an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Art Review, In Passing, Reveals A Recurring Museum Problem

Aside from what Roberta Smith said in Friday’s New York Times about The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (she called it “superb”), she made a very good general point about American art and museums at the moment. And it’s a bit of a mysterious point, to me at least.

Burchfield-NightWind-900x873Here is the passage that caught my eye:

…unfortunately, “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi” will be seen nowhere else — not even at one of the several American museums that have lent to it.

In recent decades, much art-historical and curatorial effort has been expended on American art from the first half of the 20th-century, but missed opportunities abound. Another example: the outstanding 2014 exhibition of Marsden Hartley’s German Officer paintings seen only at its organizing institutions, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which means that the international stature of Hartley’s radical early work remains shortchanged.

I’ve seen this happen again and again. It isn’t just American art shows–many fantastic exhibitions simply do not travel. When I ask museum directors or curators why a particular show they have organized isn’t traveling, they never say because lenders won’t allow it (that usually happens only if the show already has three venues). Almost always, the answer is, “we tried, and no one could take it” or something like that.

At a time when museums are trying to stretch their dollars and do many more things with the same amount of money, I find this very strange.

It’s not that museums want mainly to do their own exhibits (except for a few, like the Met). Consider the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels–it’s traveling to four additional museums. A non-brand name like Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World, also organized by the Brooklyn, is going to two, even though it is reputed to be highly revealing. The Bowdoin College museum’s terrific Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860-1960 is not (to my knowledge) traveling.  The Morgan Library’s wonderful manuscript exhibits rarely travel. One could go on and on, citing other examples.

Scheduling can be a problem, admittedly. But with communications as they are today, that should be less of an obstruction than it used to be.

This may change, but not for a good reason. Some people have predicted that museums will be shedding curators to cut costs–that could make them more open to showing some of these wonderful exhibits.

Photo Credit: The Night Wind, Charles Burchfield, courtesy of the Bowdoin Museum, © The Museum of Modern Art




  1. Chris Crosman says

    Shedding curators may be a cost cutting move but as you point out it is deeply troubling, and I would argue will make traveling shows even less viable than they are now. It takes curators to not only organize traveling exhibitions but they also know their own collections best. Larger traveling shows are indeed expensive and participation fees (including exhorbitant loan fees charged by larger museums) are difficult to recoup against soaring direct and indirect costs. This is one reason why there has also been a growing trend among museums–driven by common sense as well as cost–to organize shows out of their permanent collections. Especially when these result in “dossier” exhibitions that illuminate one or more objects from the permanent collections, these types of exhibitions can be relevatory and relevant than most traveling “blockbusters.” By their nature, these internally focused exhbitions also have very limited appeal to other museums. One result of this focus on the collection is that museums have become increasingly reluctant to loan their most important works that are newly important to their own exhibition programs. In very real ways, “shedding curators” is not only penny wise and pound foolish, it undermines the ability of museums to organize exhibitions, whether traveling or not.

  2. There is another, large reason why some exhibitions do not travel: It is a large burden on the organizing staff, especially at a small organization. Putting together multiple venues and reaching out to each of the lenders can be a tall task, with minimal benefit to the original host museum. Who organizes the shipping? Insurance? Who decides what work will be substituted if not every lender wants her work to go to every institution? Who wants to oversee the condition reporting that must take place at each venue? Who wants to be the go between for rights and reproductions for promotional images at each venue? Where do the works rest, if there is a gap in the exhibition schedule for 10 weeks or more? The possible questions and problems can go on and on.

    By the time an exhibition is installed at the host institution, the curatorial staff is on to the next exhibition.

  3. I agree. I read about many exhibitions in museums that I will never get to visit and I wish they would come here to NY. I have wondered for years why the Brooklyn Museum makes no effort to take traveling shows, apart from a very small number in recent years. Brooklyn advertises itself as a world-class museum (and really they are) but they act like a small-town museum. I’m sure many curators would love to have their exhibits on view in New York. The Met obviously can’t take them all. But many shows worthy of going to the Met could easily go to Brooklyn instead. It never seems to happen and we are all the poorer.

    By the way, thanks to Brian for enumerating all the problems associated with touring. I never appreciated that before.

  4. Brian Allen says

    I think there are many issues. When I was the director of the Addison, we did a lot of shows with outside the box approaches, and a lot of curators and directors were simply too blinkered to take them. Having placed dozens of shows over the years, I am still surprised at the absence of adventurism in many museums. Brian identifies correctly the complications involved in traveling shows but the hassle is well worth it to earn rental income, expand the intellectual reach of the organizing museum, and the simple pleasure of knowing that more people will see the show. It’s the director’s and the organizing curator’s responsibility to jawbone lenders into supporting a tour. It’s work but I was rarely disappointed. One model I like is co-organizing shows where tasks like the catalogue, registration, negotiating loans, and managing outside curators are divided. I never minded sharing the credit if it meant good scholarship got the broadest audience.

    An additional problem is the tendency of many museums to collaborate only with museums in their preferred “niche,” museums of the same size, prestige, or collecting interest. At the Addison, we were happy to collaborate with museums ranging from small college or regional museums to museums with international standing.

an ArtsJournal blog