They Blew It: The Met Loses A Rubens

Those of us who follow the art world, even if only to a limited extent, are often dismayed to find ourselves confronted by glowing evaluations of poorly executed work. Part of the problem in this regard is the disastrously bad level of art education which most American children have been receiving in school over the past 40 years, thanks to an art establishment which seems incapable of agreeing on teaching anything of value. The problem is, the same slipshod attitude toward art history and appreciation may be having a negative influence on our artistic institutions as well.

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece discussing the fact that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to have no end of rich suitors plying her with gifts. Of course, The Met seeks to prove herself to be just as attractive to tech and media barons today, as she was to industrial titans a century ago. Yet in seeking to stay current, one wonders if she may be falling into the trap described above, spending too much time on keeping up with the youngsters, and too little on actually caring for her treasures.

For many years, The Met owned a painting supposedly by the great Peter Paul Rubens, the Dutch master of Baroque painting. The portrait of a young girl, believed to be one of Rubens’ daughters, was not hugely appreciated in its time at the museum; when an art expert decided it was not by Rubens, the Met decided to sell it, so as to gain more money and space for other objects. This is a practice known as deaccessioning, and it happens in museums more often than you might think.

When the painting went up for sale, the initial sales estimate proved to be a bit too low, because others were convinced the portrait WAS a genuine Rubens. Since being sold the piece has been restored to the listing of works by the great Old Master painter; indeed, it is now on display in the artist’s former home in Antwerp. The painting provides a fascinating, informal insight into the family life of a man who was himself larger than life, one of the most professionally successful artists who has ever lived.

This has been called “the biggest deaccessioning blunder of recent times,” and it’s not hard to see why. The fact that the museum relied on a single expert is weird enough. Also it’s not only ironic that, as the expert in the piece linked to above points out, with so much more and better technology available that a slip-up like this could occur, the fact that it did so at this level of artistic institution may also a factor indicative of decline.

The ability to tell what is good and what is bad has not only faded away from the moral lexicon used by society, it has increasingly faded away from the world of high art, as well. That is an unpopular view, of course. Nevertheless the point does need to be made, that if the powers that be at The Met were more concerned with studying and appreciating the works they already own, rather than pining for things which they do not, this likely would not have happened. Perhaps some remedial art appreciation is what’s needed up on Fifth Avenue to stop this sort of disaster from happening again.

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Portrait of A Young Girl (poss. Clara Serena Rubens)

Greece Is the Word: New Exhibition Arrives in Canada, U.S.

Western Civilization begins with Greece. Some might argue that Greece is also trying to bring it to an end at present, at least economically. However, rather than focus on lowest common denominator politics, a new exhibition touring North America over the next year and a half promises to remind visitors of why it is that Ancient Greece is so important to understanding not just our own art and culture, but indeed the entire history of mankind.

“The Greeks – Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” is a comprehensive survey of the history and culture of the Ancient Greeks. Beginning with the dawn of Greek civilization on Crete and the Peloponnese, the exhibition brings together an extraordinary collection of objects, many of which have never traveled outside of Greece before.  This includes the famous “Mask of Agamemnon” discovered by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae.  Over 20 museums worked together to put on this movable feast of archaeology, art, scholarship, and technology, which features art and artefacts from all over the Greek world alongside modern media presentations.

It also comes at a crucial time in Greek history. As we all know, the Greek economy today is in the doldrums, to put it mildly, and an exhibition such as this, which in total should draw more visitors over the course of the next 18 months than would ever see these works in their respective collections, should have two positive effects, at least. Not only will ticket revenues be welcome income to cash-strapped Greek museums, but piquing the interest of potential travelers to a country where tourism is of fundamental importance to the overall economy cannot be a bad move, either.

My Canuck readers get first crack at seeing this remarkable show. “The Greeks – Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” is presently on view at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montreal. It will then move on to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa on June 5th, The exhibition will travel to the Field Museum in Chicago beginning November 26th and continuing through to April 17, 2016. It will have its final run at the National Geographic Museum here in DC beginning June 9, 2016.

Long time to wait, DC folk, I know, but I imagine it’s going to be worth the wait.

Detail of the Mask of Agamemnon (c. 1550-1500 B.C.) National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Detail of the Mask of Agamemnon (c. 1550-1500 B.C.)
National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York