A Poor Day of Remembrance for Burrell
In June ArtWatch UK was invited (as “campaigners for the protection of works of art”) to give evidence at a hearing at the Scottish Parliament on a private bill to overturn the prohibition on foreign loans from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The experience was both heartening and depressing.
The transparency of the Scottish Parliament’s procedures could not be faulted and we have rarely enjoyed such courtesy and assistance in making our case, or of proceeding with such comprehensive documentation to hand. Our written submissions to the committee and a number of items of additional information were readily accepted into consideration (as were those of colleagues in Donor Watch and Barnes Watch) and made available online. The witness hearings have been televised and their transcripts published online. The testimonies given at the hearing of 9 September are discussed below by Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch. Those given on 19 September are discussed opposite. (The filmed record of the latter can be seen on YouTube.) The record of what was said by whom of which interest group is there for all to see.
We were impressed, too, by the vigour and vigilance of the Scottish press. The Sunday Times (Scotland) journalist, Mark Macaskill, for example, had done what the Scottish Parliament, the Glasgow Council’s many tiers of cultural agencies, and – shamefully – the Burrell trustees themselves, had all failed to do – locate and heed (6 November 2013) the views of one of Sir William Burrell’s descendants: “Mona Dickinson, who lives in Evedon, Lincolnshire, said neither she, nor the wider family, had been consulted by the council or the trustees of the Burrell Collection. ‘I rather suspect they have tried to smuggle this through’, she said yesterday.” This intervention would not have been lost on the Art Fund’s director of development, Amy Ross, who argued in October’s Museums Journal that where no family members survive who might agree to renegotiate a bequest’s terms, existing arrangements should stand, for fear of clear breaches of trust dissuading others from making future bequests. Ms Dickinson’s opposition to the proposed overturning of Burrell’s terms of her ancestor’s bequest could not have been firmer or clearer: “Glasgow Council obviously thinks it can get the bill ratified this time. I’m sure it thinks sending some of the collection overseas will make money and attract publicity. But this debate was thoroughly rehearsed in 1997. Experts warned then, as now, that every time you wrap and unwrap a tapestry, some sort of damage can occur. It is inevitable.”
The hearing in which we gave evidence took place on 19 September under the committee set up to scrutinise the BURRELL COLLECTION (LENDING AND BORROWING) (SCOTLAND) BILL. We had assumed that consideration was being given to a proposal to over-ride the terms of Sir William Burrell’s bequest but learned, rather, that concrete arrangements were already underway to lend the collection’s works to a succession of venues within Britain and abroad even though this operation (known as “The Tour”) expressly ran against Burrell’s clear wishes and instructions, as set out in both his will and an agreement with the City of Glasgow. It began to seem as if the Scottish Parliament (which the comedian Billy Connolly dubbed a “Wee pretendy parliament”) was in danger of being bounced by an invitation from a big city council not to thwart a linked series of major and mutually dependent projects already set in train and fronted by a co-opted assembly of influential art world players in a new organisation – “Burrell Renaissance” – created to drive the not-authorised plans along.
It had not been reassuring that on the day of the 9 September hearing, the Convener of the scrutinising committee, Joan McAlpine, (SNP), a journalist on The Daily Record, had told The Scotsman that plans were already in motion through Glasgow Life (which she sees as “the arms-length organisation which manages the Burrell”) to send part of the Burrell Collection to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and that these provided “an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland”. Nonetheless, she assured the newspaper, her committee had an “open mind”. It certainly appeared that, under the committee members’ interrogations, the case for the (prospective) enterprise had repeatedly fallen apart. The public discomfitting of the enigmatic Glaswegian director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, drew from him both an insistence on an earlier “neutrality” that had escaped some commentators and an impassioned espousal of the present attempt – to which he is party as a co-opted adviser – to overturn Burrell’s terms.
It became apparent during the hearings of 9 September, for example, that the sums being sought (£15m here, £15m there) had the precision of little more than a bureaucrat’s back-of-an-envelope wish list. It had further emerged that in little over a decade there had been a tenfold increase in the claimed cost of remedying the Burrell Collection’s leaky building. The fact that rectifying the Council’s long-standing neglect of the building (the roof of which had leaked from virtually its first days) was said to require such huge and rounded sums – as well as the closure of the collection for no less than four years – was itself presented as a justification for breaching Burrell’s terms and sending his works abroad as revenue-raisers and civic/national flag-wavers. In 2001 the estimated bill for repairing the roof was put at £1.75 million. With further sums allotted to upgrade the museum’s plant, retail and display and exhibition areas, the total was said to be “likely in the region of £4 to £5 million.” Today, the latter is put at between £40 and £45 million. No explanation was given for this staggering inflation.
Because of the clarity and force of Burrell’s explicit wishes and terms of bequest, it had been conceded that no possibility exists of their being overturned or “re-interpreted” in the courts: “As there is no legal remedy which would allow all the restrictions on lending and borrowing to be relaxed, Glasgow City Council must pursue a private bill in order to achieve this end”. If successful, the Council and its cultural satellites would not only breach Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans but also those against loans within Britain of entire categories of vulnerable works, thereby creating not just a precedent for further general subversions of benefactors’ wishes and terms, but also a potentially lethal one for benefactors’ attempts to protect their art from being subjected to needless risks.
The extent to which, as previously described, all of the arts and sport have been brought under firm political control in Glasgow is remarkable and might be thought unfortunate. The two spheres are administered by an entity known as “Glasgow Life”, which is both a charity and a company with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council – and its chair is the deputy leader of Glasgow City Council, Councillor Archie Graham. Glasgow City Council manages all of the City’s museums and galleries through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Burrell Renaissance has been created with a chairman who is also a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. At the bottom of this interlocking edifice is to be found the seemingly ineffectual Trustees of the bequeathed collection (- playing a “long-stop” role, in the chairman’s words). As for the Collection’s curators, when we attempted (through Glasgow Life) to meet them at the museum on September 18th we were met instead by three Glasgow Life officers.
Now we know better: the Committee is today recommending that Burrell’s prohibition be over-turned and that Glasgow Council’s wishes be met in full. The locked-in cash value of a fabulous artistic inheritance gifted to the people of Glasgow may now be harvested internationally by an administration that has brought the collection’s home to a shameful level of dereliction as it indulged itself elsewhere with expensive “Grand Projects”. Yet another tranche of hitherto well-preserved works will be consigned to the unvirtuous conservation cycle as works get “conserved” so as to be made “fit-to-travel” and then “re-conserved” to put them right on their return from their ordeals – if they return, that is, and are not filched en route (see right). The Committee has placed its faith in assurances given by the over-turners. We cannot share it.
THE BURRELL COMMITTEE HEARING OF 9 SEPTEMBER 2013
The Committee: Joan McAlpine (SNP) (Convener); Jackson Carlaw (Con); Mark Griffon (Lab); and, Gordon MacDonald (SNP).
