Portrait painting of Langston Hughes
Winold Reiss, "Langston Hughes," 1926, pastel on Whatman board, 10 1/16 x 21 5/8 in., National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of W. Tjark Reiss, in memory of his father, Winold Reiss; Featured in "The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist" exhibition, highlighted in the July/August issue of Fine Art Connoisseur

From the Fine Art Connoisseur July/August 2022 Editor’s Note:

Let’s Solve This

One thing that continues to mystify me about American art museums is the absence of a single forum where institutions can apprise each other of traveling exhibitions to be shared.

Say, for example, that you are a museum curator in Missouri with a unique opportunity to organize a retrospective of a local landscape painter now in her 60s. This landscapist is collected nationally but has never had a major museum show before, let alone one that travels to three or four museums nationwide. The costs of gathering her works will be comparatively low because the insurance values are reasonable, and because all artworks can be shipped easily from locations around the U.S. mainland. Securing the loans will be no problem, as most works are owned by individuals who are only too happy to share them for 12 or 14 months. (After all, the value of your artwork always rises when a curator thinks highly enough of it to request it for exhibition.)

So, you can now curate and mount this show at your own institution, but how do you identify a few other museums that would enjoy presenting it, and that would also benefit from dividing the project’s fixed costs equally?

Believe it or not, the U.S. has absolutely no system in place for making these connections. Of course, there are informal friendships among curators, artists, directors, and collectors, but these are ad hoc and often driven by who went to graduate school with whom, by academic specialization, etc. There are now thousands of art museums in this country, far too many for one curator to know exactly which colleagues are envisioning the same kind of project in the same budget range.

Fine Art Connoisseur JulyAugust 2022 cover
On the cover: LAURA L. CUTLER (b. 1964), “Bison #5” (detail), 2020, oil on board, 24 x 36 in. (overall), collection of Nicholas T. Otis. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

Unfortunately, many worthwhile exhibitions never see the light of day because their organizers cannot construct a tour itinerary that will help balance the budget. Or sometimes a worthwhile exhibition is mounted at just one venue that you and I don’t have occasion to visit. If no catalogue is published to accompany the show, it will vanish completely within a decade, remembered only by those lucky enough to have seen it.

Why does this situation exist in a communication-obsessed society like ours? Over the decades, various organizations have taken steps to work on the problem, but nothing has stuck, usually due to worries about the potential cost of administering a system.* Yet creating a website or blog where curators can post their project descriptions and solicit partners would cost very little indeed. I know children who have designed their own (sophisticated) websites, so why can’t a single grantmaking foundation be found to underwrite the one-time creation of a museum exhibitions clearinghouse?

This diatribe may strike you as technocratic, but rest assured that you, dear reader, are the one most adversely affected here. If you’re reading Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, you love fine art, but your local museums are simply not offering you the number and scope of exhibitions they could if America had a low-cost, truly national system that worked more efficiently, and more collegially. Let’s figure out how to create one.

*The most interesting recent development has been Art Bridges, a spinoff of collector-philanthropist Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. But even that does not directly address the challenge raised here.

What are your thoughts? Share your letter to the Editor below in the comments.

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