One masterpiece can go a long way
Why blow the budget on a blockbuster when a single Caravaggio or Titian will bring in the crowds?
By Judith H. Dobrzynski. Museums, Issue 227, September 2011
Published online: 14 September 2011
There might be less money to organise exhibitions in many US museums, but by borrowing one masterpiece, putting it on display, and so turning a single work into a star attraction, several are stretching their budgets a long way.
Titian’s La Bella, 1536, a portrait of a noblewoman in a blue dress, has been borrowed by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, from the Galeria Palatina at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence (“Woman in a Blue Dress”, until 18 September). It is due to travel to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno this month (24 September-20 November) and then on to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
The Capitoline Venus by Praxiteles, around 360BC, has spent the summer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on loan from Rome’s Musei Capitolini (until 5 September). In November, The Medusa, 1630, Bernini’s baroque masterpiece, is due to be displayed at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, also on loan from the Capitoline museums (19 November-19 February 2012).
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa, looked to the Brooklyn Museum for its first single-work show, borrowing Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, around 1779-81, billed as “An American Masterpiece” (until 31 December).
New York’s Frick Collection, combining the trend for single-work shows with another recent phenomenon, the collection-based exhibition (The Art Newspaper, March), displayed its re-cleaned St Francis in the Desert, around 1475-78, by Giovanni Bellini, under the title “In a New Light” this summer.
Creative use of smaller budgets for exhibitions is one driving force behind this trend. The directors we spoke to said that loan fees, design, insurance and transport costs for a single work are minuscule compared to a big thematic or an in-depth show for a single artist. Marketing tends to be the main expense, leaving museums in control of spending as much or as little as their budget allows.
Directors cite other virtues of single-work shows: they encourage people to really look, rather than move on after a few seconds to the next thing on the gallery walls. “We use them to teach how to experience a great work of art and see why it is a masterpiece,” said Brian Ferriso, the director of the Portland Art Museum. In 2009, when Ferriso arranged to bring Raphael’s La Velata, 1514-15, to Oregon from the Palatine Gallery, “people sat for ten to 20 minutes looking, and often they’d come back after going through our Renaissance galleries,” he said. Last year Portland borrowed Thomas Moran’s vast canvas Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, 1990, from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Charles Venable, the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, is also an enthusiast. In 2008, when the museum borrowed medieval and renaissance treasures from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, he pulled Leonardo’s Forster Codex from the show and exhibited the late 15th-century notebook separately. Pleased with how that was received, he has started an ongoing “Masterpiece Series”. This summer, the Speed exhibited Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller, around 1594, from the Capitoline museums.
Some directors we have spoken to say privately that some of their trustees have needed convincing, worried that visitors—primed for blockbusters—will not come to see just one work. Media coverage has, therefore, proven to be important in attracting visitors, which means that the works really must be masterpieces.
“Exhibitions that feature one great work or a small group of related works are definitely going to be [more popular],” said Venable. “As larger exhibitions just become too expensive for many museums, less is more might prove itself true again,” he added.
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