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Worldwide Tour De Force, Why Top Museums Are Partnering Up

The grandest museums increasingly share their most prestigious exhibitions across borders for both aesthetic and economic reasons.

Hanging a Robert Rauschenberg at Tampa Museum of Art
Hanging a Robert Rauschenberg at Tampa Museum of Art
Nicole Vulser

PARIS — A blockbuster exhibit that opened this month at the Grand Palais will draw art lovers to the French capital. But "Gauguin The Alchemist," which explores experimentation in the French artist's creative process, is very much an international affair.

Three entities, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée d'Orsay and the Orangerie, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais (Rmn-GP), a French Ministry of Culture agency, have organized the Gauguin show. Indeed, it was first unveiled in Chicago, where the concept for the show originated, and ultimately clocked some 220,000 visits. "There is a tacit rule that the exhibition begins in the museum that takes the initiative with the project," says Marion Mangon, head of the exhibitions department at Rmn-GP.

Head of New York's MoMA, Glenn Lowry says more than half of his museum's shows are now co-productions. "Partnerships make it possible to bring together more top works," Lowry says. "But the intellectual capacity is also multiplied by two anytime two curators work together, which inevitably leads to a more interesting result."

On October 10 the Picasso Museum in Paris inaugurated its Picasso 1932, Année érotique exhibition, organized with Tate Modern in London. This is now the normal scenario, says Achim Borchardt Hume, the Tate's head of exhibitions, while independent shows have become a rarity, worldwide. That was the case with Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends at the MoMA, which the Tate also wanted to stage. It would have been "madness' not to work together, says Lowry.

"It's a win-win if it works, but it also allows you to share the risks in case the success is more modest." says Laurence des Cars, head of the Musée d'Orsay and l'Orangerie musems in Paris.

Private lenders are reassured.

The Louvre has also developed a taste for co-productions, which can also help in negotiating loans, says the museum's head of cultural planning, Vincent Pomarède. "When two or three big museums address a peer who is a potential lender, the balance of power changes. Borrowing museums can in turn propose lending other works that might be of interest." To prove the point, he observes with satisfaction that "for the coming retrospective on Delacroix, co-produced with the Metropolitan Museum" in New York, "90% of loans we asked for were accepted."

Laurence des Cars stresses in turn that private lenders "are reassured to know that the big museums are enhancing the value of their works."

Outside the Musée d'Orsay in Paris — Photo: Pittaya

There is "strength in unity," says Nathalie Bondil, head curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MBAM). Co-productions, she says, constitute a "virtuous circle allowing teamwork." She adds, "I don't do exhibitions of any scale without co-production or exportation. The exhibition is then renewed elsewhere as it is."

Unlike in the United States, she says it is not easy in Montreal to find a patron willing to back multi-million dollar projects. The budget forIl était une fois... Le Western - Une mythologie entre art et cinéma, due to open on October 14, exceeded 2.5 million Canadian dollars (1.7 million euros). Napoléon: La maison de l'empereur (Napoleon: The Emperor's Home), scheduled for February 2018 (organized with the Musée national du Château de Fontainebleau, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City), will cost at least 4 million Canadian dollars. "It's impossible to finance this on your own," says Bondil.

But co-productions can hit technical glitches. The head of the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts, Sylvie Ramond, says she had to decline offers for would-be partners interested in hosting its recent Henri Matisse exhibit because some of the accompanying objects were too fragile, and could not be shown for more than three months continuously. Another obstacle to these international alliances, she says, is that private lenders or museums do not want their works to be away for too long.

The periodic meetings of the Bizot group, a gathering of curators and directors of the world's most prestigious museums, are where some of the major co-productions are first floated. In corridors and on the sidelines of formal meetings (that broach subjects ranging from returning works of art to countries at war to whether or not to pay a business class ticket for a curator taking works of art over long distances), each side reveals its plans.

"These subjects are generally mentioned over breakfast," says Sylvie Ramond, who says participants will ask colleagues for a loan or mention initiatives of possible interest to both sides. In time, museums develop ties of friendship and become special partners. After the most recent meeting in Brussels last spring, the group is to meet in Mumbai, India, in November, as meetings alternate between Europe and other continents. "In fact we work on the basis of friendships and affinities," says Bernard Blistène, director of the Pompidou Center in Paris. "Our job is more informal than is thought. Curators weave collaborative ties with certain colleagues. The writing for each exhibition corresponds to a work of the mind, and follows subjective criteria," he says.

The French-American Museum Exchange (Frame) works along similar lines, bringing together 15 smaller French museums and 14 American and one Canadian museum. They meet this month in Hartford, Connecticut.

Beside enhancing the quality of productions and increasing the volume of loans, co-productions also help, crucially, to cut costs. Georg Baselitz. The Heroes, a show gathering some 60 works by the artist from 1965-66, was a joint project of the Städel museum in Frankfurt, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Stockholm Modern Arts Museum and Rome's Palazzo delle Esposizioni, and requires "much less money than if mounted by a single museum," says Petra Joos, head of exhibitions at the Guggenheim. The savings, she says, are in publishing the catalogue, and especially "in sharing insurance and transport costs."

And of course, the real potential payoff — financially and culturally — is measured in the many more people from around the world exposed to the traveling masterpieces.

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