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Your Money or Your Show: Sicily Makes Cleveland an Offer It Can (and should) Refuse for “Art and Invention”

David Franklin, director, Cleveland Museum of Art

Mulling an ultimatum: David Franklin, director, Cleveland Museum of Art

On yesterday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer website (and, I assume, in today’s hardcopy), Steven Litt reported on an unspecified “economic proposal” made by Sicily to the Cleveland Museum regarding the critically acclaimed (now jeopardized) Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome. Readers commenting on Litt’s article, blasting this as “extortion,” have been making not-so-veiled Mafia references.

With no contract ever having been signed to cement the arrangements for this blockbuster, Sicily is now trying to change the rules in the middle of the game (and then change them yet again):

—First, its top cultural official, Mariarita Sgarlata, declared that two key works shouldn’t travel to Cleveland from the Getty Villa (where the show is on view to Aug. 19) because “their absence is depriving Sicily of tourist dollars,” in the words of Hugh Eakin‘s recent NY Times article. Eakin also reported that Sicily was “considering charging foreign museums substantial fees for loans and is placing travel restrictions on masterpieces.”

—Next, Sicily indicated it would cancel the entire Cleveland run.

—Now, according to Litt’s latest report, the show could, in fact, go on, but only if Cleveland substantially sweetens the deal.

Litt writes:

Emiliano Colomasi, the press spokesman for Mariarita Sgarlata, …e-mailed the Plain Dealer to say that the show may still go on if the museum agrees to an “economic proposal” that would guarantee its appearance on schedule. In the message, Colomasi said: “The issue is still not closed. Assessor Sgarlata has made an economic proposal to the Cleveland Museum of Art to guarantee the exhibition in Cleveland….

David Franklin, the museum’s director, released the statement that “the museum has received a proposal from the government of Sicily and is reviewing it.”

The Getty and Cleveland are to blame for not having formalized their understanding with Sicily in a written contract. This astonishing episode will serve as an object lesson for all museums forging loan agreements with international lenders: Don’t rely on good faith. Get it in writing.

And Sicily, which perhaps could have struck a better deal for a rental fee or for participation in admissions income and/or sales proceeds from the show, may now be experiencing lender’s remorse. This could serve as an object lesson (although a very problematic one) not just for Sicily but for other object-rich, cash-poor lenders.

That said, Franklin should stand up to this shakedown, notwithstanding the disappointment of losing an important show and the difficulty of finding a way to fill, on very short notice, a hole in his exhibition program. (The show was to appear in Cleveland from Sept.29 to Jan. 5.) Perhaps he can make a counteroffer of loans from his own museum’s rich collection.

The Getty, which provided other kinds of assistance to Sicily in connection with this show—conservation work and construction of an earthquake-resistant base (to be given to Sicily) for the Mozia Charioteer—also stands to lose from this debacle. It would have to assume the entire cost of the show, which would have been partly defrayed by Cleveland.

At the end of his latest article, Litt noted that the Sicilian newspaper Tempi e Terre reported in May that Sicily’s President Rosario Crocetta had advocated a tougher policy on art loans, stating that “foreign museums make money with our works of art and we let them leave our territory? Where is the logic?”

The “logic” comes from the calculus of cultural exchange. The benefits are beyond price—the goodwill, mutual understanding, professional collaboration and the public appreciation of other countries’ cultural heritages that accrue from these worthy projects. This “win-win” will rapidly degenerate into “lose-lose” if museums demand big bucks from each other for major loans.

In this regard, the growing penchant of some American museums for rent-a-shows, to or from foreign venues, has set a pernicious example that may come back to haunt them. It’s time to revert to the old model of charging (and paying) loan fees to cover costs, not to beef up balance sheets.

A de-escalation of exorbitant, extortionate fees would be to everyone’s benefit.

an ArtsJournal blog