Have museums totally lost their plot? During 2013, we have seen the symptoms of over-expansion. They are becoming too dependent on money to pay their ever increasing staff and refurbishments and this has translated into a risky viewe of heritage and bequests.  A number of questions should be asked: What do they need money for? What is the function of a museum today? What is virtuous in today’s culture? And finally… Who are the ones who are making museums go in that direction? Are the Directors, the Patrons or the Public, or all of the above?

Manet’s Olympia in Venice 
To being with and for the first time since 1900, Manet’s Olympia left the Musee d’Orsay and travelled to Italy to be the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The director of the Orsay, Guy Cogeval said: ‘Olympia is such an important painting that my predecessors, since 1900, decided it would be better never to move it’. In Venice, ironically, it will sit alongside Titian’s painting The Venus of Urbino, 1538, which is on loan from the Uffizzi in Florence and cannot leave Italy under government rules. The exhibition opening April 25th and closing August  4th was called ‘Manet: Return to Venice’. In order to allow Olympia to leave the country Orsay had to receive a special dispensation from le President de la Republique, Francois Hollande. The reason for the exception according to Cogeval is that the Musee d’Orsay will receive substantial fees for the loan, ‘in line for the strategy or raising income by organising worldwide tours of works from its collection’. In fact, the museum loaned major Impressionist paintings for a 2010 show at the Fundacion Mapfre in Madrid, which then travelled to two US institutions. The fees were not disclosed but the borrowing venues reportedly paid around €1.5m each, which helped to fund gallery refurbishments at the Paris museum. Cogeval says that now he plans to loan ‘one masterpiece a year’ on institutions worldwide.
Vermeer’s Woman in Blue in Japan
April 13th, former Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands cut the ribbon at the New Rijksmuseum. This museum was closed since 2003 and was originally planned to re-open five years later, but the work has taken twice as long. Unexpected planning and building problems have dogged the project. After Wim Pijbes took over as director, the described the extended closure as a scandal. The Spanish architects Cruz and Ortiz redesigned the building at a cost of €375M. Having embarked in such a Mephistophelic enterprise there was suddenly no money for cataloguing their collections. Among the projects for which there is no enough funding is the highly detailed catalogue of Dutch Golden Age paintings, a three-volume set on artists born between 1600 and 1630. So the way the museum found the way to fund this was to get a dispensation for sending Jan Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter on tour, 1663-64 to Japan.
Fifteen Years Waiting For This?
Burrell Tapestries in Atlanta
In Scotland, the Glasgow City Council is seeking the Scottish Parliament’s approval to send works from the amazing Burrell Collection one an international tour, going against the wishes of the donor William Burrell (1861-1958), a shipping magnate who banned his collection from going abroad. The Atlanta’s High Museum of Art is, amongst other venues, ready to pay for a loan.
Tate’s Petitgas in Galapagos
Three years ago I was in the Galapagos Islands having lunch with Franck Petitgas who is a trustee at Tate Modern and John Mack, who at the time was the CEO of Morgan Stanley. Petitgas had been appointed trustee to help Tate raise funds for its Herzon & de Meuron designed new building and was asking Mack $5M as a minor donation. The cost of that refurbishment is prohibitive and they found themselves already in the need of reducing the budget and ‘selling’ entire rooms for little money (in relative terms). I want to be specific here because after Simon Barker’s Klein and Muriyama’s fiasco and the Lichtenstein bore, it is obvious that Tate Modern’s problem is its excessive space so why the hell are they putting their brand at risk with one bad show after another in order to have more space to do…. the same. Do they really need space?  Are they expanding for the sake of it?
Is this necessary? It is not even pretty. It is more a monument to the financial world than anything else…
In the case of the Rijksmuseum, the need to modernise was totally understandable but closing the museum for 10 years and not having enough funds for cataloguing its collection is unacceptable. The scandal is even bigger if we take into account that they need to put at risk the safety of the pieces which protection is the Museum’s very reason of being. Have they lost the plot? A museum has different aims: to consolidate and protect its collections and to educate through them. Is anyone telling me that in the era of Easy Jet if I want to see the Olympia I cannot take a £20 flight to Paris? Who is dictating the policies? I have the impression that the art world has been spinning around for such a long time that no one remembers what they are there for… Just a thought.