Loan fees risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

Have your your glitzy tours for billionaires but don’t forget what you are really there for

Once upon a time, museums lent to exhibitions almost exclusively according to whether they thought the show was intellectually worthwhile and the work of art was fit to travel. This meant that the less powerful institutions and their curators had a reasonable chance of doing original exhibitions and presenting them to the public, with everyone the winner. In the past ten years, however, this way of doing things has surreptitiously changed for the worse. Now, at last, an official body has blown the whistle.

The Italian branch of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has just produced a paper denouncing the practice of charging money to lend a work. This is not about wide-ranging projects such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where the Gulf state is paying e1bn over 30 years into an endowment fund for French museums not just to lend works of art but effectively create a whole museum culture. It is about the renting out of works to pot-boiler exhibitions to bump up the lending institution’s finances, and worse—refusing to lend a work, even to a good show or deserving museum, unless a fee is paid.

Italy is partly to blame for this rot. Its public museums, underfinanced, old fashioned and tied up in absurd bureaucracy, have great difficulty in putting on exhibitions (for example, often most of their telephone lines only allow incoming calls to stop employees diddling the state). Into this vacuum step commercial firms such as Linea d’Ombra, with bright organisational and marketing skills, and they persuade the rich cities of northern Italy that they can do wonders for their image and local economy by putting on exhibitions for them. They produce results that have shot Italy up The Art Newspaper’s annual exhibition attendance league tables in the last few years: 360,000 to “Turner and the Impressionists” in Brescia, for example. How do these firms get the works of art, having no institutional clout? By paying for them—or rather, by persuading others to do so: local government, and the bank foundations, which are Italy’s only major source of non-public money for the cultural world. Thus, the Louvre was to get €4m for a show in Verona this autumn, remarkable only for the celebrity status of its paintings, including even a major Leonardo.

The ICOM paper points out that this has led to the existing museums losing out, not just on potential investment, but also the opportunity to develop their exhibition skills in a way that could begin to transform the cultural infrastructure of Italy, while the public has seen brainless shows such as “Monet and the Snow” (Turin, 2006). Such exhibitions also reduce support for the local museums; since Linea d’Ombra started in Brescia, attendance at the fine Museo di Santa Giulia’s permanent collections has gone down from 93,759 visitors in 2003 to 38,187 in 2007.

The paper reminds everybody that the 1986 ethical code of ICOM states that museum collections are for the benefit of the public and should never be considered financial assets. The great lending museums and their boards should remember this, not least because they risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. After all, why should they be deserving of tax-free status, of donations from business and the rich, of being considered superior to ordinary commercial life if they themselves become so commercial as to rent our their collections? Have your fundraising parties, your glitzy tours for billionaires, your exquisite restaurants and your boutiques, but don’t forget what you are really there for, which is to spread knowledge and understanding through your art, an objective too noble to be sold off to the highest bidder. Loan fees are bad, as ICOM Italia has spelled out.

The writer is general editorial director of The Art

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