|Picture: NG via Artwatch|
Bendor Grosvenor has taken issue with Blake Gopnik's recent call for fewer exhibitions. The main disagreement is about the level of risk arising from loans, and I completely agree with Gopnik's call for caution.
The picture above shows the consequence of dropping a Beccafumi at the National Gallery. At most it fell a couple of feet, and the panel broke in two. That must be cause for scepticism about Bendor Grosvenor's claim that paintings are "pretty damn tough". Paint often adheres poorly to its support; even without movement, it can be subject to flaking. Even in public displays you sometimes see paper stuck over the surface of pictures to protect flaking paint. Perfectly preserved old masters are rare things; condition reports regularly highlight not only damage from excessive cleaning, but all kinds of tears and bumps.
It's not just a theoretical risk. I once spoke to someone who had worked as art handler in a summer vacation from university. He described alarming carelessness and frequent minor incidents of damage, not all of which were disclosed. He told me that one of his colleagues accidentally slashed a painting with a knife when removing its packing. The painting was carefully re-packed, and the handling firm denied all knowledge of the incident. Brian Sewell's memoirs include some horrific anecdotes about the damage done by art handlers when he worked at Christie's.
Even if they arrive safely, borrowing museums can fail to provide promised safeguards. I heard from an insider about one major US museum that would routinely lie to lenders about the security measures in place, which were never audited. London's National Gallery required a rope barrier to be placed in front of an unglazed loan to the Goya: Images of Women exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art, but when I visited the rope was pushed right up against the wall, so that visitors could poke it freely along with the other notoriously badly protected works at the NGA.
The problem in debating this is that we have no idea how often incidents happen because there is no requirement to disclose them. There is no incentive for lenders or borrowers to disclose damage - quite the opposite, as both lender and borrower are responsible for protecting exhibits, so disclosing damage will inevitably reflect badly on whoever 'fesses up'.
The frame that was recently damaged in the Murillo exhibition at the Wallace Collection would almost certainly never be known about if I hadn't spotted the damage between two visits to the show. Their press office simply ignored my request for information about the incident. There are therefore no reliable data on the harm done to art as a result of exhibitions, because damage is not publicised (nor even necessarily recorded). The Telegraph reports a catalogue of damage to works of art in museums, not all related to exhibitions, but limited to British institutions, and obviously including only those that were recorded and disclosed. We can only speculate how much damage wasn't properly recorded, and how much damage is done globally.
So what's on the other side of the balance sheet to make these risks worthwhile? Exhibitions are indeed the 'lifeblood' of museums today, but again I think Gopnik's critique of the myopic focus on ephemeral exhibitions at the expense of the permanent collection is right. In London there are so many exhibitions that I struggle even to visit them all. It's really rare for an exhibition to offer much new, insightful or interesting; in praising exhibitions, reviewers often confuse the quality of the art on display with the quality of the exhibition itself.
Bendor Grosvenor regrets the 'captive grip of the museum basement', but it's not basement pictures that are being lent; it's generally the greatest treasures. Moreover, the handling requirements that he bemoans aren't slowing the rate of lending. Gopnik's article together with The Art Newspaper's annual exhibition attendance survey provide ample evidence that art works are being lent more often than before and travelling further than before. Every museum now feels the need to organise frenetic exhibition schedules. The requirements imposed on borrowers do not seem to be slowing the pace of lending at all, and maybe reflect the additional risk arising from the increasing number of loans. Curators who should know better boast about wheedling loans of pictures generally viewed as too delicate to travel, such as large altarpieces or fragile panels.
Some will no doubt see these concerns as out of all proportion to a few paintings getting some knocks and scrapes. But the crucial point is that these knocks and scrapes represent permanent and irrevocable losses to our artistic heritage. In this respect visual art is very different from music or drama. No matter how much you mangle a production of Hamlet, the play remains for posterity. Take a chunk out of the Mona Lisa, and something of Leonardo is lost forever.