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 for Il 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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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