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Cleveland’s Unprecedented Misfortune

The euphoria at the Cleveland Museum of Art regarding its new purchase of Henry Bone’s enamel-on-copper copy of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne for less than half a million was, alas, overshadowed today by the cancellation of its upcoming exhibition, Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, which is currently at the Getty. It is, and was to be, a blockbuster. Take a look at the check list — some 145 antiquities, including the phiale pictured here.

Getty-SicilianPhialeNow Cleveland has a huge hole in its schedule, beginning Sept. 29 — not very far from now.

Cleveland museum Director David Franklin spoke in diplomatic understatement when he told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, “It’s very disappointing. These things don’t happen very often in the art world. This is unprecedented for me and I think unprecedented for all of us.”

Sicily had been complaining that the loan of so many ancient treasures was hurting its tourism. And in June, Mariarita Sgarlata, Sicily’s highest cultural official, had told The New York Times that the island’s government had never signed a contract for the show, which was approved instead by the Italian government. But Sicily enjoys some autonomy.

Franklin is trying to make the best of the situation. He also said in the Plain-Dealer: “In the end, we have to respect the decision Sicily made. And frankly we hope we can work with Sicily again. We don’t end with any acrimony here.”

Now what? Franklin is right to keep the temperature down. He has said he’d find something to plug the hole in the special exhibitions galleries, probably something contemporary.

I have higher hopes. Now is the time for another museum, or museums, or a collector, or Italy itself to come forward with an offer. Italy has been touting its Year of Italian Culture here, lending items such as The Boxer, a Third Century B.C. statue now on view at the Metropolitan Museum — let it step into the breech here, if not an entire exhibition, a stupendous loan from its many treasures.

Given the climate in antiquities, it would unlikely for an antiquities collector to lend his or her treasures, but — as ARTnews just revealed — there are 200 very active collectors out there, surely one or a group of them could step forward with the offer of loans.

Finally, yes, I know museums plan exhibitions years in advance. But is there no show out there that, with a little arm-twisting, might go to one more venue? Think!

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Getty



  1. Or perhaps if there are not enough collectors, dealers worldwide who have museum-quality works could step up? That could be a win for everybody–the public gets to see the treasures, the museum gets its space filled, and the dealers get to add a display provenance and possibly even attract buyers, who would agree not to take delivery until the show is over.

    • Tired of Trends says:

      The ethics of that (dealers lending works to museums to attract buyers) is questionable.

      • Could you explain what the specific ethical issues are? Not trying to be snarky here, but I’m genuinely curious about what the pitfalls would be, provided that there are solid guidelines on what material can be lent (e.g., clear provenance, specific agreements about what the lending dealer or galleries can say about their participation, objective selection of which items are lent, etc.)

        • Traditionalist says:

          Museums have always included individual works lent by art dealers in their exhibitions–the pitfall would be in having outside arbiters “set up” to “fill space”–please see what I have written below, which was meant to be in reply to your question, AnnF.

          • I am glad you added this — as you have written, museums frequently borrow from galleries and through galleries. I don’t think Ann was suggesting in her original post that the dealers decide what would go into an exhibition here, but rather that some might lend works to a show constituted by Cleveland’s curators. They might volunteer, in this instance, rather than wait to be asked.

  2. Traditionalist says:

    The question is a good one–AAM guidelines and other mandates relating to museums’ standing as not-for-profit organiizations stipulate against it and it is a concept generally recognized and observed without much discussion of why. Since you asked, I’m going to go out on a limb and try to explain according to how I understand it–I am sure that others out there will have more to contribute. Basically the issue is conflict of interest–prevention of the underhanded use of public institutions for private advantage, which undermines their core function.

    The traditional role of museums is to arbitrate the qualiity and importance of cultural artifacts. Perhaps this role has gotten lost as museums have recently chased after what is popular, and have, in my opinion, fallen prey to ideological trends as well, mounting exhibitions featuring works that will not be considered important or high quality at all in 200 years. In any case, the decision to hang a work in a museum has traditionally been based upon solid research and informed opinion, and has thereby been a form of sanctification, increasing the perceived value of the object, and thereby–only as an ancillary result–increasing its market value. Recently, market value has become paramount, with art fetching never-before-seen prices.

    The role of curators traditionally has been to make decisions about acquisition and exhibition based upon scholarship and philosophy. Lately, unfortunately, the market value itself has solipsistically come to create “importance” and a strange vicious circle between museums and the market has developed. In the past, museums led the way–today, that leadership is questionable. Speculator collectors wiith deep pockets are dictating the terms a bit. This is a trend cultural institutions should work against, in my opinion. Collecting for these high-ticket individuals can be little more than a game of vying to outdo other bidders and making a statement of their own importance, not of the importance of the work of art.

    The art market is essential for raising awareness of undiscovered talent, and serious galleries have long served the very important role of making and maintaining deserving artists’ reputations, mounting scholarly exhibitions on par with museum shows. They are the province for managing artists’ estates and for placing works of art in private and museum permanent collections where those works will gain in importance–and justifiably thereby increase in financial value.

    Unfortunately, the art market is also the place where fakes, stolen works, doctored works, misattributed works and works without any provenance whatsoever appear regularly, and are passed along like hot potatoes.

    The venerable walls of museums should not be available as a tool to increase the value of such objects.

    Museum exhibitions require thorough, unbiased research. That is what audiences are expecting to get when they see something hanging on museum walls. Unfortunately, especially with the market pressures that exist today, inviting art dealers to “fill the space” may constitute an ethical boondoggle.

    • Thank you so much to everybody for taking the time to explain! That context does make the issues much clearer. It appears as though while it is a viable practice in theory, setting up an exhibit that borrows heavily from dealers would take a tremendous amount of time to ensure that there are no ethical violations or grey areas, and time is exactly what the Cleveland Museum does not have in this case.

      Traditionalist, or anybody else with insight, is the issue of individuals lending items to museums also coming under more scrutiny? It seems as though from what you say, an investor would have a strong financial incentive to fake or gloss over a questionable provenance or authenticity in order get their piece included in an exhibit.

  3. Traditionalist says:

    Sorry for disrupting the thread, here, Judiith–my post above was meant to be a reply to AnnF and doesn’t directly address your topic.

  4. From an email sent out this week:

    We are pleased to announce that Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome will open as scheduled at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Sunday, September 29, 2013. All of the objects in the recently closed exhibition at the
    J. Paul Getty Museum, most notably the Mozia Charioteer and Phiale Mesomphalos, will be coming to Cleveland under terms that are consistent with the agreements previously reached among the government of the Region of Sicily, the Getty, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, including an exhibition in Sicily of select masterworks from the museum’s Italian art collection planned for sometime in 2015.

    Co-organized with the J. Paul Getty Museum, Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome features original scholarship and presents masterpieces of art from ancient Sicily. The exhibition celebrates Sicilian culture of the fifth to third centuries BC, when its art, architecture, theater, poetry, philosophy, and science left an original and enduring stamp on both mainland Greece and Rome. Over 150 objects bear witness to the military and athletic victories, religious and civic rituals, opulent lifestyles, and intellectual attainments that shaped the western Greek world. The exhibition will be on view at the museum through January 5, 2014.

    We are thrilled to be able to share this exhibition with our donors and visitors and we look forward to seeing you at the CMA soon.


    David Franklin

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