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Nicholas Penny Speaks Out Against Overseas Lending

Many museums, from the Louvre to the Barnes Foundation to the Modern, have send parts of their collections on the road, at least in part to earn some money. The city of Glasgow in Scotland had such plans for the Burrell Collection, whose 8,000 works of art were given to the city under a 1944 deed of gift — one that prohibits its exhibition overseas.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationBut, last January, with the 30-year-old building that displays the collection in need of repair, “estimated to cost millions of pounds,” according to The Herald Scotland, trustees decided to go to Parliament for relief from that restriction — since the museum would be closed for years between 2016 and 2020.

Not a good idea says Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery — citing the “deplorable tendency” to ignore the risks, again according to the Herald.

In a candid submission to the Scottish Parliament committee considering The Burrell Collection (Lending And Borrowing) Bill, Dr Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, says moving works of art has led to several major accidents, incidents and damage to works, many of which have not come to public attention.

Dr Penny said he would be prepared to describe the incidents in confidence to a “single trustworthy individual nominated by Scottish Government” if the committee desired.

His comments left the city’s museum officials “flabbergasted.” Here’s more:

Dr Penny wrote: “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible (if not always immediate) benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”

He said the financial benefits of touring art collections are also “greatly exaggerated” and did not lead to any significant increase in visitors to the galleries touring the works.

Giovanni_Bellini_009He added: “There has always been much talk of ‘profile raising’ to palliate the mercenary motive or to compensate for a disappointing fee … it would not be appropriate for me to say the Burrell should not engage in such an exhibition, but the interests of those encouraging it and brokering it should be examined very severely – they are not always obvious. Loans for fees are, it should be remembered, a short term fix.”

Hat tip to ArtWatch UK for calling my attention to this item.

Penny has been outspoken before: I mentioned one instance here about a year ago, when he lamented the similarity of contemporary art collections and the lamentable lack of critical debate on contemporary art — both of which I heartily agree with.

On loans, I am wary of the damage done to art in travels (but obviously many, many things are moved around safely). Penny said he knows of  ”10 major accidents in transported art during his 27 years working in museums and galleries.” Shouldn’t they be made public, if they occurred at public museums?

I’ve visited Glasgow, but not the Burrell Collection. Since its focus is late medieval and early Renaissance art (including Cranach’s Judith, above left, and Bellini’s Madonna, at right). I’m inclined to side with Penny.

And I again applaud his willingness to stake a public stance on such issues, which too many directors hold back on.


  1. Of course Nicholas Penny’s concerns have to be addressed but I hope it does not become a veto on loan shows, which provide so much pleasure, excitement, and insight. I have visited the Burrell Collection. It is beautifully sited in a large park, in a modern but quiet building with outer glass walls that bring the park views inside. A truly quiet and serene place to see art.

    The collection was, as you describe, late Medieval and early Renaissance, with lots of small statues, carvings, ivories, etc. (a bit like the Cloisters). I would guess that things like that can be safely moved. I would dearly like to see the paintings again too (there’s a fabulous Cezanne). Surely loans to major institutions (the Met, the National Gallery in DC, etc.) would insure the safe passage of the works. At any rate, I will hope.

  2. Hi Judith…Nick P is great. Always worth listeningto. He is introducing the Preview Screening of our next EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film about VERMEER at the National Gallery on Monday 23rd, if by any chance you are in London then. Or any of your readers? We may have spare seats…The film itself goes out October 10th.

  3. George Shackelford says:

    ArtWatch UK, in its corner, would prefer that no work of art ever travel. But surely that’s not Nicholas Penny’s point of view. After all, though the National Gallery does a better job of animating its own collections than many another museum, it still plans to hold major loan exhibitions, which will oblige it to be a borrower–and certainly in return, a lender.

    The gallery will open next month a major loan exhibition of portraits from Vienna, and has plans for international loan exhibitions of the works of Veronese and Rembrandt before the end of 2014. These displays will undoubtedly be organized with the greatest of care and the exhibitions’ excellence will, we all hope, justify the accompanying risk to the incoming works of art.

    • Of course, George — I don’t think Penny was saying let’s end loan shows. I’d be one of the ones protesting if he did! I do want to know about those 10 major incidents, though. And he must have his reasons re: the Burrell.

  4. the nameless eye says:

    Other Glasgow collections currently have a show of Italian paintings on tour in the United States until 2015; perhaps this is part of what gave the Burrell collection the idea to try this. I think the larger issue is donor intent, which Mr. Penny is defending in part by pointing out the dangers of travel. The real point I think he’s making is that there needs to be a compelling reason besides the financial one to go as far as to negate donor intent through legal action. Ms. Dobrzynski mentions the Barnes Collection travel which involved a concerted effort in Orphans’ Court that finally ruled against the donor’s wishes; even with the huge fees taken in by the tour, ten or so years later the institution was essentially bankrupt again, which is an object lesson in itself. The difference between this project and the loan exhibitions that Mr. Shackleford refers to is the unique scholarly opportunity that the latter afford, as opposed to sending a collection on tour with the primary intent of making money. The second difference is that lenders to scholarly exhibitions rarely ask for fees (above transport, courier etc.), or did not until recently. The public has benefited greatly from exhibitions that travel from institutions undergoing building projects (Orsay collection in San Francisco, for example), but those institutions likely did not have the kind of restrictions the Burrell collection has.

  5. J. Patrice Marandel says:

    It is unclear if Penny ‘s concern is with the idea of museums marketing their collection or with the possible dangers of accident, vandalism etc.. that may occur when works travel (Accidents, vandalism, terrorism can also happen at home). If it is the latter, the NG is among the museums that depend on loans from other museums for its exhibition program ( as we do on their collection for ours)…Does that mean a change in policy? Prudence is always right and all museums take calculated risks when they lend, but trying to establish a policy or just making such a broad statement can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

  6. the nameless eye says:

    The way I read Mr. Penny’s comments is this. He mentions the dangers of travel in direct response to the donor’s original concerns, according to the Herald article: “Sir William, who died in 1958 aged 96, stipulated he would not allow any works to be loaned overseas. As a shipping magnate, he was conscious of how dangerous transporting art by sea could be. However, all international loans are now transported by air.” Mr. Penny is pointing out that even air transport is not foolproof, which seems logical enough. I would not take this as a blanket statement that the National Gallery or anyone else should end loans to other museums.

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