Sunday, February 25, 2024

Art at Risk in Museums

No question that theft is a risk to art in a museum. Just put the word ‘theft’ in the search engine on the Missives’ site and you will find a lot of articles on both theft from outsiders and staff as well.

In recent times we have the protesters who have decided that the best way to get attention is to splatter soup or paint on a famous work of art. These pieces are usually protected behind glass so the damage to the actual work of art is minimal … but not necessarily.

Vandalism isn’t new and a half century ago two great masterpieces were vandalized. In 1972 an unemployed geologist took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta, and in 1975 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was slashed by a man who said he was sent by the Lord. (Image of the Pieta and then Rembrandt)

Serious damage can occur without vandalism. In 2002 the pedestal holding a life-size statue of Adam carved by Tullio Lombardo (1455-1532), an important Renaissance sculpture given pride of place in the Metropolitan Museum, collapsed. The accident happened after hours, and security cameras recorded that there was no human interference. The marble fell and broke into so many fragments that 12 years of restoration work were necessary for the sculpture to be put together again and go on view. To learn more:

When there are losses, you can always count on an insurance company waiting in the wings and this is where my idea for this Missive originated. In an article on Artnet on February 14, 2024 Jamie Valentino cited the report of Hiscox, a well-known insurance company in the art world that “an unexpected danger is keeping art museum on high alert”, and termed it a “pandemic”. Not men with guns and ski masks but rather the museum visitors taking selfies!

In 2022 The Spanish press reported an example of the newest hazard: an Italian tourist tripped while attempting to take a selfie in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. As she fell she grabbed hold of a piece of the wallpaper which was part of a Ballet set done in 1933 by Alberto SÃ¥nchez.

The British Museum is just one of the many institutions around the world that are taking note by including in its official Visitor Regulations “The use of ‘selfie sticks’ (or similar devices) is not permitted within the Museum.”

In Hyperallergic Sara Rose Sharp reported the advice of Laura Doyle, senior vice president of Fine Art at the Chubb insurance company, that private collectors who lend pieces to museums should ask about how objects will be displayed and protected. “We also recommend that protective glazing (glass or plexi covering a work) be added in some cases to help prevent accidental surface damage, such as from selfie sticks and other similar items,”

The illustration below for the Hyperallergic article that cites “visitors more focused on stunting for the ‘gram than having an ecstatic art experience” is captioned "God, please, can't you see I'm busy right now?"

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Judging a Book by its Cover

Despite the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” that cover not only serves to protect and decorate, but it can also convey a good deal more. In a 2017 article by Curator Lee Hayes at the University of Adelaide writes, “A binding tells us as much, if not more, about a book’s provenance than an owner’s signature or bookplate. It assists librarians and historians to date and place a work. It provides insight into an owner’s economic and social standing.”

This is not lost on the experts and pundits who, as I have written before, we get to see in their homes in televised interviews. Though some chose their kitchens as a backdrop, more chose their libraries. Aesthetically I love the background of a wall of leather-bound books but, it is also fascinating to see these personal collections, paperback and hardbound, with the latest book they have written prominently displayed.

The Grolier Club in New York, founded in 1884, is “America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts”. It currently has an exhibition called “Judging a Book by its Cover” that includes this Book of Hours created in Paris, in 1673, by Michel Dauplet who possibly created the binding as well.

A leather-bound book tells us that the content is highly thought of as money has been spent on its binding. In past centuries goldsmiths and artists created bindings for works treasured by wealthy patrons. In our gallery, if an important catalog of a major collection was old and falling apart we would have a binding made for it, but of course, it would only have the title stamped on it.

The book cover can demonstrate the importance of the book or simply be used to entice the reader. If you look up how many books are published every year the figures vary enormously but the figure I found most often was 500,000 to a million. What sells the book aside from interest in the subject and good reviews? The book cover which makes it stand out among the profusion of titles. In any bookstore, people are browsing even if they came in for a specific book. What catches their eye they take it down to look at. Which cover would you pick?

When my wife and I were starting out and wanted to collect Art Nouveau we scoured street fairs, secondhand bookshops, and country antiques stores for hardcover books published in the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century. At that time even popular fiction often had covers stamped and colored with original Art Nouveau designs.