The Witnesses: Alan Eccles LLP; Cllr Archie Graham (Glasgow City Council Deputy Leader and Glasgow Life Chairperson); Sir Angus Grossart (Glasgow Life, Independent Director); Dr Bridget McConnell (Glasgow Life, Chief Executive); Hon. Christopher McLaren (Samuel Courtauld Trust, Chairman); Ben Thompson (National Galleries of Scotland, Chairman of Trustees); Jeremy Warren (Wallace Collection, Collections and Academic Director).
THE BURRELL COMMITTEE HEARING OF 19 SEPTEMBER 2013
The Committee: Joan McAlpine (SNP) (Convener); Jackson Carlaw (Con); Mark Griffon (Lab); and, Gordon MacDonald (SNP) (not present).
The Witnesses:Michael Daley (ArtWatch UK); Prof. Hope Gretton (University of Edinburgh); Sir Peter Hutchison (Charirman, Burrell Trustees); Frances Lennard (Centre for Textile Conservation and technical Art History); Robert Taylor (Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co); Peter Wilkinson (Constantine).
Secrecy, Transparency and Equivocations
Dr Whittingham discusses the September 9th hearing:
Ben Thomson for the National Galleries of Scotland on the subject of wills typifies those who want to have their cake and eat it. They profess fidelity to them to encourage future donors, but in practice think that they need not (sometimes/always) be followed. This contradiction is squared by arguing that the donor, if alive, would (mirabile dictu!) be someone of entirely the same opinions as the curator and would not only agree to the changes, but heartily advocate them! (So here Sir Angus Grossart on Burrell, 19; Hon. Christopher McLaren on Lord Lee of Fareham, 60-1).
Thomson’s equivocations are hard to understand, as he says that the NG of S adheres to conditions which they think are either absurd (their former Director, Sir Tim Clifford, derisively listed some in a radio programme in which I took part) or outdated – the latter in the case of the Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours, an example which must be awkward for advocates of the Burrell Bill.
The Hon. Christopher McLaren for the Samuel Courtauld Trust/Courtauld Gallery is much more gung-ho about lending and about overturning wills, admitting that they have done this in the case of the Seilern Bequest with the consent of the Charity Commission (47,60). He claims that no one has objected, but I did and I remember that Prof. Michael Hirst did.
In fact hard evidence is not given for many of the assertions and aims of those supporting the Bill. The financial benefits of tours are dubious. Whether they attract more visitors to the lending city is also unclear. The benefits to research are also debatable. The supporters say that loans promote it, whereas Jeremy Warren says that they take up curatorial time. When I first arrived at Manchester City Art Gallery, the committee chairman complained to me that the latter was the case.
Grossart says that the fact that Burrell lent to the 1901 Glasgow International exhibition shows that he was internationally minded (Grossart, 17). But that exhibition attracted visitors from abroad to Glasgow, just the opposite of what Grossart is advocating. The Chairperson of Glasgow Life (Cllr Archie Graham) states that Burrell was determined that his collection “should benefit the people of Glasgow” (14), whereas, Grossart says that “from a museums point of view, collections are left for the benefit of humanity” (17). No evidence is produced that this was Burrell’s aim or that it trumped his wish to benefit Glasgow. Of course supporters of the Bill argue that reciprocal inward loans benefit Glasgow, but again no evidence is produced that that was what Burrell wished. The promoters have conducted polls which show a majority is not opposed to the proposed change. But how was the question framed and how far did the respondents appreciate all the factors?
The Convener says that in the past Neil MacGregor opposed changing the will (33). But he has supported just the opposite. True, David Lister reported in The Independent (13.10.1997) that MacGregor, while maintaining “the need to respect the wishes of benefactors once they have been agreed by trustees”, was going to tell the Burrell Commission next day that the Museums & Galleries Act 1992 allowed some national Museums to ignore those wishes after 50 years. In fact he had stated that in the evidence submitted to the Commission on 1.8.1997. I can only imagine that he felt obliged to enunciate a general (and in practice meaningless) support for donors’ wishes as Director of the National Gallery, while in his heart having little sympathy with that. I remember attending a lecture at the Courtauld Institute years earlier in which he derided donors. Then in 1997-8 it was while he was Director that the National Gallery tried to persuade the Wallace to lend a Rubens contrary to the terms of the Wallace bequest. If he is now reluctant to give oral evidence to the committee, that would not be surprising. When I tried to tackle him in person on the subject of donors’ wills (at the AGM of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution), he made a quick exit.
As for the 1992 Act, it was a reiteration of those of 1883 and 1954. In 1883 The NG was acutely short of space and had an unbalanced and partly unwelcome collection. It was at a high tide of extreme Liberalism. The responsible Minister, George Shaw Lefevre, was “on the radical wing of the Liberal party” and was following the policy of a predecessor, Acton Smee Ayrton, “a former Treasury apparatchik recklessly determined on cost cutting” (Simon Thurley, Men from the Ministry, 2013, pp.31, 40). Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1882-4, Leonard Courtney, was another radical, who in 1916 supported the abortive Bill allowing the National Gallery to sell pictures. (In that debate he explained the variation in 25 and 50 year terms after which wills could be breached, something which puzzles people to-day; House of Lords, 21.11.1916 ). Both the 1883 Act (passed after virtually no debate and uncritically copied since) and the 1916 Bill had the same aim – of ridding the National Gallery of part of the Turner Bequest. As such they have no relevance to the Burrell question.
Numbers of works in collections are adduced as an argument for lending, on the grounds that there is not space to show most. Thus the Burrell can only display 2,000 out of 9,000 items (25). The National Galleries of Scotland have 100,000 items (44). These figures are meaningless unless broken down into those for works (a) which cannot usually be shown for conservation reasons (b) which are of little interest (c) which are the key ones. It is of course the last that foreigners want to borrow, and which (if not on loan) attract visitors to the home museum. For 150 years the figure of 30,000 or so works has been used by those wanting to argue for splitting up and loaning the Turner Bequest, a wholly misleading and nonsensical figure when one comes to exhibiting it and realises that there are only 20-40 key works that can be shown constantly.
Jeremy Warren admirably puts the case against undoing Burrell’s lending conditions (48-52). On the Wallace’s own record, he refers to the refusal to lend its Rubens landscape to the National Gallery in 1998 despite the pressure to do so from the latter. Warren’s evidence should be accorded great weight also because the Wallace Collection is the museum among those cited most analogous to the Burrell Collection.
The Hon. Christopher McLaren says that he and Warren, contrary to appearances, don’t really disagree, as he has recruited Dame Rosalind Savill to the Samuel Courtauld Trust (56). That begs the question of how far Warren and Savill agree (her somewhat nuanced views were briefly reported by David Lister in The Independent, 16.4.1997). It was under Savill that the Wallace held the Freud and Hirst exhibitions. Was she overpowered by Freud’s charm and forcefulness or did she really believe in her heart that showing his work in the midst of Wallace’s was compatible with the spirit of Lady Wallace’s stipulation that the collection be kept unmixed?
