But in an emergency, not everything can be saved, and so he carefully ranks which works should be spared. The Canaletto is an obvious candidate for his top-priority list of 74 works on paper, but if it is included, something else has got to go.
In 1979, with Washington worried about 52 hostages in Tehran and terrorist threats at home, Robison’s boss asked him to create a big container for works of the highest value. If catastrophe hit, the container could be spirited away to an undisclosed location. Today, Robison has seven boxes in two separate storerooms — four for European holdings, three for American. These do not include the museum’s 10,000 photographs, 3,800 paintings and 2,900 sculptures, outside of Robison’s purview and mostly too big for any mad dash out the building. And because his works are so fragile and light-sensitive, they live most of their lives in protective storage, going on the walls for viewing only in short spurts.
In the two storerooms that Robison asked not be photographed or their locations disclosed, the black, cloth-lined boxes, each the shape of very large books, bear the label “WW3,” drawn in calligraphy. These in-case-of-World-War-III containers lie ready for any possibility, and in Robison’s absence, security guards have a floor plan that shows their exact location, like an X on a pirate map.
The National Gallery’s director, Earl “Rusty” Powell III, said that Robison’s box system is not the primary way the nation’s treasures are protected, but offers little elaboration: “We’ve got a very, very fine security program.”
But Robison, who trained in philosophy and theology at Princeton and Oxford universities, is devoted to the task he’s been given. It helps him focus on what’s important in each work and in the entire collection.
The box system is thus less a model for how museums should think about war and more a model for how a curator thinks about value. “I think it’s pretty unique to Andrew,” Powell said of the system. “It’s mainly a philosophical one.”
Born 71 years ago in Memphis, Robison is neither a rogue nor a prig, the two usual poles of cultural debate. He enjoys rankings in an era when art historians sneer at anything canonical. However conservative that makes him, he’s entirely self-possessed, open to new forms and ideas. He can talk as movingly about the louche John Currin of today as he can about the satanic flourishes of a late-15th-century German engraver with the rapper-like handle of Master LCz. After the cheese course in the National Gallery refectory, Robison casually rolled some red grapes in his hand like dice and popped a few in his mouth.