In museum parlance, it’s known as “wall-to-wall"--the transfer of artworks from their hook or pedestal in their home institution to a viewing space where they will be temporarily displayed.
In near-legendary “wall-to-walls,” Michelangelo’s “Pieta” weighed anchor from St. Peter’s in the Vatican to appear at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The “Mona Lisa” momentously departed the Louvre in 1963 for a one-time single-picture sojourn at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
And during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, the Louvre made a group loan unprecedented in size, sending 36 Impressionist paintings to the Los Angeles County Museum for the exhibit, “A Day in the Country.”
“You don’t just write a letter saying, ‘We’d really like to borrow this painting. Thank you very much,’ ” said Earl (Rusty) Powell, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The likelihood is it would never be answered.”
In India, as the tale is told, you set up an appointment months in advance, then you get there and are told, “I’m sorry but we need two keys to open the storeroom. I have one and the other key holder is on vacation for three months.”
“German Expressionism, 1915-1925: The Second Generation,” which opened Oct. 9 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and runs through December, involves loans from West Germany and 51 works from East Germany, and will travel to both countries.
The warming of relations between the two Germanies, which led to a 1987 cooperative cultural agreement, eased the job of organizing the show. The Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, the state-owned museum of East Germany, has traditionally refused to participate in exhibits that included loans from the state-owned Berlin Museum in the West. To her satisfaction, Stephanie Barron, the County Museum’s curator of 20th-Century art, came away with 51 works from East Germany and 84 from West Germany, including two pieces from the East Berlin museum and six from its western counterpart.
The key to Barron’s dealings with East Germany was establishing relations with the cultural ministry.
For a 1983 exhibit of prewar German Expressionist sculpture, Barron wanted to display Karl Albiker’s wood sculpture, “St. Sebastian,” and wrote directly to the museum, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. After 10 weeks, she received a response that the statue was too fragile to travel. This time, with the cultural ministry directing contact with each of 25 participating institutions, “St. Sebastian” appears in the show, Barron’s request routinely accepted.
Nationalist niggling aside, the bare bones of bargaining for art, like any business dealings, means having something to give and something to get.
“First, you draw up an ideal wish-list of works, you measure them against realities, then you decide what you have to do to get them,” Powell said.
In the case of the 1984 French Impressionist exhibit, Powell had the allure of the Olympic Arts Festival in his hip pocket. He also knew that the Impressionist paintings in Paris’ Jeu de Paume would be out of circulation during their transfer to the new Musee d’Orsay; it was an opportunity and as Powell says, “I moved on it.”
As it turned out, the transfer of works from the Jeu de Paume to the Musee d’Orsay was delayed for two years, until 1986.
Normally, however, major international exhibits are not mounted from scratch. In order to stage an in-depth monographic show of an artist’s career, a museum must own a base of works to build it on.
A retrospective of 17th-Century Italian Baroque master, Guido Reni, which opens at the County Museum in December, began with two of the painter’s most respected works, the Portrait of Roberto Ubaldino and Bacchus and Ariadne, which are in the museum’s collection.
Still, the nexus of the exhibit depended on more than 20 works from Italy; in exchange for them, the County Museum opened the show at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologne, the painter’s birthplace, rather than following the usual practice of opening at the museum initiating the exhibit.
When blockbusters are mounted by another institution, getting onto the circuit is difficult. “There’s a general misconception that the big shows are hung on the marketplace for anybody to come and say, we’d like that one,” says Powell.
In fact, more hard-nosed considerations are at play. Lenders don’t like their works to become a perpetual road show, and three sites have become the generally accepted limit. Early inquiries by the County Museum for the Degas show, now at the Metropolitan Museum, brought the firm response that lenders did not want the exhibit, which appeared on Ottawa and the Louvre, to travel further than New York.
The David Hockney retrospective, staged last winter by the County Museum, was requested by museums in Germany, Japan and India, but the itinerary was restricted to the Metropolitan and the Tate Gallery in London.
To expand the itinerary of the Georgia O’Keeffe show, which opens at the County Museum the end of March, Powell and the National Gallery, which originated it, wrote to each of the lenders, a process which took six months. Exceptionally, Los Angeles will be the show’s fifth and final destination.
The Soviet Union and Eastern European countries also request “immunity from seizure” guarantees. Usually these are mere formalities, assurances by the U.S. State Department that it is liable for the works should some family scion seek retribution for a state-appropriated piece of art and lay claim to it while it’s in the United States.
The guarantees would have been useful during the 1979 Iranian revolution. At the time, the National Gallery of Art in Washington was borrowing several works, including a Willem de Kooning from the Tehran Modern Art Museum. When the museum was ready to return the works, Iran was in a state of turmoil and the museum personnel in Tehran had fled. “We didn’t know who to ship them back to,” says Powell, then at the National Gallery. “We didn’t want to send the art into a war zone.”
For an August 1989 exhibit of 15th-Century Islamic art, organized in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s Arthur Sackler Gallery, County Museum curator Thomas Lentz has spent four years dealing with government procedures in the Soviet Union as well as Turkey and Egypt. Lentz has made more than a dozen trips abroad, pleading his case in person. A veteran of waiting rooms and tea-sipping courtesy calls, he has unearthed some of his treasures in unexpected places. A wood box, which he regards as one of the world’s great carved wood objects, was found in the rear of a display case in Istanbul’s vast Topkapi Palace Museum.
For more than 2 1/2 years, Lentz has been negotiating for a white jade jug at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, making two trips to the city. Repeatedly he has been told that it is too rare to travel, but even as the catalogue goes to press, Lentz is still hopeful. The trick is, he says, “you tell them just to think it over. You don’t let them actually say no.”