McLaren argues that what matters is the spirit and not the detail (47). Of course disregarding the letter for the spirit conveniently allows the woolly subjectivism which is so often employed to overturn donors’ stipulations. In the case of the Lane Bequest, the National Gallery stuck like a limpet to the letter of the law in disregard of what a House of Commons committee judged was Lane’s actual intention. Ironically it was said that under Scottish rather than English law Lane’s un-witnessed codicil giving his collection to Dublin rather than to London would have been legally valid. MacGregor naturally favoured the National Gallery view, supported by a false understanding of the history, which I had to correct in the columns of the Museums Journal.
McLaren’s view of Lord Lee (60-61) is hard to reconcile with Lee’s opposition in the House of Lords and The Times in 1930 to the British Museum & National Gallery (Overseas Loans) Bill. Lee’s opposition nearly provoked a physical attack on him in the Lords by the proponent of the Bill, Lord d’Abernon! His statement of the risks of travel was reported at length in The Times (16-17.12.1930) and would surely have influenced the views of Burrell. The Bill was opposed by the BM, for which Lord Hanworth, Master of the Rolls, spoke. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, another BM trustee, gave three reasons for opposition: 1. Disturbance of study. 2. Danger of damage. 3. Difficulty of resisting pressure to lend. The BM was dropped from inclusion when the National Gallery (Overseas Loans) Bill was introduced in 1935. This and the exclusion of the BM from subsequent Bills constitutes an awkward fact for Neil MacGregor. The 27th Earl of Crawford found fault with the 1935 as with the 1930 Bill. He argued that, if the object was to promote Britain abroad, that should be done by British art, leaving the restrictions on lending foreign art, which was what was agreed. Mention has been made of art as a tool of diplomacy. Of course art has been used for that from time immemorial, but as gifts. No doubt international relations have a part to play today, but only when other considerations do not militate against lending.
Attempts having failed in 1930 and 1935 to allow the loan abroad of foreign art, in 1953 the 28th Earl of Crawford told the House of Lords that the Treasury was “asking you for the third time to change your minds” (24 November 1953, 466), though again only for the National Gallery and Tate. Again examples of damage done to works when on loan were cited – this time by MPs as well. The debates stretched into a whole year and raised questions about various wills such as Sir Hugh Lane’s. Like other donors Lane changed his provisions over time, as did Burrell, who according to his secretary, Mrs Shiel in 1997, once thought of locating his museum in London. This has been used as an argument for not regarding donors’ final wishes as binding for ever on the reasoning that if they had lived longer they might have changed again. However donors such as Lane, Turner and Burrell had laid their plans over many years and settled on their final one after much thought, perhaps sometimes more thought than that given to the matter by those who wish to change their provisions. The advocates of changing wills might come to change their minds too.
Today’s wish to “liberate” collections (Grossart, 16), the belief that what matters is “getting the works out and about” (McLaren, 56) may in the future seem to be just a fashion, the consequences of which come to be regretted, in some cases too late. McLaren says that the modification of Seilern’s conditions did not remove his one against lending paintings on panel, which the Courtauld would have adhered to anyway (McLaren, 48). This is tantamount to saying that a donor’s wishes should only hold when they concur with those of the curators and trustees for the time being. It should be clear that the main advocates of this Bill in fact do not believe that donors should control their collections from beyond the grave except perhaps for a short time after their deaths, whether or not the collection had been accepted on that basis. Is retrospective legislation desirable?
McLaren says that no one has objected to the changes made by the Courtauld. But the general public will not be aware of such changes. I cannot think of any recent museum catalogue or guide which states the donor’s conditions, much less any changes made to them by the museum. The old catalogues of the Wallace Collection, reprinted in successive editions over many decades, did, but that was unique. The V&A went further in setting up boards giving the conditions of gifts such as that of Sheepshanks, but it is hard now to discover the terms under which many of its main bequests were given. When I suggested some time ago that it would be easy to give these on the museum’s website, I was told that that would be too much trouble. That trouble would arise from the public knowing too much was clearly the unstated thought. The art world in general is shrouded in secrecy. Moves to greater transparency such as the Tate’s publishing the minutes of its board meetings online end in farce when one sees how much is deleted first. Dr Penny has asked for his submission to this committee to be removed from the website and has said that he will reveal details of damage to works of which he knows only under the cloak of the greatest secrecy. In such a state of affairs one cannot have much faith in museum assertions about damage or anything else unless these are closely challenged. Meanwhile curators commenting on a report on the Burrell hearings in the Museums Journal find it advisable to do so anonymously.
Statistics are also sometimes dubious. Thus Ben Thomson states that the Burrell exhibition at the Piers Art Centre at Stromness was visited by 80% of local residents (54). How local? Did they pay or get in free and in the latter case how were they counted? Is he talking about the total number of visitors or of visits?
Reference is made to maintaining or increasing the reputation of museums. In the case of Warren reputation among potential donors seems to be what is meant (49). In the case of the others the reputation of the curators among their colleagues round the world. It is doubtful if the wider public is much influenced by these considerations. A museum’s reputation may be damaged more directly when visitors go to it and are disappointed in their expectation of seeing key works which turn out to be out on loan. Again this may affect only a minority. Mention is made of the Cluny Museum in Paris, which has started lending abroad (Grossart, 22-3). That has lent its famed Unicorn tapestries to Japan. When I checked the first 50 (out of 800) visitors’ comments on the museum on TripAdvisor’s website many mention their absence, but only three thought their visit ruined thereby. Even so, is that an acceptable percentage?
Though I think the Bill makes an unnecessary and undesirable change, I am not wholly out of sympathy with its promoters. Julian Spalding, who initiated the move when he was Director of Glasgow museums, in May gave us a very stimulating talk, most of which I strongly agreed with and which consisted of suggestions probably too radical for many of the Bill’s supporters! When I was a curator at Manchester, I was frustrated by the “squirrelists” (Grossart, 22) and took the conservation concerns too lightly. Long thought about the issues has, I hope, made me wiser. Truly liberal views will take into account the dead and unborn as well as the living and current fashions. J.S. Mill recognised that opinions differ, which is why the peculiarities of donors’ provisions are to be cherished rather than dismissed. Otherwise museums will lose their individuality. Of the Burrell it is said that “the asset and unique selling point … is the imagination and vision of the man who created this incredible collection – that in itself is an amazing story” (McConnell 29) and that it constitutes a union of collection and building (McConnell 20).
