Even an institution the size of the Art Museum is having difficulty putting on shows of this scale.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibit is large. It features 180 works by the Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky, ranging from his early mimicry of modern masters to the arrival of his own abstract style before he committed suicide at age 46. Even an institution the size of the Art Museum is having difficulty putting on shows of this scale.
Caption: Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother” (ca.1926–1936). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
In a small gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there are two large paintings hanging right next to each other, plus a photograph. They are almost identical: a boy in his best suit posing next to his mother, who is sitting in a chair and wearing a headscarf. The image is based on the photo of the artist Arshile Gorky as a child with his mother. Curator Michael Taylor says this was just one of the artists’ obsessions.
Taylor: Each gallery builds like an unfolding drama towards the end. He lived a very tragic life – a very short and tragic life. But what he packed into those two decades was something extraordinary.
Shortly after that photo was taken, Gorky’s mother starved to death in an Armenian refugee camp during the war with Turkey. Gorky obsessively re-worked the image in paint over and over for the rest of his life, expressing both his evolving style and the emotions of a man orphaned by war.
To just reveal this one aspect of the artist, the museum had to borrow works from three other museums and at least two private collections. It’s the kind of depth a major retrospective can do, but it’s very expensive.
There’s no doubt about that. The costs of doing these exhibitions continues to rise.
The museum’s new CEO, Timothy Rub, says the research, transportation, and most significantly insurance needed to bring multimillion-dollar pieces of art together under one roof is prohibitively expensive. 98 percent of the works in the Gorky show had to be imported from other collections.
Rub: Many of the most memorable exhibits are the most largest and most sweeping. Whether a survey of Cezanne and Dali, or they cover a certain place and time- those are shows that are sweeping in scope. They are also provide a wonderful opportunity for the public to take the measure of an individual achievement in a ways they otherwise could not.
Museums have a social contract with the public to provide new work and new scholarship about the arts. But in a bad economy sometimes good intentions are not enough.
In Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum spent two years negotiating with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to put together a major retrospective of a 19th century French painter. Walters Museum director Gary Vikan says the museum was expected to invest several hundred thousand dollars into the collaboration, and he had to pull out.
Vikan: In normal times we gain on some shows and lose on others, and once all the dust settles we balance the budget. But there were so many other challenges we just couldn’t take that risk and we had no other way to make up for that shortfall, so we just had to cut it.
Small instutions with small budgets are experimenting with ways to present ambitious shows. The Allentown Art Museum has entered a partnership with nearby Lehigh and Lafayette Colleges. Each will present a different part of a large collection of modern black and white photography. Lafayette College art professor Bob Madison says spreading the 145-piece collection among three venues turned a deficit into an opportunity.
Madison: There’s less money is being donated, everyone is being careful. Necessity is the mother of invention, having to think about budgets led us to think about possibilities for organizing the show in a new way.
The next big show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – after Arshille Gorky – will be in the spring when the museum displays a retrospective of Pablo Picasso. To save money, curator Michael Taylor says the museum will not seek any works from outside their own holdings.
Taylor: That is a show that’s totally in reaction to the times we’re living in. No less exciting to me, because we have great works on paper by Picasso. That will have the same feel as a show like Gorky, just it will be drawn from our collection.
Taylor says museums are being more introspective lately, looking for curatorial inspiration from what is already in their own basements.