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A new low in the business of high art

Times Staff Writer

The chronic financial plight of many of America’s art museums is not news. But the loopy ways in which some museums try to bolster revenue certainly is.

The latest example of creative financing is beyond loopy. Way beyond.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has rented out 21 Impressionist paintings from its incomparable collection of 36 by Claude Monet to PaperBall, proprietor of a store at the upscale Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

Not loaned, mind you, but rented. And not rented to another museum, but to a business. PaperBall was founded in 2001 as a book-publishing arm of New York’s PaceWildenstein, one of the most powerful corporations in the international art market. Now it operates the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

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The store, in turn, is charging $15 admission to see the Monet paintings. They include examples both exceptional and not.

Boston’s museum reportedly expects to earn at least $1 million from the rental deal, which lasts 7 1/2 months. Meanwhile, store executives have calculated potential ticket income of at least another $2.4 million, based on projections of 1,000 visitors each business day. Souvenir sales in the gift shop promise another, unspecified bundle. How those hefty revenues might be split with the museum has not been disclosed, and probably won’t be.

PaperBall’s commercial gambit with the Boston MFA is not a slam-dunk. Attendance and income projections for Las Vegas art venues are notoriously slippery. Three years ago, Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens enthusiastically told Forbes magazine that he expected attendance of nearly 3 million visitors annually at his museum’s splashy new branch at the Venetian hotel and casino, directly across from Bellagio on the Strip. That optimistic estimate turned out to be off by more than a couple of million, and the venture has since been drastically scaled back.

Still, in the modern history of American cultural institutions, the business arrangement with the Boston MFA appears to be unprecedented. Art museums (including the MFA) have rented portions of their collections to other nonprofit art museums before, an idea that is controversial enough. But renting their art to a business enterprise is apparently unique.

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It is also baldly inappropriate, which helps explain why it hasn’t been done before.

The desire among art museums to share their treasures with the public -- who, in the last analysis, owns them -- is admirable and to be encouraged. Yet it is also true that anytime an irreplaceable work of art leaves the safe precinct of its museum gallery or storage vault and goes on the road, it is exposed to risk. That’s why the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, which represents the leadership of 175 American cultural institutions (including Boston’s MFA), has set four guidelines for determining when -- and if -- to loan a work of art.

Its handbook of professional practices is unambiguous. “In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection,” it says, “the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible financial gain” (the emphasis is mine).

In three out of four criteria, the Monet show comes up short. MFA director Malcolm Rogers airily waves away critics of the Vegas rental as “priggish.” But the deal in fact makes hash of a judicious museum standard. The show is without intellectual merit, is educationally corrupt and puts a fast-buck premium on financial gain.

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Rogers has only the security requirement on his side. Vegas casinos are built like Fort Knox. I can’t say what their climate controls are like, but they have more surveillance cameras than a John Ashcroft fever-dream. Those factors go a long way toward the protection of a couple hundred million dollars’ worth of Monet.

But intellectual merit? Please. Moving a group of paintings from one city to another doesn’t accomplish that. The sorry excuse for an exhibition catalog contributes zero knowledge to the field. A 52-page, $15 souvenir -- which a store employee described to me over the phone as being “like a children’s book” -- it features a few vacant paragraphs of introduction and one glossy reproduction of each painting.

Rogers -- echoed by PaperBall’s husband-and-wife executives Marc Glimcher and Andrea Bundonis -- has insisted in the press that a broader educational purpose guides him. Simply: The museum is bringing great paintings to ordinary people, wherever they might be, rather than standing back and waiting for ordinary people to come to them. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Call this the crusading evangelist position. If you believe it, I’ve got some swampland on Boston’s Fenway you also might be interested in buying.

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A truly missionary MFA could have taken its paintings across Las Vegas Boulevard, ironically, to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, where Boston could actually be lending its Monet paintings to a fellow cultural institution. The same potential for great art to be introduced to new audiences exists on both sides of the tourist-jammed street.

But it didn’t. Call me crazy, but if PaperBall had asked simply to borrow the Monets, I suspect the MFA would have said, “Buzz off.” Instead, a corporation came knocking with a bonanza business deal, virtually guaranteeing the museum a strapping revenue stream. And the MFA, well into a $425-million fundraising campaign, bit.

Context confers meaning. The Monet show’s context is purely commercial. It teaches audiences that, for an art museum, financial worth is art’s primary value. Mendacity, alas, is not an educational benefit.

When the public gets to underwrite the revenues of a private corporation, something is seriously askew. A tax-subsidized art museum in turn subsidizes a for-profit commercial venture, then takes a cut? Talk about innovative public funding in the arts! We used to think the financial relationship between museums and corporations should operate the other way around.

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Not since Krens’ Guggenheim took a $15-million “donation” from clothing designer Giorgio Armani in 1999, eight months before opening an unprecedented Armani retrospective at the New York museum, has a hybrid business model been so shabby. It makes the typical art museum licensing arrangement, in which the rights to the collection’s images are leased for reproduction on museum merchandise, look positively feeble. Here, the actual paintings, not just their images, have been leased.

I ran this Vegas scenario by a museum curator, who groaned out loud. This curator is convinced that -- professional guidelines be damned -- the moment her museum’s board of trustees gets wind of the Boston MFA’s repugnant precedent, they’ll be clamoring to rent out their fine collection too.

The curator is right. Pandora’s box is being pried open.

Consider the business entanglements. PaperBall is a subsidiary of PaceWildenstein. Pace Gallery was launched in 1961 in Boston. Wildenstein & Co. began in Paris in the 1870s and became one of the world’s most famous sellers of Impressionist art; Daniel Wildenstein published the definitive five-volume catalog of Monet’s work. In 1993, a Wildenstein subsidiary acquired a 49% interest in Pace. A decade later, a PaceWildenstein subsidiary cooks up an unprecedented multimillion-dollar rental deal with Boston’s museum, which includes at least one Monet that passed through Wildenstein’s hands. Whew!

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PaperBall could easily be caricatured as a wicked corporation, come to ravage the frail damsel of culture. For the Monet mess in Las Vegas, though, PaperBall is not at fault. The culprit is Boston’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts, which ought to be ashamed. A basic ethical standard, by which America’s beleaguered art museums do their important work, has been blithely kicked to the curb.


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