I also have sympathy with Sir William Burrell’s Trustees. They opposed change in 1997 but now back it under the pressure of those who urge the dire necessity of raising money for the building (as their Chairman stated in the September 19 hearing). The same much contested argument was used to overturn the wishes of Dr Barnes, resulting in an even more fundamental departure from the donor’s ideas. The Trustees argue that they will have the final say in what should be lent abroad and some say in what should be lent in the UK. However they will be under the pressure to lend which Lords Crawford and others thought could be intolerable. Parts of the lending code are flabby (39-40). An object, it says, should not be lent for 5 years after it has returned from exhibition unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. Any circumstance can be exceptional for those bent on circumventing restrictions. Objects, it adds, shall not be on loan for longer than 3 years except for a tour longer than 3 years. That is no real restriction at all.
If the Committee is minded to back the Bill, the Code should be tightened up and the Trustees given final say in all cases. If a long tour is contemplated, the Bill should limit that to a one-off and thereafter strictly definite restrictions on time, repetition, material etc. should apply.
Selby Whittingham is Secretary of the Watteau Society, Donor Watch and The Independent Turner Society.
Restoration Damages Market Value
Philip Hook, a director and senior paintings specialist at Sotheby’s, has given further “from-inside-the-art trade” confirmation that restorations can damage the value of paintings. Writing in the Guardian (“Got anything in the red”, Arts, 19.11.13) on the present art market disconnect between sheer artistic quality and realised top prices, Hook gives good account of the Bling Factors driving markets fuelled by super-rich aesthetic chumps seeking instantly recognisable works above better but less familiar ones. He well describes the effects of atists’ biographical back-stories and the assistance given to prices by appealing subject matter: pretty women; animals that are depicted alive and not dead, and so forth. In discussing negative market forces, Mr Hook also cites the effects of picture restoration: “Condition is a factor. Paintings suffer and age over time, some more than others. Like human beings, some are subjected to cosmetic surgery. Where this has been too extensive, the price of a painting will be affected.”
It is precisely for this reason that accidents suffered by loaned and borrowed works are so little reported. If paintings were required to be accompanied by log books which listed and described all known previous “conservation treatments”, owners might think twice about agreeing to take risks by lending works to travelling exhibitions.
MR MACGREGOR AND THE BRITISH MUSEUM’S UNDERPINNING OF GLASGOW COUNCIL’S PRIVATE BILL:
Above, top, Fig 1: Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery (1987-2002).
Above, Fig. 2: Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery (since 2008).
1) A Director’s Thrust…
Item: On 15 September the Evening Standard Londoner’s Diary reported:
“Don your armour. The British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor has unsheathed an antique sword and is pointing it at National Gallery director Nicholas Penny.
“At stake is whether a Glasgow gallery can lend out its collection, but it pertains to both institutions’ policies of moving art around. When William Burrell left his art collection to Glasgow in 1944, he stipulated it shouldn’t be moved. It was housed outside the city but the building now needs renovating and its trustees have asked permission of the Scottish Parliament to change the terms of the bequest to allow the works to tour.
“Penny wrote a letter to the Scottish Parliament, objecting, adding darkly that there were many incidents of galleries damaging works of art while moving them and he was prepared to describe them in confidence to a ‘single trustworthy individual nominated by Scottish Government [sic]‘. The letter went up on the Scottish Parliament website but was then removed .
“Now MacGregor has also submitted evidence. The British Museum has offered to help with transportation and MacGregor cites prior examples of successful moves by, er, the National Gallery.
“‘The National Gallery in 2011 invited museums abroad to lend their Leonardos for a temporary exhibition,’ he notes. ‘In return, we lent the supremely fragile Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre, confident it could responsibly move it, exhibit it there, and then bring it safely home.’
“Next year’s Rembrandt exhibition opens at the National Gallery. It has borrowed Man in Armour from Kelvingrove, the Burrell’s sister gallery in Glasgow. Borrowing okay, but lending not?”
It seemed unlikely that Nicholas Penny, who had attempted to give his evidence in confidence to the Burrell Committee, had been the journalistic source for this item. The charge of hypocrisy had been made in the Scottish parliamentary committee hearing on 9 September by Dr Bridget McConnell of Glasgow Life and the Chief Executive of Culture & Sport Glasgow. She declared herself:
“surprised to hear that view from Dr Penny, not least of all because we loan items from our museums collection to him. Indeed he has asked for a Rembrandt from Kelvingrove museum – probably our most valuable item – for a major exhibition next year”.
At the same hearing, Sir Angus Grossart (he also being of Glasgow Life and the chair of Burrell Renaissance on which Neil Macgregor serves as an adviser), held Penny’s views “inconsistent with his own practice”.
Those views were put to ArtWatch UK’s director Michael Daley at the 19 September parliamentary hearing by the committee’s convener, Joan McAlpine (SNP), to which he replied:
“That is perfectly true. As director of the National Gallery, Dr Penny is clearly in an awkward position – after all, the The National Gallery has loan policies – but from the beginning he has made clear his general disapproval of loans. He thinks that far too many loans are made at far too much risk and has sought to introduce new types of exhibitions at the National Gallery in which the need to draw in works from abroad is greatly reduced. Moreover, he thinks that many blockbuster exhibitions are, in fact, quite naked revenue raisers that serve little or no academic scholarly purpose and he personally is very keen and committed to developing exhibitions that are more thoughtful and more helpful to the public and in which the borrowings, in so far as they are made, are of less famous and well-known artworks.”
Nicholas Penny had received support during the hearings of 9 September. In his testimony, Jeremy Warren, the Collections and Academic Director of the Wallace Collection, said:
“On Dr Penny’s views, although his head is organising Vermeer and Vienna secession exhibitions – because he has to and it is part of what is expected of museums these days – his heart is probably saying some of the things that I have said. Actually, there is a risk whenever an object is moved. Even if an object is moved within a museum, it is affected in however miniscule a way. We have been through an age of exhibitions having become almost like medieval pilgrimages, but that might change in years to come, and there might be more focus on the integrity of collections…”
Item: Nicholas Penny might have been aware that his predecessor as director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, was reportedly taunted during a Board meeting by its chairman on the low visitor numbers for his special exhibitions. Such pressures are immense in today’s museum world. When serving as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Alan Borg, was chided by Alan Williams MP:
“When you have one of the highest grants-in-aid per head per visitor, you have a duty to the taxpayer to try and get more people through your doors. The idea is to get people into the museums…Your blockbusters do not bust many blocks, do they?”
Item: In The Times of 27 February 2008, Dalya Alberge reported that “Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, said yesterday that the 184-year-old institution had a duty to display art with which the public was unfamiliar rather than yet another parade of an artist’s greatest hits….What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the general public…I have a lot of thinking to do about our exhibitions and the direction they are taking.”
