Saturday 7 May 2016

So what?

“So what?”. A frequent question/reaction concerning our field, whether verbally expressed or secretly thought. It’s a legitimate question and one we are rarely available to discuss.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, "Retrato de Marten Soolmans" e "Retrato de Oopjen Coppit" (imagem retirada do jornal Telerama)

When I had first read the news about the joint acquisition by the Louvre and Rijksmuseum of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Marten Soolmans and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, for €160 million, I didn’t exactly think “So what?”, but rather “Why?”. Why these two paintings? Why all that money? Once I tried to understand a bit better the importance of the paintings (whatever importance that might be, within the context of art history or any other), I was most often confronted with the adjective “rare”. The portraits are “rare”, being exhibited in public was extremely “rare, etc. etc. This brought up even more questions: Rare how? Why should they be seen more often? Why did these two public museums make such a huge (financial and collaborative) effort to acquire them?

At the NEMO annual conference, which took place last November in Pilsen, Czech Republic, the then Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes was questioned by other colleagues regarding this acquisition. The main concern expressed was that the €80 million spent by the Dutch government could have been invested in a number of smaller Dutch museums, threatened with closure due to government cuts. In his answer, Pijbes made a slight attempt to discuss the “importance” of the paintings. As I recall, he talked about the fact that two ordinary citizens had chosen to be depicted in full-size portraits as if they were aristocrats. And this again was a “rare” thing…

I am sure there are marvellous stories regarding Rebrandt’s two paintings: the couple depicted, the commission, the artist, his art, as well as Holland’s social history and the ways it might be linked today to contemporary issues. But this doesn’t seem to be an issue when acquiring an artwork for €160 million. Taxpayers should feel content with the fact that specialists are able to distinguish what’s rare and important and make decisions on their behalf, without feeling the need or obligation to explain their relevance and importance for what one might call “the common good”.

In 1994 I was a museology student in London. At that time, the National Gallery of Scotland and the Victoria and Albert Museum jointly acquired and kept on British soil Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces for £7,6 million. The case had drawn extensive media attention. The legal battle was long and the sculpture remained in Britain thanks to both public and private money. Out of curiosity, I looked for articles written at that time (here and here) in order to see if and how this effort was “justified”. Not surprisingly, what I found was that this is a “supreme sculpture” of “exceptional importance” and so on…

"Caquesseitão" (image taken from the newspaper Publico)

A few years ago, a “caquesseitão” (vase in the shape of an animal), which Portuguese experts had advised the State to acquire, had been sold for a €150.000 in Paris. The auction house had described it as “an exceptional object”, “absolutely sumptuous”; and a Portuguese specialist as an “extraordinary piece”, “of importance in the panorama of Portuguese/Oriental jewlery and iconography”. At the time it had become known the object would be available for sale, I remember a colleague joking that he didn’t think the State would bid for it as no government member was able to pronounce “caquesseitão”. Well, yes, that and also…. what is a “caquesseitão”? How many Portuguese would even know what the word meant, much less understand why public money should be spent to acquire it?

Centrepiece from the Ajuda National Palace (image taken from the website of the Municipality of Libson)

More recently, the Portuguese State spent €48.000 for a dining table centrepiece (today at the Ajuda National Palace). The official statement regarding the centrepiece was that its recovery “not only represents an important acquisition for the Portuguese artistic heritage, but allows to restore and enhance a set whose special meaning has the greatest importance for the collection of the Ajuda National Palace, being the second largest tableware in a collection of about 300 pieces.” “Important”, “special meaning”, “the second largest in the collection”. So what, so what, so what? Feeling extremely curious about the piece, and upset about the explanations given, I attended a lecture by Cristina Neiva Correia, our colleague at the Ajuda National Palace and found out how much more could and should have been said to the public regarding this acquisition. Why wasn’t it said? Why the majority of the people who contributed for its acquisition where ignored?

Domingos Sequeira, "The Adoration of the Magi" (image taken from the website of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga)

Which brings me to the most famous case of crowdfunding for an artwork in Portugal: “Let’s put Sequeira at the right place”, carried out by the National Museum of Ancient Art. The campaign was original and fun (people interested to contribute would be able to acquire some of the 10.000.800 pixels of the painting spending €0,06 per pixel) and it had a very happy ending. Certain “technical” issues were raised from the first moment, but for the purpose of this argument, I´ll stick to my role  as an ordinary member of the public, a non-specialist, but curious and interested in helping this cause. Although I didn’t particularly like the painting, I tried to look for information regarding its importance; the “why” behind the effort that would justify my contribution, despite not liking the painting. One museum staff member stated that “It is a work of great quality by one of the greatest Portuguese painters of the nineteenth century, for many people the greatest.” Great, greatest, great... I also looked on the official website, managed by the official newspaper of the campaign, hoping for an explanation that would appeal (and might convince) a non-initiated member of the public. Here’s what I found: “The prodigious modelling of the figures and light, the full integration of these essential components of the painting, the unusual structure of the composition (a crowd that releases the clear space where the episode focuses, a theatrical vision of an epiphany of the divine presence which is, at the same time, human form and beatific light), make The Adoration of the Magi, as it was already stated in 1837 by a Roman scholar, an absolute capolavoro (masterpiece).”  They lost me right there. I thought “So what?”.

I am afraid we are managing this field as if it was some kind of a “private joke”, something to be shared and understood by the fortunate few and the initiated. What concerns our heritage, our museums, our culture is not just of our business, though. As public money is spent on it, as we are seeking more and more the support (all kinds of support) of the people, we should seriously and carefully consider the message we are actually sending across; and the barriers we are raising. We are behaving like elites, but at the expense of all. Isn’t there something more we could and should say about what we are doing and why? Shouldn’t we feel a bit more accountable? I am not naïve to the point of believing that the majority of people would miraculously start caring, but maybe – just maybe – if there was a genuine interest in involving people and sharing a sense of belonging beyond a group of fortunate few, eventually, in the long term, people’s concern and interest regarding our heritage, and the cultural field in general, might also change?

Note on 30.7.2016: Interesting answers regarding the aquisition, through crowdfunding, of "Armada", the portrait of Elizabeth I.

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