinite possibilities for presentation, all of which express curators’ points of view, acknowledged or not. Each new regime brings with it fresh ideas and though altering so-called permanent installations is like turning an ocean liner, at The Met many did undergo major changes during the thirty-one years of Philippe de Montebello’s tenure as a “curator-director.”

Making good on his promise to recreate for the visitor some sense of the art’s original context, de Montebello supported gallery overhauls of Greek and Roman Art, Byzantine and Medieval Art, and Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (which despite those heroic efforts gets called “Islamic” anyway). Although there were other reinstallations requiring extensive renovations, these three stand out as particularly effective recreations of original contexts.

Daylight streaming through skylights above Greek and Roman sculpture suggests the original outdoor settings of many of the exhibited works (Figs. 12 and 13). Brick arches–structures already existing under the great staircase–closely approximate the native crypt environments of the displayed objects (Figs. 14 and 15). New designs tooled with age-old techniques by a team of craftsmen imported from Morocco (Fig. 16), lend an air of authenticity and certainly fine craft to the new Islamic art milieu (Fig. 17).

Because of the extensive structural work involved in realizing the visions of de Montebello and his curators, and perhaps because of the popularity of the results, visitors of the future should expect to find these galleries as they are today. But since only change is here to stay, the reinstallations could go the way of the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries, an area of The Met that has been likened to “a sort of cultural coral reef,” always growing and changing.

In the space of less than thirty years, this ocean liner made three sharp turns. The galleries as constructed for their 1979 debut (Fig. 18) represented a good idea at the time but eventually proved unwieldy. The most frequent visitor complaint was lack of direction. Nothing about the arrangement indicated an order to follow for optimum viewing. From a curatorial perspective, the staccato placement of the tripartite partitions made it impossible to show off the strength of a collection that had the depth to cover the walls of an entire gallery with paintings by a single artist.

There were enough other problems to warrant a redesign and so it was back to the drawing board in 1989, with de Montebello tasking then curator Gary Tinterow and the museum’s senior exhibition designer to come up with a plan. Not surprisingly, the hands-on director had more than a few suggestions. Happily, not only was sufficient funding forthcoming to realize them all, but Walter H. Annenberg and spouse decided to donate to The Met their collection of nineteenth-century French paintings.

The new space that opened in 1993 (Figs. 19 and 20) clarified for visitors both the nature of the art before them and the generosity of the donors behind the art’s presence. Written by Tinterow (with a foreward by the director), the special publication issued to commemorate the new galleries contains a paragraph that begins:
The idea governing the design[…]was to create rooms similar in scale and appearance to those for which the artists created their pictures: well-proportioned rooms articulated with baseboards, wainscoting, cornices, and coves.

He goes on to explain about seemingly neutral contemporary choices:
“A modern room[…]is not invisible: it colors our perception of things within it.” Surely those words flowed from the pen of de Montebello, for whom recreating context always takes center stage.

In 2007, The Metropolitan Museum again announced a reopening of the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries (Fig. 21). The coral reef had experienced yet another growth spurt.

Not quite as changeable as special exhibitions, but certainly not paragons of permanence, museum collections–in their potential for creative curating–don’t differ all that much from their briefer counterparts. A former Met associate director for exhibitions initially saw no huge disparities between temporary exhibitions and permanent installations. Both shared, for example, practical issues of traffic flow, pacing/rhythm and label content.

On closer examination, however, she noted the difficulties and expenses of securing, insuring, transporting and conserving art for special shows–no minor matters. Francis Haskell devoted the entire last chapter of his Ephemeral Museum to the dire consequences of cherry-picking artworks from permanent collections and amassing them in locations far from their homes.

In addition to the obvious danger of damage to art from otherwise unnecessary handling, there are risks involved with transportation of all kinds. When trains crash, planes go down and/or vehicles spontaneously combust, the presence of a courier affords no protection.

Less noticeable and seldom subject to comment is the hit that scholarship takes when exhibition catalogs masquerade as the latest word on an artist or collection, eating up publishing funds at the expense of more comprehensive research. Since no show can ever contain all of an artist’s work, as witness the huge but still incomplete one on Valentin de Boulogne, the accompanying publication must by its nature fall short of an all-encompassing monograph and catalogue raisonné. One wonders, too, whether the proliferation of typos in these hastily assembled books signals other errors as well.

Securing loans for an exhibition has created its own collection of problems, ensnaring museums in a tangle of demands for reciprocity. Where once a borrowing institution was expected to make a convincing scholarly case for its request, nowadays museums jeopardize their own prospects for future temporary acquisitions if they fail to deliver when asked, even for the skimpiest of reasons.

Despite the many risks and disadvantages inherent in maintaining a robust program of temporary exhibitions, gathering together in one place works of art that ordinarily reside in far-flung places and/or hide away in private collections can be exceptionally valuable–evident in the 2016-17 dual-venue and -title exhibit, Ribera: Maestro del dibujo (in Madrid at El Museo del Prado) and Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera (in Dallas at the Meadows Museum).

Rather than being the raison d’être for a publication, in a rare reversal the exhibitions followed the release of a long-awaited catalogue raisonné of Ribera’s drawings. The chronologically arranged first version of the show, mounted at the Prado by Gabriele Finaldi (the book’s editor), followed an approach inaccessible to catalogue-contributor Edward Payne for his Dallas iteration, where the limited availability of certain artworks called for a theme-based display.

Paintings and prints in addition to drawings graced the walls of each museum, with a core group appearing in both places, and adjustments made to accommodate lenders who were unwilling to expose to light their works on paper for longer than the three months span of one or another exhibit. Other variations seemed more a matter of philosophy than exigency, apparent in lighting, wall text and object labels, and placement of Ribera’s Apollo and Marsyas painting (1637, Fig. 25).

Taking pride of place in a publicity shot, at the end of a series of Prado open galleries (Fig. 22), the Capodimonte Museum’s star painting of the sun god relieving Marsyas of his skin, must have been greatly missed by tourists expecting to find it at home back in Naples during its six-month travels abroad. More modestly displayed at the Meadows in a dark room among torture drawings (Fig. 24), Ribera’s masterpiece struck up an incidental conversation with an Early Modern Spanish painting visiting from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Fig. 23).

The tourist-attracting Prado had little to say on labels about each drawing, perhaps depending on interested viewers to seek out explanations in the book. In contrast at the university-based-Meadows, curator Payne filled category-explaining wall text and object labels with observant descriptions and analyses, reading like excerpts from an art history text. The protectively dim lighting and atmospheric dark walls at the smaller museum invited slow looking and quiet contemplation.

Yet it was at the Prado where one Ribera scholar enjoyed the greatest treat. Surprised by a juxtaposition unlikely ever to be seen again–as is often the case with many a temporary exhibition–she stood transfixed in front of a four-by-five-inch compositional sketch (Fig. 24) in which the tentative hand of the draftsman jotted down sketchy fragments of lines, conveying ideas under development for what would eventually be the six-foot-high painting catty-cornered to it, the Apollo and Marsyas (Fig. 25).

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For citations and bibliography, contact the author at:  deborahfeller@verizon.net