The Cleveland Museum of Art is preparing to send a priceless painting to Sicily as part of an international cultural exchange. That deal was hammered out after some last-minute, high-stakes negotiations, last year. ideastream’s David C. Barnett fills in some of the dramatic back story.
Over 400 years ago, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted The Crucifixion of St. Andrew. It was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1976. Curator Cory Korkow says it rarely leaves home:
CORY KORKOW: It’s on the “do not travel” list, because it’s condition is too fragile.
The fact that this artwork is scheduled to travel --- to Europe --- is part of a backstage drama that’s played out over the last year. It started out, innocently enough, with the Cleveland Museum arranging to borrow a collection of ancient art from Sicily --- including a golden libation bowl, and a six-foot four statue of a charioteer dating back centuries before Christ.
But, a few months before these ancient artifacts were due to arrive, newly elected Sicilian cultural officials decided to change the terms of the deal. Claiming they would lose tourist dollars while the artifacts were away, a loan fee was tacked onto the shipping costs.
STEVEN LITT: That would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But, as Plain Dealer arts writer Steven Litt explains, Cleveland came up with a counter offer.
STEVEN LITT: The bargaining chip offered by the Cleveland Museum of Art was, “No, we’d rather not pay you the money, but we will loan you works of art in exchange, if you will accept that.”
The Sicilians were intrigued. But what works of art did Cleveland have in mind? The Museum’s Director at the time, David Franklin, reeled them in.
DAVID FRANKLIN: The resolution came when I proposed we send our beautiful Caravaggio painting of The Crucifixion of St. Andrew to Sicily as part of a reciprocal exchange in return for no loan fees.
That sealed the deal, because Caravaggio had strong ties to the Italian island, having lived there for part of his last year alive. Franklin himself would end up leaving his post, a few weeks after striking the bargain, following revelations that he had lied to his board of trustees about an affair with a museum employee. Still, Lee Rosenbaum, who blogs as CultureGrrl on ArtsJournal.com, credits Franklin for standing firm against the demand for over-the-top loan charges.
LEE ROSENBAUM: The last good thing that David Franklin did in Cleveland was to say, “No, we’re not going to accede to this.” And he managed to find a collegial solution where there would be loans back and forth --- cultural exchange, instead of cultural extortion.
Rosenbaum has written extensively about what she sees as a growing practice of art museums, both here and abroad, trying to use their collections as cash cows. She’s called for the Association of Art Museum Directors to reign in the practice.
LEE ROSENBAUM: I think at some point, they’re going to have to look at things like Sicily as a warning shot saying, “This is where it’s going, and we can’t let it go that way anymore”.
DCB: AAMD president, Timothy Rub, doesn’t think the problem is as dire as Rosenbaum paints it.
TIMOTHY RUB: There are occasions when I will hear about a significant loan fee being charged, and if so, then we would discourage that, because it really discourages the exchange of objects and the productions of exhibitions. It may be more frequent in difficult economic times, but on balance, museums try to minimize the charges that they pass on to borrowing institutions, because it’s a two-way street.
For the time being, the Plain Dealer’s Steven Litt says Sicilian cultural authorities are still looking for ways to make money from art treasures.
STEVEN LITT: Sicily continues to discuss making the loan of art objects from their regional collections as kind of a profit center.
In the meantime, it would appear that the deal to send the Cleveland Museum’s Caravaggio to Sicily is not done yet. The Museum is still waiting for details on the environmental and security plans for the painting once it arrives. It’s the latest chapter in the story of a dramatic artist and the drama that continues to surround his work.