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Getty-Sicily art partnership under strain

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Relations between Italy and Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum seemed to be smoothing when Sicily lent the museum antiquities for a major exhibition, "Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome." The show of more than 100 ancient treasures opened April 3 at the Getty Villa and was to move to the Cleveland Museum of Art in late September, with the two museums sharing exhibition costs.

Then Sicily called. It wanted its art back. The absence of the antiquities was hurting Sicily's tourism dollars. Once the show finished its run at the Getty, Sicily said, it wanted its art returned to Italy, leaving Cleveland with nothing to show in September.

The Getty has been caught in the middle of the dispute — and could be on the hook to absorb the entire financial responsibility for the show, a total investment of about $990,000, approximately $300,000 more than it had planned, said Ron Hartwig, the Getty's vice president of communications.

Now Sicily may be reconsidering its position.

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Emiliano Colomasi, press spokesman for Sicily's top culture minister, Mariarita Sgarlata, said Sicily has submitted a plan to the Cleveland museum that would allow the show to open as scheduled, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"Assessor Sgarlata has made an economic proposal to the Cleveland Museum of Art to guarantee the exhibition in Cleveland," Colomasi wrote in an email to the Plain Dealer. "At the moment, we are waiting for an answer on the part of the director of the museum."

Regarding the economic proposition, Cleveland museum director David Franklin would only say in an email to the L.A. Times: "The museum has received a proposal from the government of Sicily and is reviewing it."

The Getty's Hartwig said, "This is a matter for Cleveland to decide."

It's unknown at this time whether Sicily's proposal would require the Cleveland museum to pay additional fees for the show. Some have raised concerns that foreign countries could be encouraged by Sicily's actions to raise their fees when lending ancient treasures to U.S. museums.

Franklin said he would be "deeply disappointed" if the show doesn't make its way to Cleveland.

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"We have worked closely with our colleagues at the Getty in order to resolve what quickly became an impasse with the government of Sicily," Franklin said in a statement. "Despite the best efforts of the Getty and the assistance of the Embassy of the United States in Rome and the Embassy of Italy in Washington, the government of Sicily [had] been unwilling to reverse its decision to not allow the exhibition to travel beyond Los Angeles."

"The issue is still not closed," Colomasi said in his email.

More than 100,000 people have seen the Sicily show so far in Pacific Palisades, but that doesn't affect the Getty's revenue because admission at the museum is free.

"Sicily: Art and Invention" is the first major show to come from the Getty's 2010 cultural agreement with Sicily, a long-term collaboration meant to initiate not only new exhibitions but also object conservation, earthquake protection of collections, scholarly research and conferences.

The agreement is meant to improve relations between Italy and the museum. The Getty has been returning objects that Italy said had been looted and/or handled by traffickers. In 2007, the Getty agreed to return 40 items from its antiquities collection; the 2010 cultural agreement with Sicily was the next step in promoting cultural collaboration.

When asked how the Getty would be affected if it ends up footing the entire cost of the exhibition, Hartwig said by email: "This will unfortunately take funds away from future Getty collaborations with Sicily, limiting or even preventing the kinds of joint research, conservation and exhibitions that were anticipated in our 2010 Agreement. This will be an unfortunate loss to scholarship and to the presentation of Sicily's extraordinary archaeological heritage."

Objects in "Sicily: Art and Invention" aim to highlight ancient Sicily as a hotbed of artistic, literary and scientific innovation. Two focal points are a gold libation bowl, or phiale, and an imposing 6-foot-tall charioteer statue. These are items that Sicily's culture minister Sgarlata has said the island especially wants back.

"How would an American tourist react who, trusting his Frommer's travel guide, has gone out of his way to visit the island of Mozia to admire this work of art [the charioteer] in its original setting, only to discover that the statue is in Tokyo or St. Petersburg?" Sgarlata wrote in an email to the New York Times.

The original partnership agreement between the Getty and Sicily was signed by former Culture Minister Gaetano Armao in 2010. Since the show's inception more than four years ago, however, Sicily has had five ministers of culture. The latest, Sgarlata, reportedly said that Sicily never signed a contract guaranteeing loan of the items to the U.S. museums.

The exhibition features 58 items that were on loan from Sicily, from 11 different institutions. Twenty-three Sicilian scholars contributed to the exhibition's book.

The primary advantage of sharing the exhibition with the Cleveland museum, the Getty said, was mitigating basic costs such as shipping and couriers. In addition to the $990,000 estimate of the show's total cost, the Getty spent about $200,000 on research, analysis, development and construction of a special seismic base that the museum created for the charioteer statue.

The Cleveland museum — which this December will see the completion of an eight-year, $350-million expansion and renovation — would have a major hole in its fall exhibition schedule if the Italian antiquities don't arrive. The Sicily show was set to run there through Jan. 5. The show at the Getty Villa will close as planned on Aug. 19.

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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