February 2, 1999
by Dan Silver
More than 1,300 people packed the Mobile Museum of Art on Sunday, January 24 for Dutch Arts Family Day. They were celebrating the opening of "Rembrandt: Treasures from the Rembrandt House, Amsterdam.'' The 82 etchings in the exhibit represent nearly a third of the Rembrandt House collection. Most of them have never left Holland before.
In his small office on the second floor of the Mobile Museum of Art, Director Joseph Schenk explained the genesis of the exhibition. Several years ago the Georgia Museum of Art had lent works to the Rembrandt House. The Dutch museum returned the favor. Patricia Phagan, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art, was invited to submit a wish-list of prints for an exhibit that would tour while the Rembrandt House itself, a 2-story brick building constructed in 1606, underwent renovation.
"My understanding,'' said Schenk, "is that of 84 prints, there were only two that they would not let her have. That's pretty amazing.'' Included in Phagan's selection were "Self-Portrait, Leaning on a Stone Sill'' and "Christ Preaching.'' In order to understand the magnitude of the loan one must understand that the 260 prints owned by the Rembrandt House represent nearly four- fifths of the artist's total output of etchings. The exhibition also contains two copper plates and a small painting from Rembrandt's studio.
So, why is the show in Mobile? Schenk belongs to a network of roughly 25 directors, representing many small museums in the Southeast. The directors get together once a year to talk about projects and look for ways to help each other. “We have a very good relationship with the Georgia Museum of Art,'' Schenk observed. Apparently so. "Rembrandt,'' which has been to Georgia and is now in Mobile, will only go to one other museum, the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, before returning to Amsterdam. In return for its favor, the Georgia Museum of Art can expect to receive a major show of French art that the Mobile Museum of Art has begun putting together.
Any exhibition that comes to the Mobile Museum of Art requires the recommendation of a committee and then the approval of the museum Board of Directors. In the case of "Rembrandt'' those requirements were met nearly four years ago.
When an institute lends works, as in this case, it usually charges a "developmental fee'' to cover its expenses. The museum that borrows the works is responsible only for two other costs, those of shipping and insurance. Schenk knows the total costs in "big, round numbers.'' As yet he has no way of knowing what the exact price tag will be. Such small details don't deter him. "I hope it will be under $10,000,'' he said.
The three museums exhibiting the Rembrandt etchings will share the cost of transportation overseas. A representative from the Rembrandt House has traveled from Amsterdam to Athens, Georgia with the works. Most likely that person will return to accompany them back when they leave Cincinnati. Ground transportation is being provided by companies that specialize in moving fine art works in state-of-the-art climate-controlled vans, companies like FAE (Fine Arts Express). Schenk explained the costs of ground transportation. "You are responsible either for incoming or outgoing. One way. That's because normally it is going to somebody else.''
Just as there are moving companies specializing in fine arts transportation, there are special insurance companies that cover traveling works of art. A company called Fine Arts Management writes policies for most of the exhibitions that come to the Mobile
Museum of Art. The high value of the Rembrandt exhibition made an insurance policy prohibitively expensive for the museum. Fortunately, a Federal program offers insurance for accredited art museums in such cases. "That is how ‘King Tut,' ‘Monet' and all those big-ticket blockbuster shows came to museums,'' Schenk noted. A museum receiving such assistance is still responsible for insuring the deductible. The deductible for "Rembrandt'' is $25,000.
Of course, there are complications. The Mobile Museum of Art had not yet been accredited by the American Association of Museums. The museum scrambled. "We didn't get accredited until the end of 1996,'' Schenk confessed. Then negotiations began with the Federal government. The museum would be required to provide an armed guard at night. "Normally we wouldn't have that. Electronics would take over.''
With the opening of "Rembrandt'' now only one year away, the Federal insurance was secured. What sort of things remained to make Schenk lose sleep at night? His answered, "Just values. Knowing that this is big time.''
Numerous routine matters remained to be settled. Since the Rembrandt House had a catalog of etchings the three museums decided not to make their own. "That is a major expense that we avoided.'' How major? Catalogues often cost more than $30,000 to produce. "That's just for printing and design. That doesn't include the cost of staff time or anything else. We were thrilled not to have to do our own catalogue.'' A brochure for the exhibit still had to be produced. Paint and fabric for the walls were needed. And what about all of those labels describing each piece? "Usually they send you a disk. You decide the format, whether you silk-screen them on the wall or whatever.''
And then there are the signs and banners. The large one in front of the museum costs $1,000. One of the two smaller ones that had been placed near the park entrance had already blown down and needed to be repaired. "We're still putting up light-pole banners.'' Light-pole banners? "We agonized over what to put on them. There is so much you want to say. Names. Dates. But you can't read much on a banner driving past it at 30 miles an hour.''
There were 300 press kits which had been sent all over the Southeast. They seemed modest to me. "The fancy covers for those cost $1,000.'' Schenk seems as bewildered as I was about the cost.
It is easy for the Mobile Museum of Art to apply for grants. Getting them is more difficult. The museum asked the Alabama State Council on the Arts for $30,000 to help pay for a number of educational programs related to the exhibition and a modest amount of commercial advertisement. They received $7,500. Schenk explained that the museum would now rely on free advertising. Lamar Advertising is contributing several billboard signs. The museum will pay only for the paper. But even that is expensive. The cost of paper for a single outdoor sign is approximately $300. Small details.
While the museum waited for crates to cross the ocean a great deal of routine work needed to be done. Dr. Paul Richelson, Assistant Director and Chief Curator of the Mobile Museum of Art traveled to the Georgia Museum of Art to see their installation and talk with curators there. How would they group the pictures? What sort of signs would they use? He mapped out his strategy for displaying the works in Mobile. At the same time guest speakers, educational programs and promotional events were being planned.
Eventually the crates did arrive. “It was a nerve-wrenching day. They were running late. We expected them at 4, they got here at 5:30.'' Once the crates were unloaded they had to remain unopened for 24 hours, enough time for the contents to acclimatize. In the case of “Rembrandt'' a representative from the Georgia Museum of Art accompanied the shipment. As the crates were opened she logged each item and checked it for possible damage. Many art museums have a receiving area, an uncrating room and a storage area for boxes. The Mobile Museum of Art has only a loading dock and its main gallery. Barricades had to be erected the main gallery so that installation could proceed.
Finally the works are screwed to their designated positions on the prepared walls. Signs are attached. The exhibition opens.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the show is that it is free. Many museums around the nation, under pressure to become financially self-reliant, have been charging large admission fees. According to an article in Museum News, published by the American Association of Museums, "admission costs have escalated to the point where even the middle class thinks twice before going to the local museum.'' Schenk admitted that his museum's decision to make the exhibition free is surprising.
Did the board of directors make their decision because Mobilians are not used to paying for admission to the museum? Schenk said no. He sees "Rembrandt'' as testing the market. The Mobile Museum of Art plans to expand in size three-fold by the year 2002. Schenk hopes that the public will think about the possibilities for future exhibitions such as this one. "Mobile can be a block-buster show market,'' Schenk observed, “and that's what we want to do.''
At Dutch Arts Family Day Schenk seemed like a happy man. Dr. Robert Holm from the U.S.A. Department of Music played a Bach 2-part invention on the harpsichord as viewers lined up to peer at the etchings. I wandered over to Schenk and asked him how he would maintain this type of attendance in the future. With a small wave of his hand he replied, "Small details.''