Why is the European Commission instructing museums to incur more risks by lending more art?
Given the notorious risks of loaning works of art (see: An Appeal from Poland) and the high costs of insuring against those risks, why should the European Commission now be doing everything in its power to increase the practice throughout all of Europe’s museums?
In 2009 the Commission, through its “Culture Programme of the European Union” (which is funded to the tune of €400m), set up “Collections Mobility 2.0 Lending for Europe – 21st century”. This latter organisation, has itself funded international junkets – already – in Shanghai, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Budapest, Paris, Amsterdam (again) and, for this coming November, Athens. (Why Shanghai? – Is China seeking entry into the European Union?)
The ostensible prospectus for this pan-European project to “set culture in motion”, under the aegis of the 2007 “European Agenda for Culture in a globalising world”, rests on an evident conviction that an ever-greater shuffling around of the stock of art that is housed in Europe’s historical and nationally distinctive museums is a self-evident Good Communautaire Thing. While lip service is paid to “retaining the cultural diversity of the member states” it is hard to see how this might be achieved through a project which by design “contributes to European integration” and aims to bestow “a context” upon the art which is moved. When reading the promotional literature, it is hard not to see an overarching desire to homogenise European cultural life precisely by subverting the richly individual historically-forged identities of national institutions. It is hard to see how, in the real Euro-world of collapsing economies and soaring unemployment, a massive bureaucratized drive to increase inter-museum loans and their attendant risks might be considered other than whimsical and irresponsible.
As if in denial of the inherent risks, Collections Mobility 2.0 has constructed top-down national training programmes to be run in all European member states with the express purpose of encouraging more loans by the imposition of tiers of pre-cooked administrative procedure. All participants on these crash courses are required to:
“…cascade the training programme to other professionals in their own country using the training package that is being developed.”
The targets of this training package are to be:
“…professionals dealing directly with the administration of international loan of artworks as collection keepers, registrars, etc.”
The enterprise itself is dressed in pure dissembling management-speak:
“The Collections Mobility 2.0, Lending for Europe – 21st Century project organises training courses and provides a training package in order to introduce the most recent developments, best practices, concepts, standards and procedures on lending and borrowing of museum collections. ‘Getting practical’ is the aim of the project.”
Getting practical is not the same as “Getting real”. The risks to loaned works are real and the cost of insuring against them is correspondingly and appropriately high. As if to bypass this latter reality, Collections Mobility 2.0 charged a group of experts to examine over 5,000 loans made in five years under state indemnity schemes. This group duly reports that only seven claims for minor damage were made under those schemes. Taking these findings at face value and making no allowance for the under-reporting of travel injuries in the art world, Collections Mobility 2.0 seeks to increase loan traffic volumes by advising museums to insure less, to insure their works only for the specific short periods of travel at the beginning and end of a loan period, and not for the full duration of the loan.
This would greatly compound the hazards. TheArt Newspaper reports (February) that Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, has pointed out that loaned paintings get stolen from within museums and not just while on the road. He should know, having been charged when at the Tate with making the arrangements for the recovery of two of its Turners that were stolen when on loan to a museum in Germany.
Mr Nairne’s warning that “Without insurance the Tate would have had no money, nor the paintings”, cannot be gainsaid. What might be said is that by paying a ransom of over £3m to what Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General, described as “a group of particularly nasty Serbs”, the Tate established a going-rate “reward” of fifteen per cent of a work’s insurance value to obtain a recovery and avoid a full insurance pay-out. Whether such ransoms masquerade as “payments for intelligence” or not, they make art theft an increasingly tempting prospect.
For example, were the Krakow, Czartoryski Foundation’s, Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, to be stolen during its proposed trips to and from the National Gallery in London, it would, with its current insurance rating of €300m, afford a juicy potential haul of €30-45m to thieves. Were that Leonardo to be insured only during its times of travel, as Collections Mobility 2.0 now urges, the insurance cost might fall “considerably” – but the painting would remain a plump €30-45m target. Were it to be stolen from within the National Gallery, the owners, having acted on Collections Mobility 2.0’s advice, would receive nothing from the insurers. Similarly, if the painting were to be dropped and smashed at the National Gallery during the periods of installation or de-installation (as happened recently to a panel by Beccafumi), the Polish owners would receive nothing from the insurers. Were private insurance arrangements to be replaced by state-guarantees of indemnity, in the event of thefts, states would find themselves in “recovery” negotiations with nasty criminal groups and without the political cover afforded by commercial insurers.
There are no limits to the problems associated with Collections Mobility 2.0. Were the Lady with an Ermine to be loaned by her owners to France instead of, or in addition to Britain (and any or all venues would seem to be on the cards with this painting under its present aristocratic stewardship – in recent years she has been loaned to: Washington, 1991; Malmo, 1994; Kyoto, 2001; Nagoya, 2001; Yokohama, 2002; Milwaukee, 2002; Houston, 2003; San Francisco, 2003; Budapest, 2009) the risks of theft or injury would likely be higher still. The Daily Telegraph recently reported growing concerns that French museums are easy targets for thieves (“Lending works of art to France is a risky business”, 29 August 2010). For the past fifteen years thefts from French museums have run at three a month. In May 2010 thieves broke into the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and stole five paintings valued at £86m.
Two works loaned to France from the Victoria and Albert museum have been damaged in the past two years. An official at Apsley House, London, has said of the museum’s art “We wouldn’t lend that to the Louvre. We don’t know what state we’d get it back in.”
Whether or not one supports the European “Grand Project” to forge a United States of Europe, we should all be clearer about the implicit cultural price of ironing-out nationally distinctive institutions. It is barely over half a century since Hans Tietze, writing in the aftermath of the devastation of the Second World War, said of The Great National Galleries of Europe and the United States:
“The least part of their value lies in the millions they would fetch on the market; their real worth lies in the intellectual labour which they embody and in the spiritual pleasure stored up in them. To create these possessions the nations contended one with the other, and each land has built its own memorial in the Gallery which enshrines its history and its way of life.”
If Eurocrats are offended by these nationally expressive institutions, they should say so openly. Better yet, they might resolve to leave them in peace to speak for themselves. Since we already have the free movement of all European citizens, there is no impediment to their visiting any art – in its own already culturally rich context – anywhere on the continent. Let us cherish Europe’s unequalled and diverse cultural achievements for what they are and avoid putting them to unnecessary risks.
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