the museum director, usually a well respected art scholar is today often flanked by a marketing director or, museum manager. He or she will, equally, answer to no one in a love of art, but has a different agenda: create revenue from the monopoly position the art museum holds in the community.
Viewing paintings in a modern art museum has changed from the time when all the data you received about the work of art were a miniscule, flaking gilt label in wood or brass nailed to the bottom of the frame. It contained, at most, a fading, inaccurate description of the subject depicted in the painting and an optimistic attribution of the work of art to one of the greater Old Masters.
Today, each painting, watercolour or framed drawing is accompanied by a detailed, serious and scholarly label attached to the wall nearby. Large illustrated posters at the entrance and exit and quotations from the artist or his contemporaries, are silk-screened directly on the exhibition walls.
Visitors read as much of the text that time or inclination permits, then peer briefly at the painting mentioned before moving to the next. Museum managers have built the profitability of museum bookstores on the observation that more people prefer to read about art than attempt to understand the painting itself.
Russia’s St. Petersburg Hermitage museum in recent years has discovered the cruise-ship tourist and evening visits to the institution. It has created a new source of cash flow for the museum marketers; it adds, however, little or no value to the visitor with more than the most basic interest in the museum’s very valuable collection. You are rushed along from room to room, given a potted and outdated summary of one or two paintings in each section, before finding yourself once more on the street. For your guide has a secret agenda: get you in, through and out the doors of the Hermitage in the shortest possible time. Museum guards and the museum’s business management see you as a small link in a valuable quick flowing money-stream.
The Villa Borghese’s in Rome is one of the world’s most important collections of Renaissance masterpieces. For the lover of Old Master the admission policy is extremely flawed the result, partly, of the institutions cultural version of nickel-and-diming the tsunami of art-visitors that have always been a feature of the museum. In the Hermitage, at least, the individual visitor can take his time to enjoy and appreciate the works of art on view.
Admission to the Villa Borghese collection, on the other hand, is via the purchase of one ticket per person, bought in advance. An In and Out in two-hour shifts policy is rigidly enforced. Not unlike those short-time establishments ‘in and out three times in a night’, explored by Graham Green’s 1939 novel The Confidential Agent.’ Go in, see what you have to see and, out. Otherwise, you must pay again.
When, in February 2011, the museum simultaneously held an important exhibition of the work of Lucas Cranach the two-hour viewing window gave little time to appreciate either. Visitors with more than a passing interest in great works of art were distressed to find themselves, their own two hours up, having the doors of the galleries closed behind them and being hurried along to the bookshop and the exit.
William Hogarth, (1735), ‘Tom Rakewell at the Rose Tavern’, Sir John Soane Museum,
London. Trampled beneath Tom’s feet are fragments of a painting of Julius Caesar.
The revellers have wrecked most of the old paintings; one young woman is using
a candle to set fire to a canvas on the wall; one of the hazards of
museum corporate entertainment.
Museums, famous and less so, have embraced the corporate entertainment - as they call it – business. The museums hire out the paintings and sculpture galleries outside public visiting hours to business organisations for receptions and other types of entertainment. They are a steady source income combining the appeal of exclusivity – shoulder to shoulder with unique works of art and the prestige of an opening night at La Scala opera house in Milan.
Art museums, plunging into the adventurous world of corporate catering, soon discovered it does have its little shortcomings and peculiarities. A few have created elaborate protocols that endeavour to avoid the explosive combination of placing old masters and corporate guests cheek to cheek. Some prohibit, correctly, opening champagne bottles in the vicinity of the institutions keynote Old Master and again, reasonably, suggesting that the catering staff not carry food and, particularly, drinks trays above shoulder-height level.
The unfortunate result, in January 2010, of a visitor
falling onto Picasso’s large and rare 1904 rose period
canvas ‘The Actor’ in the New York Metropolitan Museum
was a 15.5 cm jagged tear in the masterpiece, in
the lower right-hand corner of the canvas where the
signature is to be found.
There still can be problems with those corporate guests who would prefer being entertained somewhere else instead of being surrounded by musty paintings by long-dead white men. The author and many other museum art conservators in their time have had to deal discreetly with the consequence of those begrudgers taking the opportunity to express their disappointment in order to tag the occasional work of art with a biro or a sharp penknife.
Then there are those who, in the presence of such unimaginably precious works of art, find themselves overwhelmed, like Stendhal in 1817 Florence, by a species of ecstasy. It is particularly unfortunate if, in the contemplation of such sublime beauty, the corporate guest looses his equilibrium and collapses, like a sack of praties into one of the paintings.
Rembrandt and his Dutch friends are enjoying corporate hospitality
provided by a Dublin brewery. The occasion is a museum exhibition of
the artist’s drawings and sepia watercolours. The toucan dipping
his beak in Rembrandt’s Guinness is artist John Thomas Young Gilroy’s
1935 creation for a Guinness poster, while an earlier version of the
Dublin Bay grey seal resting on a bed of seaweed, a tin of beer balancing
on his nose also appeared for the first time in Gilroy’s posters the same year.
In the 1960s, museums began using the term, deaccession, an interesting if obscure word when they wanted to dispose of works of art in their care. It sounded more diplomatic than the blunter, ‘sell-off’. The dispersal of King Charles l of England’s vast art collection after the king’s execution in 1649 is deaccessioning from an earlier age. Oliver Cromwell put the late king’s 2000 royal paintings and artworks up for sale in order to fund, amongst others, his military campaigns in Ireland.
Another, more recent example was the famous fire sale in 1931 of 250 Masterpieces from the Hermitage museum in Leningrad by the young Soviet Union badly in need of foreign currency to industrialize their largely agrarian society. An American banker Andrew Mellon bought thirty-one, including two Raphaels, The Alba Madonna and also, St. George and the Dragon not to mention the van Eyck, Annunciation. The acquisition was the cornerstone of the American National Gallery, founded in 1937. Deaccession is a largely United States phenomenon. Important local and national museums frequently have governing bodies independent of the state.
The classical example is the numerous attempts made over the decades to monetize an important painting created by the archetype American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Peggy Guggenheim, friend and chief patron of Pollock gave the 1943 "Mural” as a gift to the University of Iowa in 1946. During 1963, hearing that they were attempting to sell Mural at Sotheby’s in London she asked for its return. The University President, Virgil Hancher, assured her there was no intention to turn the valuable work of art into cash. Long after Peggy Guggenheim’s death in 1979, the Iowa state legislature has made various efforts to sell the painting, by now valued at between $150 and 200 million, in 2008, 2009 and a more recent attempt in February 2011.
Marketing directors and local politicians sometimes find it just too difficult to comprehend how works of art that are worth vast sums of money are sitting on the museum wall and doing, well, just nothing, really. Deaccessioning is a bad idea. The temptation for insider trading in the sale of a valuable work of art from the museum is always present and, more seriously, makes collectors cautious about donating valuable works. Public art collections are an attractive morsel for political interference – many will see art works as assets to be mined. They belong to that class of cynic, Lord Darlington tells Cecil Graham in Oscar Wilde’s 1892, Lady Windermere's Fan, ‘who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’.