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More on “Cash Cow” Collections: Scotland’s Dazzling Rent-a-Show at the De Young

In Monday’s post about the latest regrettable sales of art from the collection of Randolph College’s Maier Museum, I adopted the NY Times‘ use of the term “cash cow” to signify what I’ve previously dubbed “deplorable deaccessions”—museums’ disposals of art to raise money for purposes other than acquisitions.

My own past use of “cash cow” has referred to a another dicey fundraising gambit that some museums resort to—exacting high fees for loans of permanent-collection shows to sister institutions (what I’ve previously termed “rent-a-show”). This financial exploitation of museum collections runs contrary to the collegial relationship that should exist among sister institutions and potentially ups the ante for everyone.

During my visit last month to the de Young Museum, I greatly enjoyed two major exhibitions, both of which resonated with other shows I had recently seen elsewhere. One is an acquisitions show; the other, a blockbuster greatest-hits compendium that is structured as a money-maker for its European lending institution:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Having recently reviewed (in the Wall Street Journal) the Cleveland Museum’s Senufo show, I was delighted to catch the de Young’s wide-ranging Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture—an impressive, thematically organized assortment of some 120 pieces from the Richard Scheller Collection, including his gifts and future gifts to the museum.

I recognized (and, unfortunately, cast my shadow upon) this tall, spindly figure—another example of the “rhythm pounders” that I had described in my “Senufo” review:

Initiation or funerary figure, Cȏte d'Ivoire, Senufo, 19th-early 20th century Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Initiation or funerary figure, Cȏte d’Ivoire, Senufo, 19th-early 20th century
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The second show was a throwback to the blockbuster loan extravaganzas for which the de Young became known, for better or worse, under its previous director, John Buchanan.

Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland (to May 31) began as a collegial loan by the Scottish National Gallery to the Frick Collection of 10 choice paintings. But under the auspices of Colin Bailey, the Frick’s former deputy director and curator, now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF, the de Young’s parent institution), the intimate New York display ballooned into a 55-work “cash cow,” fattened with additions from Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

This irresistibly beautiful painting—a signature work for both exhibitions—is the magnet luring visitors into the rest of the San Francisco display:

Botticelli, "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child," ca. 1485 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Botticelli, “The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child,” ca. 1485
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In answer to one of my queries as we toured the exhibition, Esther Bell, curator-in-charge of European painting at FAMSF, revealed that the old masters-to-moderns show (bearing a $20 adult admission charge) had been structured as a fundraiser for the Scottish National Gallery’s renovation, which, as I later learned, is expected to cost some £15.3 million.

When I requested further details about the financial arrangements, FAMSF’s press spokesperson told me:

The show is not structured any differently than any other exhibitions….We do not discuss financials relating to our exhibitions or those relating to our partnerships.

But here’s what Michael Gormley, the National Galleries of Scotland’s senior press and information officer imparted, in answer to my query:

The tour in the U.S. is designed to raise the profile of art from Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland with the American public; to provide a platform for our American Patrons and help to extend their reach; and to generate funds for our redevelopment of the Scottish National Gallery [emphasis added].

The details of our arrangements with the borrowing museums in the U.S. are confidential and we won’t be releasing any information about our agreements at this stage.

When I asked the Frick whether either a portion of the fee it paid for its smaller exhibition or a portion of proceeds related to the show went towards supporting the lending museum’s costs for redevelopment, its press spokesperson replied unequivocally: “No, this is not true of our exhibition.”

What the Association of Art Museum Directors states in its published guidelines, Professional Practices in Art Museums, bears repeating:

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.

Unless the lending museum is completely closed for a major overhaul (not the case here), rent-a-shows usually include not only masterpieces but also second-tier works, so as not to deprive the home audience of all their favorites. The show from Edinburgh is no exception, with some art-history icons…

Velázquez, "An Old Woman Cooking Eggs," 1618 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Velázquez, “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs,” 1618
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…some appealing, more intimate works (like this oil sketch):

van Dyck, "Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, Daughters of Charles I," 1637 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

van Dyck, “Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, Daughters of Charles I,” 1637
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and some lackluster filler (particularly in the modern section):

Matisse, "The Painting Session," 1919 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Matisse, “The Painting Session,” 1919
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

There’s not much of a governing principle to “Botticelli to Braque,” other than the limited (admittedly worthy) goal of giving the de Young’s visitors an opportunity to see a wide range of pictures that they might not otherwise experience.

This lack of focus is evidenced by the museum’s own description on its website:

The selection was chosen to complement the permanent collection, including examples by certain artists represented in the Museums’ holdings, such as El Greco, Anthony van Dyck, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Claude Monet and Raeburn.

Other works allow visitors to encounter paintings by artists not currently in the permanent collection, including masterpieces by Johannes Vermeer, Diego Velázquez, Veronese and Botticelli.

Conceptually, this often dazzling show (which will travel to the Kimbell Museum) is skating on thin ice.

Sir Henry Raeburn, "Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch," ca. 1795 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On the catalogue cover: Sir Henry Raeburn, “Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch,” ca. 1795
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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