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MeTube: John Leighton of National Galleries of Scotland on the £50-Million Titians

John Leighton, director general, National Galleries of Scotland

The High Museum’s exhibition program leans heavily towards crowd-pleasers—currently The Allure of the Automobile, to be followed in August by Dalí: The Late Work. Largely as a result of the revenue generated by such blockbusters, the Atlanta museum’s earned income accounts for a bigger percentage of its operating support than at many other art museums, according to Philip Verre, the High’s chief operating officer, who was seated next to me at the Atlanta museum’s New York press lunch yesterday. The scribe tribe was invited there to whet our appetites for a working vacation down south.

While we two broke matzo together, Philip revealed to me that his museum is currently in talks about collection-sharing arrangements with Alice Walton‘s in-construction Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville. AR—a megabucks connection that can only help to enhance the High’s financial underpinnings. Being less dependent on endowment income, thanks to its earned income stream, the High was
less vulnerable than most during the recent economic downturn, Verre averred.

Strangely, the upcoming exhibition that interested me the most is not expected to be a big crowd magnet in Atlanta, Verre said. Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting, a loan exhibition from the National Galleries of Scotland, includes 12 paintings and 13 drawings, the highlights of which are Titian’s monumental dramas, “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto.” Was Philip implying that Atlantans would prefer to see rare luxury cars and Dalis from a period dismissed by many as rich in kitsch? I guess he knows his audience.

The Italian Renaissance show (which also includes works by Lotto, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese) was co-organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston, where it will later appear. This marks the start of a four-year collaboration on exhibitions by the Atlanta and Edinburgh museums. Similar exhibition series were previously arranged by the High with the Louvre and with the Museum of Modern Art. In this case (unlike the Louvre’s) the shows do not involve payment of big fees to raise major support for the lending institution, Verre told me.

John Leighton, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, narrated a slideshow preview of the exhibition and updated us on the current status of the museum’s efforts to purchase jointly with London’s National Gallery the two very expensive Titian “Diana” masterworks that were loaned to his museum by the Duke of Sutherland, beginning in 1945.

The strikingly transparent acquisition process is described in a Q&A on the Edinburgh museum’s website, It details the amounts contributed by all the sources that funded the £50-million “Actaeon” purchase in 2008. Leighton’s museum, along with the National Gallery, London, is now working on what he called “a strategy” to come up with another £50 million to jointly acquire the “Callisto” painting by the end of 2012. I cannot imagine any American museums doing anything comparable in these financially challenged times.

No doubt, the Britons are hoping to attract some foreign donors during the paintings’ three-museum, ten-month American tour. According to the NGS’s news announcement (Feb. 26), the museum, through its loans, “wants to attract attention to the world-class quality of
its holdings and to broaden its international base of support [emphasis added].”

In the CultureGrrl Video below, Leighton discusses the two Dianas, which, he said, clearly demonstrate that the goddess has “been skipping those anger-management classes”:

an ArtsJournal blog