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Universal World Heritage…Except When It’s Rent-a-Show Time

Henri Loyrette, Director of the Louvre

How has director Henri Loyrette changed the Louvre since the Pierre Rosenberg days?

That’s what a BusinessWeek magazine reporter based in Paris wanted to know when she called me yesterday for a phone interview. So I ranted about what I’ve called the “Louez le Louvre” phenomenon—the proliferating megabucks rental shows, whereby the French museum now raises millions of dollars for its endowment and capital improvements, at the expense of sister institutions around the world. Those borrowers accede to this monetization of museum collections in order to snare exhibitions that typically feature a few major masterpieces, a lot of B-listers and, most importantly, the Louvre’s glittering (but now somewhat tarnished) aura.

The Paris palace isn’t the only “universal museum” playing this game, nor was it the first: The financially pressed State Hermitage Museum has been using its collection as a cash cow far longer. But Loyrette has raised the stakes to new and disturbing heights, dispatching (or soon to dispatch) megabucks Louvre-branded displays to Atlanta, Indianapolis, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Denver, Quebec, Istanbul, Valencia, Verona and, let us not forget, the planned museum in Abu Dhabi, which is paying $520 million just for the right to use the illustrious museum’s name. (I’ve probably unintentionally omitted a few other stops on the treasures-of-the-Louvre circuit.)

As I pondered all this, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a strange and troubling disconnect in the way the world’s premier museums regard cultural property, depending on whether it belongs to them or it is owned by the archaeological source countries where important antiquities have been unearthed. The “universal museums” ardently argue that there should be a free international flow of cultural objects—that source countries should abandon their retentionist cultural-property policies because the objects found within their borders are part of world heritage and rightfully belong to all humanity.

But when it comes to the great works of international heritage in their own encyclopedic collections, some of these same museums are behaving not altruistically but avariciously. They want money—lots of it. And they seem to have few qualms about exacting big fees from sister institutions for works that they traditionally had lent collegially in years past. These masterpieces are also, arguably, a part of world heritage over which they happen to have stewardship. If they want the source countries of antiquities to share their cultural wealth, they should strive to be equally generous—not just with reciprocal loans to cultural property claimants, but with loan shows sent, at reasonable cost, to sister institutions around the world.

As Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello wrote last October in the French newspaper, Le Monde:

Loans must remain free. We understand that certain developing countries require money. But between developed countries, it’s unacceptable….I have alliances with all museums. But no exclusivity. In matters of art, I’m a complete polygamist.

But even the Met and the British Museum have not been above using loan exhibitions as cash cows.

Another problem with charging megamillion rental fees is that the lender has to come up with some world-class masterpieces, or the borrowing institution is getting a bad bargain. But if the lender dispatches too many iconic objects to too many places, it is shortchanging its core audience—the visitors who come to the home facility expecting to see those works in the permanent collection galleries.

The typical compromise involves releasing a few superlative pieces to satisfy the renting institution, but also lots of second-tier material. The lending institution’s home audience is still unhappy that their masterpieces are frequent fliers—as witness the petition that was signed against the Louvre Abu Dhabi by thousands who expressed their support of an opinion piece written for Le Monde by three prominent artworld professionals, decrying the use of “works of art as currency of exchange.”

Knowledgeable people who visit these high-priced traveling shows are also dissatisfied, knowing full well that their renting institutions may be getting some great publicity value from the illustrious lender’s imprimatur, but are not getting their money’s worth in terms of overall quality (unless the lender is sending only A-list material, drawn exclusively from permanent collection galleries that are closed for renovation).

Rent-a-show may produce great gains for the lending institution’s endowment and capital budget. But for the art-loving public, it’s a lose-lose transaction. And works reserved for the highest bidders may be unavailable for more serious projects.

Financial exigencies should not trump scholarly imperatives.

an ArtsJournal blog