Saturday, October 17, 2015

Georgia O'Keeffe, Locked in the Basement

What these four wonderful paintings have in common is that they all belong to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where you cannot see any of them. All are "Not on Display." The Met has at least 15 Georgia O'Keeffe paintings locked away in the basement. There are hundreds of museums in America and many more around the world that would love to have these and would give them pride of place in their main galleries, but the Met cannot find any place to hang them. (The Black Place II, 1944)

It's the art world version of the towering inequality that troubles so many aspects of contemporary life. A handful of the top museums in the world have more stuff than they can display and more money than they know what to do with, while most of the rest struggle. If you wanted to hide a painting where nobody would ever notice it, I suggest hanging it in the Louvre, where the array of art overwhelms the senses and numbs the mind. (Black Iris, 1926)

If their charters forbid these museums from giving away the paintings they can't show, how about long-term loans? Wouldn't it be better for everyone if these paintings were in galleries in Topeka or Selma or Shanghai or Lima instead of in some dark storeroom? (A Storm, 1922)

But no -- the rich as ever cling to everything they have, sure that to share even one item from their excess loot would open the doors of art world socialism. It's enough to make me fantasize about pitchfork-wielding mobs. (Black Abstraction, 1927)


G. Verloren said...

I wonder how much of the situation is mandated by legal entanglements such as liability, insurance, security, and even things like binding obligations under which a museum can into possession of a piece of art (as in the case of wills and bequeathments).

Basically I'm wondering if it's just bureaucratically impossible or unfeasible for the major museums to lend certain sorts of art to lesser establishments. How many people have to sign off on such a deal? How many hurdles stand in the way of these exchanges happening? What are the unseen costs?

It sounds absurd to suggest that we can't find enough wallspace for famous paintings, but it's actually not just about physical wallspace. You can't hang a million dollar painting for public access and view without also dealing with all the concerns of keeping it safe. Paintings on display in museums have substantial daily upkeep costs, while paintings in secure storage require far lesser outlays.

So while it sounds fairly simple to just lend a valuable painting to a smaller museum, one has to consider whether the smaller museum can actually afford to display the painting. And rememeber than many museums can't even afford just to store such works!

You then also have to weigh the costs and risks of lending out paintings in this manner with the benefits that are provided by putting them on physical display. Large museums are situated in areas where lots of people can visit them, but this is not so the case with small museums. Can you justify lending a famous piece of art to a museum that simply won't draw many visitors due to the geographical location? Where do you draw the line? At what number of visitors does the expenditure and risk become worthwhile?

And let's stop and think for a moment - what real benefit do we actually get from displaying certain pieces of art? Are we perhaps just assuming that this is the best course of action simply because it is the familiar and traditional one? How about instead of loaning out these paintings for display, with all the difficulties and dangers intrinsic to such an endeavor, we pursue a different course of action?

Why go to all the trouble of putting on a limited physical display at a small museum in a single location, when, for what I imagine must be reasonably comparable costs, we could instead exploit modern technology to produce an extremely high definition digital reproduction?

Seeing a painting in person at a particular location and time is nice if you're one of the relatively few people able to do so, but wouldn't the next best thing be to give anyone and everyone the ability to examine a three dimensional virtual model of said painting rendered in exacting detail - particularly when they could do so from almost anywhere on the planet, at any time they wish?

Instead of trying futilely to find places to display our many "Not On Display" paintings, let's digitally scan them down to the minutest detail for instant access that's only just shy of seeing it in person, and much more convenient.

The vast, overwhelming majority of all people will never in their lifetimes see the Mona Lisa in person, but untold millions would absolutely love to pore over a virtual recreation of it on their computer screens from the comfort of their own homes. It may be slightly more compelling to see it in person, but it's better to experience a slightly subpar version of the work than to never experience it at all.

John said...

Indeed one of the Met's strengths is their digital archive, the best of any museum I know. (That's where I got all of these images.) So they are doing what they can to share their stuff that way. But I have personally found that digital images never really do justice to a painting or sculpture. I find digital images great for photographs, and I would just as soon see photographs at home on my computer as on a museum wall. But for paintings and sculptures, I want to see the real thing.

It is also true that displaying a valuable painting requires a major investment in security, climate control, and so on. I assume that a museum like the Met would require other museums to fully insure any works they loaned, no doubt at significant cost. Some of the major international exhibitions of recent years have had to be insured by governments, because even the top museums involved could not afford the insurance cost. This is a real issue that would keep many small museums from participating.

And yet there are hundreds of museums around the country which already have a few multi-million dollar works and presumably therefore have the necessary infrastructure. A museum like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (one I happen to know well) could afford to display a second-ranked Georgia O'Keeffe painting and could find the wall space for such a work. Some regional museums in the west (Seattle, Portland, Denver) have adequate resources and good fan bases but are short on art, especially older art. It probably does require a lot of paperwork and approvals to arrange the loan of a valuable painting, but since this is done all the time for major traveling exhibitions, and I can't believe it is an impossible hurdle.

I think it doesn't happen because it would be a pain for the Met, and they don't feel like making the effort for something that helps them not at all.