Item: The Stifling of Museum Officials’ Anxieties. In his preface to Francis Haskell’s last book The Ephemeral Museum, Penny addressed the charge of hypocrisy…as it had earlier been levelled against Prof. Haskell:
“…And he was also accused of hypocrisy because he was, and indeed continued to be, on advisory committees for exhibitions. Francis’s position was never the simple one of objecting to all exhibitions, though it was always a principle with him to refuse to be associated with pressure on directors who were reluctant to lend. [In any event] No public rebuttal was attempted of the case he made, since it would only have brought to public notice the near accidents of recent years and might have prompted public statements from other senior figures. At least one other eminent art historian – Sir Ernst Gombrich – has expressed misgivings about the transportation of great masterpieces. But museum officials are obliged to stifle their anxieties…”
Item: On 30 December 1995 Sir Ernst Gombrich wrote (letter to Michael Daley):
“…When I was in Vienna in October, the Kunsthistorisches Museum was under enormous pressure to lend Vermeer’s Artist in his Studio, indeed in the end the Queen of the Netherlands rang the President of Austria (who had no idea what she was talking about!)
So the Museum called in ‘experts’ including a restorer from Germany who all said that the picture was not in a condition to travel. So even restorers can do some good!”
(On 21 July 1995 Sir Ernst had written: “I need hardly tell you that I have much sympathy for the aims of ArtWatch”.)
Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders.
The director of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Thomas P. Campbell, said in 2007, when serving as the museum’s curator of tapestry:
“I do have the potential to organize exhibitions on a level that other museums simply don’t have. I mean no one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestry we had here a few years ago, where there were forty-five tapestries on show. The politics involved, the financing involved, the leverage, and the expertise involved: No one else had that. We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe, of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British royal collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just absolute masterpieces.”
(“Museum ~ Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, Viking.)
Above, the National Gallery’s 16th century wood panel painting, Beccafumi’s Marcia
, which was dropped and smashed on January 21st 2008 during the de-installation of the exhibition Renaissance Siena: Art for a City
After the accident it was said by the gallery (Report, 13 March 2008) that the panel is “fragile”
and will “never be allowed to go out on loan.”
The panel is one of two Beccafumis owned by the National Gallery. They had been removed from their customary place in the gallery’s high-ceilinged, naturally lit Renaissance galleries for the special, temporary exhibition in the artificially lit basement galleries. There, they had been united with a third panel of the original Beccafumi series, and all three were mounted together in a special showcase. The people who ‘dismounted’ the special showcase had not fully appreciated its complicated manner of construction, and in the process one of the three panels slipped and smashed on the floor. The odds had been two to one against the borrowed panel being the victim in this accident. An international incident had been narrowly avoided.
Because the damaged panel belonged to the National Gallery itself, it was immediately repaired before even the Trustees had seen its condition. After repair, the damaged panel and her sister were both placed in the National Gallery’s badly and entirely artificially lit, cramped reserve collection (which is open the public for only a few hours each week). No press release was issued announcing the accident but brief mention of it was later contained in an online report of the Board’s minutes. When ArtWatch UK commented on the accident in its Journal, the press picked up the story. The then new director at the gallery, Nicholas Penny, gave ArtWatch UK hard copy photographs of the smashed panel and a copy of an independent report of the accident commissioned by the gallery. ["Report on the Circumstances behind the Accidental damage to NG 6369 Domenico Beccafumi's Marcia", by Tadeusz J. A. Glazbus, Head of Internal Audit, the British Museum.]
A striking feature of that report was evidence of the chaotic circumstances that can arise when large exhibitions are dismounted. Once exhibitions are over owners seek to have their works packed and returned as quickly as possible. As a result floor space rapidly fills with packing cases and materials, couriers and conservators, around whom in-house curators and visiting scholars step with guests who are eager to study the backs of works as they are removed from the walls. One Trustee of the gallery told us that it “had been pandemonium on the day”.
Item: In The Times of 19 January 2013, Magnus Linklater reported that the priceless contents of the Burrell Museum are to be taken abroad on tour, despite the specific wishes of its creator, Sir William Burrell that they should never leave the country. The decision that they should do so had been taken collectively by Glasgow Council, Glasgow Life and and the Burrell Trustees even though it would “require a bill to be presented to the Scottish Parliament in order to amend the strict terms of Burrell’s bequest”. [Our emphasis - we would have thought that getting a bill passed by the Scottish Parliament was a more appropriate term.]
Item: On 6 September 2013, Phil Miller in The Herald reported:
“One of the art world’s leading figures has raised serious concerns over Glasgow’s attempt to tour the treasures of its famous Burrell Collection abroad, saying there is a “deplorable tendency” to deny the risks of transporting art around the world.
“In a candid submission to the Scottish Parliament committee considering The Burrell Collection (Lending And Borrowing) Bill, Dr Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, says moving works of art has led to several major accidents, incidents and damage to works, many of which have not come to public attention:
“‘What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible (if not always immediate) benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past;
“‘The financial benefits of touring art collections are also greatly exaggerated and do not lead to any significant increase in visitors to the galleries touring the works;
“‘While there has always been much talk of profile-raising to palliate the mercenary motives or to compensate for disappointing fees, the interests of those brokering or encouraging touring exhibitions may not always be very obvious but should be examined very severely.’”
Item: On 23 January 2013, The Herald reported that the British Museum had been lined up for the first stop of an ambitious world tour of the Burrell Collection: “The British Museum, whose director is Glasgow-born Neil MacGregor, is planning a show of of at least six months if Glasgow City Council’s bid to change the rules governing Sir William Burrell’s bequest…is successful…”
Item: On 25 April 2013 The Herald reported that Burrell Renaissance, led by financier Sir Angus Grossart, will be driving the plans for the Burrell Collection which were expected to cost more than the Kelvingrove museum’s £35m facelift. The newly instituted group included Dr Bridget McConnell, the CEO of Glasgow Life, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former ambassador to the US and head of the Foreign Office, and Neil MacGregor, “the Scottish director of the British Museum” who was to be a special adviser. MacGregor listed among potential venues for The Tour the British Museum itself, Europe, North America and Asia.
MR MACGREGOR’S NO-SHOW AT THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT HEARINGS
At the September 9 hearing the following exchange occurred:
The Convener: Is it correct that the tour is being organised in collaboration with the British Museum?
Dr McConnell: Yes. We spoke to Neil MacGregor last week about this. As you can imagine, given that the British Museum lends 4,000 items a year, it has an extensive touring department.
We are talking about contracting the British Museum not to deliver the tour but to mentor our staff, because we want some of the skills to transfer here and we want to build awareness and knowledge. We have some of that, but we want to augment it by either working through his staff or contracting some of his staff to work here in Glasgow.
An arts agency – I have forgotten its name, but we can get it for you – co-ordinated the Kelvingrove tour in North America on our behalf. It took all the insurance risks and made all the preparations for opening events and so on. It has indicated that it would be interested in doing that again in North America this time and our staff are exploring with the British Museum any similar opportunities with similar agencies.
The Convener: We have invited the British Museum to give evidence, but unfortunately it has not been able to accommodate us. What benefit will the tour bring to the British Museum?
Dr McConnell: Without putting words in Neil MacGregor’s mouth, I know that he would be delighted to provide written evidence if the committee wants it.
Sir Angus Grossart: He has been on holiday.
