David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, was absolutely right to reject Sicily’s outrageous, untimely attempt to change its financial conditions for the critically praised loan show, Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, now at the Getty Museum. Until its just announced cancelation, the show was scheduled to appear in Cleveland from Sept. 29 to Jan. 5.
Deborah Vankin of the LA Times reports that “according to two sources with knowledge of the situation, …Sicily asked the museum for roughly $700,000.” I think any museum would regard the demand for that last-minute price hike as a non-starter.
Here’s how Franklin regards it, as expressed in his museum’s statement (not available on the museum’s website, at this writing):
The exhibition “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome,” currently at the J. Paul Getty Museum and scheduled to open at the Cleveland Museum of Art in September, will, unfortunately, not be coming to Cleveland.
The museum has worked closely over several years with the Getty, museums in Sicily and the government of the region of Sicily to create this exhibition. Earlier this month, officials in Sicily advised the museum that despite prior agreements and commitments, the exhibition could only come to Cleveland from the Getty upon the payment of significant fees.
To announce all new economic terms after the exhibition has been organized, cataloged and shipped is unprecedented [emphasis added] and negotiations over this development have to date been unsuccessful.
We are very disappointed not to be able to share this exhibition with our visitors, but at this point we must turn our attention to developing new plans for the fall.
This sorry episode should serve as a wake-up call to all American museums—not only to make sure they get signed written contracts for all loan shows (which, astonishingly, didn’t happen here), but also to reconsider the pernicious practice of extracting or paying large fees for important loans, at the expense of sister institutions.
Some major American and European museums have also tried to exploit their collections as cash cows, renting masterpiece shows to cash rich, object poor institutions. This opportunistic but ultimately self-defeating practice needs to stop. It is contrary to the collegial relationship that should exist among sister institutions and ultimately ups the ante for everyone. It’s a lose-lose.
The Association of Art Museum Directors mentions this issue, in passing, in its professional guidelines, “Professional Practices in Art Museums”:
Museums rely on one another for loans to exhibitions, and a spirit of cooperation and collegiality should inform decisions relative to such loans and the setting of charges and fees [emphasis added].
In light of the Sicily debacle, AAMD needs to readdress and strengthen its guidelines for charging and paying loan-show fees. Fees should be charged to defray costs, and it’s sometimes reasonable to request participation in profits (if any), after expenses. But to help balance the lender’s operating budget at a sister institution’s expense is exploitative, not collegial.