Bring Botticelli back to where it belongs

Museum loans with the purpose of raising cash can end up short-changing art, I argue in the Scotsman. 

“Come face to face with a masterpiece.” “Amazing art in a spectacular setting.” “Something for everyone.” These are just a few of the statements used to entice visitors on the website for the National Gallery of Scotland, puffing up what’s on offer. The website also lists collection highlights, such as Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, an elegant and tender work acquired by the Gallery in 1999 after being hung for a century on the walls of Gosford House in East Lothian.

Bott

This exquisite Renaissance painting was almost lost to Scotland. Its previous owner, the Earl of Wemyss and March, was tempted to sell it to Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, but at the last minute Timothy Clifford, then director of the National Galleries of Scotland, secured a national lottery heritage fund grant of £7.6 million to contribute to the sum of £10.25m required to keep it here.

Only, the Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child is not in Scotland. Like an ageing rock star, it’s on tour, put to work to raise money. The first performance was at the Frick Collection in New York. It’s now on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until May, when it will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum. Texas will hang the Botticelli after all. Visitors in Edinburgh will come face to face with a blank space on the wall.

Make that blank spaces: the painting is currently accompanied by 54 other art works, as part of the show Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, which includes Diego Velázquez’s An Old Woman Cooking Eggs; Johannes Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary; Georges Braque’s Candlestick; and Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch. In short, much of the “amazing art” about which the website boasts is actually in other “spectacular” settings.

The touring exhibition has been heralded as doing Scotland proud, promoting our cultural treasures abroad. Loans like these are said to grow tourism. Exhibitions of this standard receive international media coverage; the kind of advertising that cannot be bought. In this case, fundraising is taking place for National Galleries Scotland. And the host galleries are paying for the show. Though confidentiality agreements mean that we don’t know how much they are forking out, we do know an aim of the tour is to generate funds for the redevelopment of the Scottish National Gallery, which will see the gallery’s exhibition space triple in size, at an estimated cost of £15.3m.

Despite the claims that such loans bring public benefit, serious questions are raised by this touring exhibition and shows like it. But recently Lee Rosenbaum, an influential and award-winning arts blogger, lambasted “cash cow collections”, when museums charge high fees for loans of permanent-collection shows to other institutions.

She highlighted Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland in her critique. Rosenbaum cited this exhibition specifically as an example of a “dicey fundraising gambit that runs contrary to the collegial relationship that should exist among sister institutions and potentially ups the ante for everyone”. 

Because it’s a trend. The Louvre, the Met and the British Museum too have all sent many of their treasures around the world in recent times, charging significant sums for doing so. It is a shift in practice, previously galleries would offer limited loans in exchange usually for other loans, rather than extensive loans of the collections for a fat fee.

We are already seeing something of this in Scotland. The Glasgow-based Burrell Collection, renowned for its Chinese art and extensive array of European tapestries, will tour internationally in 2017, while the museum’s building is being refurbished, after legislation was passed to lift restrictions (specified by the donor Sir William Burrell) preventing overseas loans. The hope is that £15m will be raised by the tour of artefacts. I doubt Burrell would have approved.

I was told by National Galleries Scotland that Rosenbaum’s comments are “misinformed”; that it regularly lends works abroad, and that there is “nothing unusual” about charging fees when very substantial staff costs are involved. But when I pushed for an example of comparable loans, I was referred to the Art of Golf, which has toured the US. No disrespect to the Art of Golf, but the art works in this show are not in the same league as those in the Botticelli to Braque exhibition. Unsurprisingly, the Art of Golf didn’t stop at the Frick. The amount of paintings lent and their quality, in the Botticelli to Braque show, is an unprecedented kind of loan, as far as I can see. As is its purpose: to raise money for a substantial refurbishment.

The danger is that once museum officials start seeing the loaning of art as a way to raise funds, we will see more loans to pay for all kinds of costs. With funding cuts, it’s not like the money is pouring in from other sources, so I understand the attraction. But this practice puts art at risk. Literally – because it is packed up, sent abroad, carted about and unpacked again. But also because art is increasingly weighed on the scales to see what funds it will raise.

And the recipients don’t gain much, either. They get a selection of highlights padded with the second rate, curated, not by an idea, but with a price tag in mind. Lost as a consequence will be a different kind of enrichment – loans conducted for scholarship, the spirit of inquiry and collaboration.

Today the National Galleries of Scotland is a kind of Swiss cheese museum; the best bits are elsewhere. That leaves us – the core audience – shortchanged. Bring home our Botticelli.