Dr McConnell: He has been abroad on business and then he is off on holiday, so he is out of the country…
The Convener: Neil MacGregor said on record in the past that he was against changing the will, so it would be interesting to receive from him written evidence that tells us why he has changed his mind.
Around the time when the Burrell Renaissance was being formed and Neil MacGregor from the British Museum was invited to be a consultant to it, a story appeared in a newspaper – I believe it was The Scotsman – saying that the British Museum would be centrally involved. Could a conflict of interest be perceived in Mr MacGregor’s role in Burrell Renaissance? Were other partners considered?
Sir Angus Grossart: Many international options were considered. Neil MacGregor is a pre-eminent figure. He was not chosen out of deference to the British Museum; he was invited to be an adviser on his merits. If we were to show any part of the collection in London, that museum would be the most fitting and matching destination [Over the much better temporary exhibition accomodation of the Royal Academy? - Ed.]
I do not think any preference was given. I doubt whether there was any intent to give Neil MacGregor, who was previously the director of the National Gallery in London, a preference. I would not have been party to anything like that.
The Convener: The collection could be shown in London without changing the will?
Councillor Graham: Yes.
Dr McConnell: Yes.
MR MACGREGOR’S (LATE) SUBMISSION TO THE BURRELL COMITTEE:
Item 1: Concerning Mr MacGregor’s 1997 “neutrality”
Mr MacGregor submitted to the current Parliamentary Committee a transcript of his earlier views, as submitted to the House of Lords on 1 August 1997 when consideration was being given to the restrictions on international lending at the Burrell Collection. Specifically, MacGregor had then been invited to give evidence on:
“the practice of inter-gallery lending in both the domestic and the international context in terms of its prevalence, its purposes, its effects and its risks”.
Mr MacGregor stated that although he had been called as a witness “by the Promoters”, [Glasgow Council] he wished it to be made clear that, at that date, he had taken the position in which:
“I neither support nor oppose the specific proposal that Glasgow City Council should be allowed to lend abroad objects from the Burrell Collection. On that my position is one of neutrality.”
Mr MacGregor further stated that:
“The passage from the wall to the packing case is widely considered to be the most dangerous stage of art transport.”
Although he did not say so, we would assume that, at that date, Mr MacGregor accepted that sending works abroad on multi-venue tours necessarily and inescapably increased the risks to which all loaned works are exposed. Professional art insurers have assessed the risk of loaning a work to another venue as being six times greater than when the work is left hanging in a museum and gallery. That being so, it would follow that works being sent on a six-venues world tour would be placed at six times six more risk.
Item: In the Spring 2008 ArtWatch UK Journal No. 23, we ran the following report:
“‘Museums now have to do blockbuster shows to get the people in’, Paul Williamson, of the art transporting firm Constantine, said on BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight [on 5 November 2007], adding ‘They’re under financial pressure to tour the exhibitions: so various exhibitions may undertake a five, ten or fifteen-venue tour around the world.’ On the same programme, a spokesman for the art insurers Hiscox disclosed that a large claim was filed when a forklift truck driver at Heathrow drove his forks through a very well-known painting that was very lovely.”
NB - The identity of the painting was not disclosed. This is common procedure with accidents – no owner, whether private or institutional, lightly discloses news of an accident and the subsequent covering of traces by a restorer. For this reason, private owners whose work is damaged when on loan to a large institution will usually prefer to have the in-house restorers make a no-charge repair rather than submit an insurance claim for privately commissioned restoration repairs.
Item: Concealing travel injuries.
The role of restorers (aka conservators) in concealing injuries is abhorrent to us but often welcomed by arts bureaucrats. As we reported in posts of 2 February 2011 (Why is the European Commission instructing museums to incur more risks by lending more art?
) and 8 February 2011 (The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around
), the European Union sees its objective of generating smart, sustainable and inclusive growth at a time when many of its industries are in decline, as being most realisable in the cultural sphere. To create jobs, the Commission exhorts more museums to loan more works and to be prepared to take more risks with their holdings.
A specific European suggestion is that lenders should: “not insure works while they [are] at the exhibition venue”. This ignores the fact that (as Neil MacGregor and many others acknowledge) most injuries occur during the time of the exhibitions – and especially at moments of handling: mounting/dismounting, unpacking/repacking. In addition to those principally human hazards, environmental stress and risks can prove higher during exhibitions than during the travelling time. This occurs because when well-publicised exhibitions draw the crowds they seek, the atmospheric “micro-environments” of galleries can fluctuate at alarming and hazardous rates as heat and humidity levels soar and then decline at the end of each day at rates with which air-conditioning units cannot cope. ArtWatch knows of many panics that have been triggered among museums’ curatorial and conservation staffs by the phenomenon of heat/humidity surges. In attempt to avoid this problem, the National Gallery greatly restricted the number of potential visits (and hence income) to the recent Leonardo exhibition, but not all institutions share such scruples. Notoriously, and perhaps least scrupulously of all, the Vatican continues to pack visitors in their tens of thousand each day into the confines of the Sistine Chapel, even though the last (artistically disastrous) restoration had, by stripping off Michelangelo’s final layer of glue-based painting, exposed the bare fresco surfaces to the ravages of modern Roman environmental pollution for the first time, and even though it has been admitted that the present air-conditioning is not fit for purpose.
For its part, the EU urges both that greater risks should be taken with security (by reducing the role of couriers) and that the depreciation of value which results from works being injured and then repaired should be discounted because “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”.
MR MACGREGOR’S (LATE) SUBMISSION TO THE BURRELL COMITTEE
Item 2: Concerning Earlier Misunderstandings of Mr MacGregor’s Position:
“1. I have been invited to comment on the application to vary the terms of the Will of Sir William Burrell in order to allow objects from the Burrell Collection to be lent for exhibition outside of the United Kingdom. I am sorry that I was unable to attend the the committee’s earlier meeting.
“2. I note that in the proceedings of the committee of 9 September 2013, column 33, the Convener asserts that I ‘said on the record in the past that [I] was against changing the will’. I fear the Convener is mistaken. In previous discussions of the topic, in 1997, I explicitly state that my position was one of neutrality. That is clearly recorded in the formal precognition dated 15th August 1997 and the report of the of proceedings at the public enquiry page 1272 section A dated 14th October 1997. My [then] position was accurately and unequivocally reported in the Glasgow Herald of 15th october 1997.
“3. I have no idea why Tom [sic] Dalyell in his obituary of Colin Donald wrongly suggested that I was opposed to a change in the Will – I was not; nor do I know why David Lister (Independent 13th October), writing before I had spoken to the commission on 15th October, mistakenly assumed that I would argue that the wishes of benefactors should always be paramount.”
