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Museum-quality art: Handle with care

Times Staff Writer

Ask an art-world insider about the two Los Angeles works that recently shattered in falls from the wall at the Pompidou Center in Paris, and odds are good you’ll get one of three answers:

A: This never happens. Meaning that nobody can remember a museum destroying two borrowed pieces in separate accidents during a single exhibition.

B: This happens more than people think. Meaning that museums, eager to protect their images and soothe collectors and other lenders, typically settle such problems in mutually agreed-upon silence.

C: The Pompidou Center? Again?

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Since its opening in 1977, the Pompidou Center’s Musee National d’Art Moderne has been counted among the world’s most admired and most visible museums of contemporary art, beginning with its startling Paris building, its outside walls industrially festooned with ducts and fixtures.

But in some circles, the institution has also acquired a reputation as a place where bad things sometimes happen to borrowed art.

“I’ve worked with a lot of museums in my life, and this was probably the worst experience I’ve had,” said artist Doug Wheeler, who was invited to join the museum’s “Los Angeles 1955-1985" show. After visiting and talking with staff, he pulled out.

“We were warned, ‘You have to be very careful with them,’ ” said Chris Churchill, director of the Franklin Parrasch Gallery in New York, which loaned one of the works ruined. “I have never heard so many people come out and say, ‘They’re bad news,’ about any other institution.... We dealt with a lot of collectors who refused to loan to this show. More than one, less than five.”

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“It’s no secret in the museum business that handling can be very sketchy at Pompidou,” said John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But amid the proliferation of traveling shows in recent years, Walsh added, “it’s a statistical certainty that these incidents are going to happen somewhere, when we have at any given time thousands of works of art on airplanes and trucks all over the world, being handled by staffs we don’t know.”

Until last week, there were few public facts available to support such criticism. But the Pompidou has had high-profile troubles with artworks of its own in the last two years.

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Damage done

On Jan. 4, a 77-year-old performance artist entered the museum’s galleries and attacked artist Marcel Duchamp’s famed porcelain urinal with a hammer. In early 2004, the museum’s 1924 Pablo Picasso painting “Nature Morte a la Charlotte” was stolen from a warehouse where it was awaiting restoration. (It was recovered the following year.)

Now, as Pompidou officials express regret, promise an investigation and point out that the materials were fragile to begin with, many experts and collectors are talking about whether the museum casualties reflect an institutional problem or a nagging issue throughout the profession.

Southern California collector Phyllis Kleinberg said she and her husband had considered a loan to the Pompidou last year but backed away after warnings from several dealers and artists.

“It’s one of the museums you don’t quite trust,” said Carolyn Alexander, a partner in the New York contemporary gallery Alexander and Bonin and sister-in-law to one of the artists whose works were destroyed.

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Wheeler, who splits his time between Santa Fe, N.M., and Los Angeles, said that when he was approached about joining the Paris exhibition he hadn’t heard anything about trouble at the museum and was excited about showing in France for the first time in more than 30 years. But after visiting Paris, hearing the staffers’ plans for his work and taking measure of their experience, communication and follow-through skills, Wheeler said, he decided he couldn’t trust the place. When news of the two destroyed works reached him, Wheeler said, “I wasn’t surprised.”

Still, many dismiss the idea that the Paris museum’s practices are that different from those of its peers.

“Most of the people who work in museums and have these responsible jobs, they are not really trained in the way they should be,” said Christian Scheidemann, a New York conservator who has been in the business for 32 years. “Much more things happen than you know, but luckily they don’t get publicized.”

At the Pompidou, Scheidemann said, “they do a lot of shows and sometimes things happen. I know of cases, but I think I would not comment on this. It’s nothing that should be discussed in public. It also happens in American museums. It happens in all museums. We just don’t talk about it.”

That, Scheidemann said, is because “it affects the whole politics of lending and borrowing pieces.”

The subject is especially thorny for museums because curators depend on access to one another’s collections. Further, in cases in which a work is damaged, the museum responsible might make a settlement payment that requires confidentiality.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. -- which will lend 10 of its Robert Rauschenberg Combine works to the Pompidou for a show opening Oct. 11 -- has made five to 10 loans to the Paris museum over the last 20 years without incident, a spokesman said.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s records show 18 items have been loaned to the Pompidou Center over the last five years, most of them for the just-concluded show. A museum spokeswoman said she was unable to say whether any works had been damaged before July.

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Neither MOCA nor LACMA plans any change in lending policies, spokespersons said.

At New York’s Museum of Modern Art -- where a show originated by Pompidou, “Dada,” is now on display -- a spokeswoman declined to give figures on how many loans had gone to Paris and how they worked out. Director Glenn D. Lowry issued a statement citing “a long and fruitful relationship” with the Pompidou and adding, “We are confident that they will carefully review what happened and take all of the necessary precautions to insure that this does not happen again.”

The Broad Art Foundation, which loaned a Robert Irwin work to the Pompidou show that was slightly damaged, repaired and then relocated at the foundation’s insistence, reports that it has made some 2,500 loans to museums worldwide over the last 22 years.

In that time, fewer than 10 pieces have required post-loan conservation work. Foundation officials declined to say which museums were involved.

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A question of trust

The Pompidou’s current troubles began in March, just before the opening of the “Los Angeles” exhibition, which featured more than 300 works from more than 80 artists and drew glowing reviews from many critics. One night during the installation period, the show’s curator said, an untitled 1971 resin piece by Peter Alexander fell and shattered. That piece had been loaned by the Franklin Parrasch Gallery.

Then in July, days before the show’s closure, a 1967 Craig Kauffman plexiglass piece, “Untitled Wall Relief,” loaned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, did the same thing.

The Pompidou curator of the show, Catherine Grenier, has said that she believed the museum was blameless and that the root of the problem might be unstable materials in the artworks. But many outside the museum have scoffed at those words, and many have noted that LACMA managed to keep the Kauffman piece whole from 1973 until this year without a problem.

Kleinberg, who with her husband owns three Peter Alexander works, heard about the exhibition-in-the-making from the artist but had already had mixed experiences with museums, including, she said, works loaned to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Liverpool in England that came back with scratches and fingerprints on them, respectively. So the Kleinbergs contacted several art-world insiders for advice.

They got a thumbs-down on the Pompidou, Kleinberg said, from “at least half a dozen” gallery directors, “a couple of artists” and one “very prominent art critic, who just flat out said, ‘Don’t do it.’ ” The consensus, she said, was that museum staffers “have issues when it comes to keeping the artwork intact.”

Still, “it’s a tough choice, because you want to provide accessibility,” Kleinberg said. At the Franklin Parrasch Gallery, Churchill acknowledged the same Catch-22. “You want to show your artists, and you want them to have museum exposure,” he said.

“It’s inexcusable,” said gallerist Alexander. “If they asked to borrow anything fragile, I would have a general unease.”

Yet there are the art-world insiders who say the Paris museum may be getting a bad rap.

“Stuff happens,” said artist Larry Bell, who had five undamaged works in the Paris exhibition. “I just don’t believe that there was a careless effort.”

Bell, who splits his time between Venice and Taos, N.M., said his museum misadventures over four decades have included serious damage to several of his pieces in several museums, including three works damaged or destroyed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

In presenting the show about Los Angeles, he said, he thought the Pompidou Center “tried really hard to do a good job. There were things I wasn’t pleased about in my presentation, but it had little to do with carelessness. If anything, it had to do with them trying to protect things.”


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