In Recession, Curators Tap the Treasures at Hand

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009; 10:43 AM

Everyone else is taking staycations these days. Why shouldn't our museums?

That's one way of looking at the fall season, perhaps the most charitable way, as curators all over town are mounting shows based on their own collections, well aware of the nagging recession. There's nary an expensive blockbuster, 1990s style, in sight.

Take the National Gallery of Art, for instance, where a fall visit will resemble nothing less than a guided tour through the museum's storehouses. In a series of six shows, the gallery will spotlight its own post-World War II masters -- from Roy Lichtenstein to Frank Stella -- along with working proofs by Jasper Johns; three centuries of French drawings; prints and drawings from 19th-century Paris, London and Berlin; an exhibition on the history of photographic processes; and, finally, the first solo show of works by photographer Robert Bergman.

Such is what passes for a quiet museum season in Washington, where resident museums are national collections, many of them encyclopedic, often possessing one-of-a-kind masterpieces and treasured artifacts. Here, as elsewhere, museums are employing a patchwork strategy, spotlighting their own collections, pairing their own holdings with borrowed works, and/or doing small retrospective shows. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has borrowed a Vermeer masterpiece, "The Milkmaid," and surrounded it with five of their own, while the Art Institute of Chicago has borrowed the famed "Supper at Emmaus" by Caravaggio and teamed it with some of the institute's own "Caravaggesque" work.

Which is not to say that these museums aren't worried about funding and survival, too. Creative curating will get you only so far, as recent conversations with several local curators confirmed. Since last fall, many museums around the country have been forced to shorten their hours, lengthen the stays of their shows, and sometimes dismiss staff, all in reaction to the recession. Museums, like other arts organizations, have seen declines in foundation, corporate and individual giving, and their endowments -- if they ever had them -- have tumbled along with their membership rolls.

Still, Earl "Rusty" Powell III, the National Gallery director, denies that the recession is the silent curator of his museum's season. "The recession began for us, and I expect others, one year before it became publicly discussed. Our donor base was changing. So the formulation for how you support the exhibition has changed," Powell says. "In our case, we formed an exhibition circle, and they donate a certain amount a year to a fund." That fund provided the financial underpinnings for this fall's shows, as did some foundation gifts; the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities provided insurance.

But in the end, Powell says, it's the quality of a museum's warehouse that will determine whether visitors will line up, at least in the present climate. "Using our permanent collection as a special exhibition is secretly something everyone would want to do," Powell says.

Over at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the recession arrived just when plans were being finalized for "Oil," a show of photographer Edward Burtynsky's works, which opened Saturday. "We were forced to think about things in a different way," says Paul Roth, senior curator of photography and media arts. "We tried to keep the costs down and tried very hard to get a dedicated sponsor." Challenges included the artist's fees; costs for reproducing, framing and shipping the works; and finding a generous sponsor to offset said costs, one who wouldn't be put off by the subject matter -- the refining of petroleum.

"We decided to do it leaner and meaner," Roth says. Burtynsky helped by guiding the show from Toronto, taking on the production and framing, and arranging for a conversation with Scotiabank Group to come in as the chief sponsor. "All that displaced a six-figure number from our budget," Roth says, adding that his show will actually come in under budget.

The Phillips Collection has managed to mount a show entirely composed of works outside its collection, and one that is generating considerable buzz. "Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens," which opens Oct. 10, concentrates on 50 photographs in black-and-white by Man Ray and 50 photographs by other artists from the 1920s and '30s. The show was organized by International Arts & Artists, a Washington-based producer of exhibitions.

"We built the exhibition into the budget," says Susan Nichols, the collection's chief financial and operating officer. She added that the museum is paying some costs to the organizers and, if other museums are involved, is sharing the costs of couriers, insurance and auxiliary needs. Things like that can cost a museum more than $250,000.

"The show was first conceptualized and proposed to the exhibition committee in 2006," says Frank Goodyear, the National Portrait Gallery's curator, speaking of how "Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924" came to be. The show opened late last month.

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