Item: Tam Dalyell’s 27 October 2006 obituary in the Independent on Colin Donald, Burrell Collection trustee:
“When in 1997 the Director of Glasgow Museums, supported by Glasgow City Council, mounted a legal challenge to the terms of the will of one of their greatest benefactors, there was outrage among museum staff nationwide. Julian Spalding sought to lend out items from the Burrell Collection, contrary to the specified wishes of the collector and ship owner, Sir William Burrell, who died in 1958. Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery, among many others, deplored the challenge, but it was left to Colin Donald to fight it…As senior trustee he was absolute in defence of of the interests of Sir William Burrell’s Trust. ‘The Trustees’, he wrote in a letter to the Independent in 1997, have been obliged to oppose [the Spalding challenge] formally as we are of the view that we have a prescribed agenda to follow, which is to uphold the terms of the gift so meticulously set out by Sir William Burrell…”
Item: “Protect works of art from moving” ~ Colin Donald’s letter to the Independent, 28 April 1997:
“Sir: David Lister (“When treasure becomes a burden”, 16 April) is free to draw his own conclusions about the Burrell Collection from the facts, but it is important that these facts are correct.
“It is not the trustees who have ‘called in the parliamentary commissioners’. The draft provisional order has been promoted by the City of Glasgow. The trustees have been obliged to oppose it formally as we are of the view that we have a prescribed agenda to follow, which is to uphold the terms of the gift so meticulously set out by Sir William Burrell.
“In any event, the widened lending powers being sought will bring no benefit to the collection, although I suppose they might have a spin-off for Glasgow in tourism terms, but even that is arguable. The trustees have seen no evidence that Glasgow has ‘lost out’ on any exhibitions because of the restrictions on lending items from the Burrell Collection abroad. In any event, there are many items in the rest of Glasgow’s excellent collection which can be loaned without restriction.
“The changes which the City seeks to make amount to somewhat more than ‘dots and commas’. The draft provisional order seeks powers to lend items from the collection for exhibition in any public gallery or other public place in any part of the world, without being responsible for any damage or injury thereto or for any loss or depreciation thereof … with such arrangements (if any) for insurance as the Council may decide. They thus want to sweep away the carefully negotiated lending terms inserted by Sir William in the memorandum of agreement and the will.”
NB - The present Burrell Trustees’ seeming abandonment of their primary duty to respect and enforce the wishes of the benefactor is striking. At the 19 September Parliamentary Committee hearing, the Chairman of the Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, spoke in a manner indistinguishable from that of Glasgow Life officers: notwithstanding what he described as “the problems of overseas lending”, he welcomed the sending of Burrell Collection works overseas on what he referred to as “the tour”; he expressed confidence that if he were to hold an imaginary conversation between his own and Sir William’s consciences, that the latter, 55 years after his death, might react favourably if asked to trust his [present] trustees; he cited as a kind of authority for the proposed overturning of Burrell’s conditions, the fact that the trustees of the Barnes foundation had recently performed a similar manoeuvre; most disturbingly of all he seemed to show a distinct deference to the wishes and abilities of the municipally over-arching body that is Glasgow Life. He used an unfortunate cricketing analogy: henceforth, although the trustees would assume a new role in monitoring loans in general (- which was to say, loans at home and abroad) their position would be not that of a wicketkeeper but that of the fielding position long-stop (i.e. the hapless role seen in schoolboy cricket of a fielder placed behind the wicketkeeper on the boundary in hope of stopping all of the missed balls from scoring four runs). The reason for this self-diminishing role would seem to be that the trustees will now be working closely with Glasgow Life, which body already directs the lending policy of the city’s museums generally. In effect, Sir Peter was accepting what he might well have felt to be a politically inevitable homogenisation of museums and galleries within the city. We note that in 1997, when Julian Spalding was pushing for an overturning of Burrell’s conditions, the position of Keeper at the Burrell Collection had recently been axed. As mentioned above, opposite, we were unable to discover if anyone might be employed in that capacity today. It seems extraordinary to us that such a fabulous collection should be bereft of both strong and independent curatorial leadership and strongly supportive trustees.
Mr MacGregor’s September 18 Reply to the Burrell Committee, continued:
“5. It was suggested by the Convener on 9th September (column 33) that as the British Museum might be involved in helping organise the logistics of a possible loan, and as works from the Burrell Collection might be shown at the British Museum, I might find myself in a position of conflict of interest. I think I can assure the Convenor that this is not so. The British Museum would not profit financially from either aspect of such co-operation with our Glasgow colleagues…”
NB That absence of any financial benefit to the British Museum would only be so if visitors throughout the proposed six-months exhibition were not charged, and if they were to spend no money in the museum’s shops and cafes.
Item: How Future Loan Exhibitions Might Help Fund the Urgently Needed Repairs of the Burrell Museum and the Proposed Refurbishments of the Building.
It is not clear how, without entrance charges, lending works to the British Museum might offset in part the estimated high costs of putting the Burrell Museum to rights during the period between 2016 and 2020 when its building is scheduled to be closed for already urgently needed repairs. During the 9 September Hearing, the Committee’s members showed distinct concerns about what might be termed “the business model” of The Tour. In fact, the revenue-raising capacity of The Tour seemed to disappear in a single question/answer exchange:
Paragraph 25 of the promoter’s memorandum suggests that lending the collection will provide a revenue stream to support the [Burrell building's] remedial works. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and about how much you stand to gain financially from lending to put towards the cost of refurbishment?
Dr McConnell: Touring does not in itself make money. If it washes its face and make a small profit, it is doing pretty well.”
Mr MacGregor’s September 18 2013 submitted view on the nature of loan risks:
“…10. The question of the risk of damage to objects lent is a very important one, and has been much discussed. I attach an appendix to this statement detailing the procedures followed by the British Museum to minimise such risk. Clearly there are some objects which which are not fit to travel. But the best argument on this point seems to me to be the the practice of all the world’s great museums. They are all committed to the safety of their collections. All lend valuable and fragile objects, because they believe there is an overall public benefit in doing so. To cite but one item: the works of Leonardo da Vinci are among the most precious and vulnerable objects in all European art. The National Gallery in London in 2011 invited museums abroad to lend their Leonardos for a temporary exhibition – and they did. And in return, the National gallery lent the supremely fragile Leonardo Cartoon to Louvre, confident that could responsibly move it, exhibit it there and then bring it safely home.
We take Mr MacGregor’s reference to the loan of Leonardo’s supremely fragile “Cartoon” to the Louvre to be a sarcasm (re his spat with the present director of the National Gallery) and not an expression of confidence on his own part that that highly fragile, shotgun blasted and “restored”, ancient drawing really had suffered no deleterious consequences on its journeys (- by lorry and train through the Channel Tunnel?) How might he know such a thing? The effects of vibration on old fragile paintings have been little studied. How might they be? Would any responsible curator permit an old master painting to be fixed inside a container and shaken variously and erratically for hours on end like an IKEA chair on a test bed? The truth is that Mr MacGregor’s writ on the safety of travel today does not and cannot run throughout the world. On 12 July 2001, when bringing ten panels from Massacio’s Pisa Altarpiece to the National Gallery in London, he claimed that it had become safe at some point in “the past five to ten years” to jet works of art around the world because little gadgets in modern packing cases alert handlers to “any movement in the container”. What then? Mr MacGregor did not explain what a handler might do if so alerted in mid-flight.
