Blog / Museum-ing

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by Juline Chevalier

I was greatly surprised by Tyler Green’s recent blog post “The Baltimore Museum of Art’s shameful rentals” in which Green strongly criticizes the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) for sending its “best works” to other museums and charging exhibition loan fees.

As you probably know, the current exhibition at the Nasher Museum  Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore is on loan to us from the BMA.

My main problem with Green’s post is that he acts shocked and appalled at a common museum practice. In my 10+ years of working as a museum professional I have always known there to be loan fees charged to an institution borrowing work from another – especially if the work is by a well-known artist.

Yes, museums charge loan fees.  They charge them for the loan of a single artwork and they charge them for the loan of a whole group of artworks.  This is typical. It is not horrible or unseemly. It is the way things work.

For Green to present this as some sort of scandal is at best uninformed, and at worst an attempt to create controversy where there is none.

Here is a small segment of his post:

“Sadly, the BMA is increasingly uncommitted to sharing its unique Matisse experience with today’s Baltimoreans. Last week, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced that the BMA is renting out its Matisses for an October show at the IMA. This is not museuming-as-usual, a museum loaning art (at no cost) to a thoughtful, historicizing or scholarly exhibition in the way museums typically share art and contribute to our knowledge of art history. No, the BMA is simply renting out a substantial selection of its art collection.”

Yes, it IS “museuming-as-usual.” For someone who writes a lot about the museum field, it’s very surprising that Green doesn’t know this is common practice.

I understand that some of Green’s outrage comes from a place of wanting to see the BMA serve its local citizens first and foremost. And that is a good and noble place, but I think that he’s overlooked the many positives that come from exhibitions like Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters travelling across the U.S. and into Canada.

Furthering the BMA Vision

The BMA Vision statement:

“The Baltimore Museum of Art will become known as a major center for 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art. It will present a dynamic program of exhibitions, installations, and publications acknowledged nationally and internationally for their excellence. The Museum will be recognized as a vibrant institution that is embraced as an indispensable element of community life and a vital educational resource for an expanding audience.”

For museums to become “acknowledged nationally and internationally for their excellence” they must send their art to other museum and other audiences.  How will anyone know what a great place you are, if you keep all your wonderful objects all to yourself?

Creating new visitors for the BMA

We have heard from innumerable visitors to the Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters exhibition here at the Nasher Museum, that they didn’t know about the Cone collection, and they are now excited to visit the BMA to see more of the art. I am positive that the BMA has garnered new visitors from this exhibition.  And, those visitors who travel to Baltimore from N.C. will certainly add to Baltimore’s economy in the form of meals purchased at restaurants, nights booked at hotels and gas purchased at gas stations.

Sharing priceless works of art with K-12 students (AKA OMG, think of the children!!!)

It is truly magical to lead a tour of kids through the Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters exhibition. We have welcomed thousands of K-12 students to the Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters exhibition completely free of charge. Many of these kids are very unlikely to travel outside of N.C., and so the fact that we can share this amazing artwork with them is truly a wonderful gift.

The funds earned by the BMA from the rental of exhibitions goes to improve the BMA

Green writes “As a result of that tax exemption, the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland receive no tax monies related to the museum’s property, etc. An implicit part of that contract is that the BMA serves Baltimore and Maryland, not Indiana.”

Sometimes the best way you can serve your home audience is to raise money to buy new artwork, expand programs, or renovate your building (BMA is undergoing 3 years of renovations).

It is often difficult to raise money for boring things like paying the electricity bills or buying toilet paper, so earned income (like exhibition rental fees or special event rental fees) is vital to most museums.

Opening the door for the BMA to show amazing work from other institutions

Yes, it’s a bummer that if you live in Baltimore, you won’t get to see some Matisses in the BMA permanent collection while they travel. BUT if you live in Baltimore, you have had the chance to see exhibitions like “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade” which was a touring exhibition organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum. It is precisely because the BMA allows its works to travel that they can organize exhibitions like “Cezanne and American Modernism” which brought together two key Cezanne works in the BMA collection with “more than 80 outstanding works from public and private collections throughout the U.S., including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” (from their website: http://www.artbma.org/exhibitions/cezanne-modernism/about.html)

Since I often try to find a learning opportunity in challenging situations like this, I think we (museum professionals) can see Green’s blog post as an example of how mysterious the inner workings of a museum can be to those on the outside. Perhaps we need to be more transparent in our practices.

Gentle reader, what do you want to know about how a museum works?

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