Marriages of Convenience: Art Repairs To the Road Museum Renovations Put Works in Dubious Shows

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2002

Here's how a great museum's permanent collection can pile up:

* A powerful collector founds an institution, built around a variety of favorite objects, good, bad and plain peculiar.

* A foreign government agrees to cede one-half of all the artifacts dug up in a joint-venture temple excavation.

* A dead artist's family gives unsold pictures to the state, in lieu of estate taxes.

* A PR-savvy corporation, in need of tax write-offs, donates the single celebrated megapicture -- some van Gogh "Sunflowers," maybe -- that it bought in boom times.

* A curator spots a famous sculptor's juvenilia at auction and buys it because something more substantial may be years in coming.

* A government department finds it has old portraits on its hands that it wants to offload.

And here's how its best special exhibitions come to be:

* An experienced scholar-curator has an idea for a show that will cast new light on a body of artworks, giving the public fresh insight into them. The curator makes a list of the objects that will best serve the exhibition's ends, and then wheels and deals to bring them in from collections around the globe.

But sometimes, today's special exhibitions are much less special than they ought to be: They often consist of nothing more than a grab bag of pieces pulled out of some other institution's permanent collection.

Yesterday in Washington the Phillips Collection launched "Corot to Picasso: European Masterworks From the Smith College Museum of Art." And opening today at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is a show with the promising special-exhibition title "The Age of Impressionism." And then a subtitle that tells the real story: "European Masterpieces From Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen."

In shows like these, the art and science of museum curating are left behind, and with them the idea that exhibitions ought to speak somehow about the art they show. In their place, we get exhibitions whose goals are mostly just to keep the art museums full and running.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2002 The Washington Post Company