In the real world, in 2000, pages of the Book of Kells were damaged by vibration when the precious illuminated manuscript was flown from Ireland to Australia.
In 2004 a Raphael was found, on arrival for the National Gallery’s “Raphael: From Urbino to Rome” show, to have suffered “a raised crack” in transit. And so on and so forth…
12. Of course there is some risk in any showing of any work to the public. It is the duty of those responsible for collections to strike the reasonable balance between public benefit and the likely danger of damage. In the field of loans, this balance has, thanks to advances in transport and conservation, changed greatly in the last 40 years.
Yes, indeed, there is always risk when sending art out into the world, but the notion of “reasonable balance” is weaselish. Trusting to the “likely” when putting irreplaceable works needlessly or lightly in potential harm’s way is not to perform a reasonable action.
13. I can speak with confidence only of the experience of the British Museum. Between 2003 and 2013, the Trustees of the British Museum have lent around 30,000 objects* (many very fragile) to venues within the U.K. and abroad. In those ten years, there have been eight recorded instances of damage – in all cases minor, and repaired by the Museum’s conservation team. While deploring and regretting these eight cases of damage, the Trustees believe the balance of public benefit has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that the recipients of these loans, among them museums across Scotland, would agree.”
While Mr MacGregor appeals to the authority of a Universal Practice among all the Great Museums, in December 2010 ArtWatch UK received an appeal for assistance from leading art historians and restorers in Krakow to help oppose a planned loan (for a substantial fee that was paid by the exhibition’s sponsors) of the many-times loaned Leonardo da Vinci panel painting Lady with an Ermine
to the special exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2011-2012 to which Neil MacGregor has referred. See “An Appeal from Poland”
and our post of 29 December 2010
. For an account of our objections to that Leonardo exhibition, see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration
” and “Leonardo, Poussin, Turner: Three Developments in London and Krakow”
On July 14, 2011 it was reported
that, as a consequence of the protests and “in order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow,”
Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, heir to the collections of the world-renowned Czartoryski Museum, has approved the dismissal of the enterprise’s entire management board, including its chairman, Count Adam Zamoyski.
Concerning Mr MacGregor’s appeal to the authority of his own museum’s performance we note that there are good grounds for treating such accounts with a degree of scepticism:
In 1993 the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, addressed the problem of self-censorship within museums (- to which Nicholas Penny referred, as cited above, in his introduction to Prof. Haskell’s book):
“no museum, either as lender or borrower, wants the taint of irresponsibility or carelessness. Although conservators, curators and directors privately raise doubts all the time about fragile and important works of art being moved around by other institutions, they virtually never speak out. When they do, it is as one chorus: nothing goes wrong where they are.”
A further inducement towards scepticism is the public record of the British Museum’s own art handlers. As we reported on 13 December 2010 (“An Appeal from Poland”), in 2006, the British Museum sent 251 Assyrian objects – including its entire, incalculably important, fragile, wall-mounted Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings in foam filled wooden crates in two cargo jets to Shanghai for the “Assyria: Art and Empire” exhibition. Mr MacGregor claimed that:
“It’s easier to transport these big valuable objects now – but it’s just as important to be certain they’ll be safe at the other end.”
The other end can be a long way away. The only flight capable of transporting all of the massive carvings to Shanghai left from Luxembourg to where the crated objects had to be moved by lorry/ferry/lorry. The planes stopped in Azerbaijan during their 16 hours flights – giving a total of four landings and four take-offs each on the round trip. On arrival in Shanghai, it was discovered that the recipient museum’s low doorways and inadequate lifts required that the crates with the largest carvings be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”
. So said Darrel Day, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler. “Even then we had to unpack three of the crates to get a bit more clearance…[one carving] was still too tall, so we had knock a bit off”
. No! – we jest of course, that should read: we had to “lay him down on his side”
. When the collection was finally unpacked (delay had occurred because a replacement had to be found for the Chinese museum’s ancient unsafe forklift truck), it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done”
and that a support had broken off one of the carved reliefs. Nic Lee, head of the Museum’s Stone, Wall Paintings and Mosaics Conservation Section, reportedly said: “that was a bit of nineteenth-century restoration that I’d been wanting to get rid of for ages, anyway”.
So that breakage was alright, then?
A restorer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that within the museum world there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” when considering works for loans. There would certainly now seem to be a systemic tolerance of failures in the movement of great art works. Forward planning seems an art yet to be achieved by many travel-happy museums (- a wider use of tape measures might help). An incoming Morgan Stanley sponsored exhibition of Chinese terracotta figures at the British Museum produced another art-handling pantomime. The more than two dozen wooden crates required were delayed for two days in Beijing because they would not fit into the holds of the two chartered cargo planes. When they finally arrived at the British Museum, they would not pass through the door of the round Reading Room (from which Paul Hamlyn’s gifted library had been evicted for the six months duration of the show). Even after the Reading Room’s main door frame had been removed, the largest crates still could not enter the temporary exhibition space built above the famous circular desks of the library, and had to be unpacked outside the exhibition space in the Great Court.
The difficulties loan arrangements can generate were discussed by one of Mr MacGregor’s predecessors, David Wilson, in his “The British Museum: A History”, (The British Museum Press, 2002 – pp 334-336, “Exhibitions – A Vicious Circle?”). Sir David admitted, for example, that objects occasionally get damaged and sometimes even “go missing”. As indeed they sometimes do: Every year, more than £2bn of art is stolen, some of which is art on the move.
In November 2006, the Toledo Museum’s Goya, Children with a Cart was stolen en route for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In 1994 the Tate Gallery loaned two Turner paintings insured for £24m to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. “We will not be sending a courier”, Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, told the museum, “but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/depalletisation of the cases at Frankfurt [airport] and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle”.
In what was clearly an “inside job” the pictures were stolen from the Frankfurt museum and only returned to the Tate in December 2002 after payment of a £3m+ ransom to the thieves in 2000.
In December 2010 thieves broke into a warehouse and drove off with a van filled with £5m-worth of works by Picasso, Botero and Eduardo Chillida being returned to Spain from a loan to Germany. Police said that the robbery had all the hallmarks of “an inside job”. Police/Museum/Criminal relationships are a vexed subject. In the February 2001 Art Newspaper, it was reported that Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General had claimed that the German police had infiltrated the gang (“a group of particularly nasty Serbs”) that had stolen the two Tate Turners, but had “then loused up on the recovery operation”. There are grounds for suspecting a de facto going-rate “reward” of ten or fifteen per cent of a work’s insurance value in order to effect a recovery and avoid a full pay-out.
* This number of cases had been omitted when the post was first published. [With apologies, M. D., 17 November 2013.]