297 Art for Ronni Baer’s grandchildren

Is it more harmful for a museum item to be crated and shipped off to a loan exhibition or left hanging in its own gallery or storage facility? Do we see the scars of damage once they have been repaired? Schwartz answers these questions as he takes leave of CODART, the network organization for museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art he thought up and worked for for 12 years.

“I’m afraid that my grandchildren won’t have any art left to see.” What did Ronni Baer, senior curator of European paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, mean when she made this dispiriting remark at the twelfth annual congress of CODART? One hundred and fifty other curators and cultural heritage professionals from 20 countries were in attendance, in the auditorium of the Bonnefantenmuseum. None of them contradicted her.

Ronni Baer in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, December 2007

Baer was sitting on a panel on the newly fashionable subject of “Collection mobility.” The term has no fixed meaning, and the various speakers took the perfectly legitimate liberty of filling in their own. Collection mobility is touted as a good thing, mainly by governments, because it gives audiences in more places than one the opportunity to see interesting works of art. Curators would not be curators if they did not worry about the ill effects this can have on the treasures in their care. After all, one in every so many traveling works of art gets damaged, destroyed or just plain lost.

I worry about my grandchildren as well, but if there had been more time at the CODART congress for discussion, and if I had not already taken up my share of time with another question, I would have gone into discussion with Baer on two of the assumptions behind her remark.

One: Baer assumes that art on the road is at higher risk than art kept in the museum that owns it. This notion was neatly undermined by a document that was passed around to the participants of a workshop at CODART TWAALF, held the day before in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen. The subject of the workshop had nothing to do with the physical condition of works of art. It was about a database on the works by Rubens in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

The sample record printed for the participants concerned the vast (455 x 347 cm.) Martyrdom of St. Livinus, painted for the Jesuit church in Ghent about 1635. One of the fields in the record is called “Restoration.” As far as the compilers of the database know, The Martyrdom of St. Livinus was worked on in the studio six times since 1803. Four of the treatments were routine. Here are the other two:

“1874: Partial relining and restoration by Etienne Le Roy following damage caused by a moulding that had fallen from the ceiling.

“1937: Restoration by Jef Van der Veken and Gossez of tears and damage caused by the fall of a scaffold.”

Although I cannot claim that this is a reliable statistical sample, it is indication enough that keeping a painting at home is no guarantee for safety. It might even be that the extra attention lavished on a work lent out for an exhibition elsewhere is better for an object than the benign neglect it enjoys in the gallery or even worse on those sliding racks in storage.

That’s one. Two: Whatever wear and tear museum treasures might undergo between now and the time that Ronni’s grandchildren start going to museums is going to be repaired invisibly by terrific restorers. The kids will never know the difference. Do we? A prize to anyone who can tell me where the molding or the scaffold hit the St. Livinus.

Ronni Baer is right to be worried about the deterioration of museum art. But collection mobility is not the problem. In every use we make of an object, we use some of it up. Living in perpetual denial of this simple truth, we brush and stitch away the effects of age and use. The old art our grandchildren see will therefore look fine. However, it will have less of its original material than it does today. It will have a larger component of curatorial interpretation and will owe more of its looks to cosmetic interventions. Facing up to this squarely would be a step in the right direction. It would allow us to gauge – and perhaps limit – the extent to which Ronni Baer’s grandchildren, visiting her museum, will be seeing less and less of the artist’s work and more and more of granny’s.

© Gary Schwartz 2009. Published on the Schwartzlist on 24 April 2009

CODART TWAALF was the last of the CODART events I attended as a staff person. The organization was set up in January 1998 after I broached the idea to the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage in May 1997. It was a success from the start, thanks to the enthusiastic response of museum curators like Ronni Baer – thanks, dear Ronni – and the recognition of the Dutch government that CODART was worth supporting. The annual meetings have created a platform where curators can meet whether or not they need something from each other. This proved particularly important to curators from Eastern Europe and Latin America, who had been prevented by politics or lack of funds from participating in professional life internationally. (We were able to find ways of paying their way to the congresses.)

The existence of CODART makes it possible for beginners in curatorial positions to meet lots of the old-timers as fellow members of the organization. The website provides a valuable service not only to the members but to museumgoers at large. Last week it was proclaimed the Best Museum Professional’s Website 2009 by Museums and the Web. It had won the award once before, in 2003.

Although I had to be dragged away from the controls kicking and screaming – first as director in 2005 and now as webmaster as well – it’s not a bad thing for CODART that it is now run by a new team. Not only my positions but everything else in CODART has been replaced. It no longer operates from the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage in Amsterdam, but from the Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague. No one from the original board is still on it, and the members’ committees have been refreshed several times over. An organization of Friends of CODART has been set up, to bring in donations from well-wishers. All this is for the good.

I must admit that it’s also not a bad thing for me to leave CODART. It is a source of pride to leave behind such a vital organization, going from strength to strength without me. When you retire, you get lots of nice pre-funeral compliments. Relinquishing responsibility for CODART frees up space in which to finish off some old projects and begin on new ones as well. Relinquishing income from CODART forces me to think up new schemes to make money. Being in the midst of the mental, emotional and financial conversion this demands, I will not say anything about it right now. Aju paraplu.

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