I was maybe 10 years old when an Israeli cousin was often in New York. He was invited to the seder celebration for the holiday of Passover. He brought me a Haggadah with beautiful illustrations of the story of the Exodus with a stamped patterned leather cover inset with a bronze relief plaque showing Jerusalem. Though I am not religious I treasure this object.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

N. Scott Momaday

Author and poet N. Scott Momaday (1934-2024) was one of the most famous Native Americans of our time and with good reason. In 1969 he became the first Native American to earn the Pulitzer prize for the book “House Made of Dawn” which is now often required reading in English classes.

The international legend, a member of the Kiowa nation, was born in Lawton Oklahoma, and died last month at his Santa Fe home.

He went to the University of New Mexico for his BA and went on to Stanford for an MA and PhD in English Literature. He became a tenured professor at Stanford, the University of Arizona, and the University of California, Berkeley. He has also been a visiting professor at Columbia and Princeton universities, and in Moscow.

Photo by LaVerne Harrell Clark

In 2007 President George W. Bush presented Momaday with the National Medal of Arts for his writing, preserving Native American art and the oral tradition.

In 2019 Momaday sat down to discuss the latter with Robert Redford and if you have the slightest interest I would urge you to listen to the entire ten-minute discussion ...

Momaday was able to continue the Native tradition of storytelling through his writings, both in prose and poetry. His works include more than 13 books of poetry, plays, prose, and children’s stories. Another well-known Native American author, Sherman Alexie, said of Momaday’s writings that they were “one of the primary foundations for all Native American literature.”

Of course, Momaday was eager to communicate the culture of his Native American background for all to appreciate. He produced a limited edition of Kiowa folk tales which was later enlarged with passages related to Kiowa history. His concern over people being able to live in harmony with nature permeates all his poetry.

Visual art plays a role in Native American lives and that carries down even to generations who become teachers or lawyers. Momaday illustrated his anthology, “In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991” with 60 of his own drawings.

An example of Momaday’s range and depth is the poem below, "Standing Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" ...

I ponder how He died, despairing once.
I've heard the cry subside in vacant skies,

To continue, follow link below ...

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Another Culture

I probably have said this before but when we moved from Manhattan to the southwest it was far more culture shock than if we had moved to almost any country in Europe.

We wanted to understand the new cultures that we were encountering. Though we were both interested in the Hispanic and Native American cultures that we were being introduced to my wife concentrated on the former and I on the latter. I knew, of course that there were many Indian tribes, but I did not know that there are 574 Federally recognized Native American tribes and many others that are not recognized. Obviously, there is no way to learn everything about them, but we try to understand as much as possible, particularly about those in the southwest.

I had a friend in New York who years ago told me she was a Cherokee, a registered Cherokee. I countered that I was the son of German immigrants. That seemed to be an appropriate quid pro quo. I did not really understand the difference between just saying you are Cherokee and being registered as a member of the tribe.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in order to be considered Native American you must have one fourth Native American Blood and/or have membership in a government recognized tribe. If you wish to enroll in a tribe, you must first identify the tribe to which you believe you belong, establish your ancestry, and then contact them to find out what their requirements are, since each one is different.

You have probably seen the New York Times article of January 26 or similar reports that the Museum of Natural History in New York is closing its Native American galleries and many museums are putting curtains over their displays in compliance with new Federal rules requiring Native consultation before display or research of cultural items. It is possibly overdue as I have learned that here in Santa Fe, some Native parents do not want to take their children to certain museums that may have objects that according to their culture they are not allowed to see.

Many tribes have been actively trying to revive their cultures and languages that were decimated years ago by what the white man called manifest destiny. “Go west young man go west”, ---this was at the expense of those who originated here.

The new regulations require a review of museum holdings and the removal from view of any items that may offend. I have no problem understanding the desire to have human remains returned to their families and I have never understood the bizarre reasons for holding onto them in the first place.

It is more difficult, however, to know what other holdings are not acceptable. It seems that even works that are made today by Native Americans can be offensive either to their own tribe or to another. Also, different members of a tribe may disagree on what should be shown and what not. Some tribes are trying to find consensus, and many have appointed their Governor (the head of the tribe) or their Cultural Preservation Officer to speak for the tribe on these issues. Others simply do not wish to engage.

Obviously, there will be a need for each museum to find a way of coping with these issues and there are bound to be disagreements. From what I have learned the essential is to begin the process of dialog and consultations.

There is a tried and true saying that something is never as good as it seems nor as bad as it seems, and so it will be with this issue. Slowly but surely institutions will develop a methodology of how to go about respecting the beliefs of “the other”.