The queens of Egypt are stuck in Kansas City and the mummies linger in Montreal. Meanwhile, a posse of Picassos that should be assembling in Toronto is still scattered around the globe. The pandemic not only closed museums, it also ripped their exhibition schedules to shreds. As they cautiously move toward reopening, they have to consider how quickly the public may return – and what shows they have left to entice visitors back.
An exhibition devoted to the powerful women of ancient Egypt was supposed to open at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., in May but the artifacts required, which belong to the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, are still on display in shuttered galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.
Similarly, an exhibition of mummies from the British Museum booked for the summer at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) remains at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), where it was forced to close two weeks early in March. The six rare mummies are about to reappear – the MMFA opens Saturday with only that exhibition on offer – and will stay in Montreal all month while the ROM tries to negotiate a delayed Toronto unveiling in September.
Things get even trickier over at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), which has been forced to postpone its own show devoted to Picasso’s Blue Period originally slated for June. Even if the gallery knew when it would be open, 57 lenders in a dozen countries would have to be able to ship 100 art works to Toronto.
“There are thousands of priceless works of art that are stranded in different countries. There is a huge game of shuffle going on,” said AGO director Stephan Jost, adding that his staff are ready to reopen the gallery on five days’ notice.
Big museums rely on blockbusters to bring in crowds, and those large, prestigious exhibitions are built around carefully scheduled international tours that spread the costs over a list of institutions. The mummies show, for example, will cost the ROM $3-million, including the fee it pays to the British Museum for preparing the show, its share of shipping and insurance and its own costs in Toronto.
Under the eye of professional conservators, the artifacts for such tours are packed in custom crates that keep vibration and temperature changes to a minimum. Any item worth more than $1-million is accompanied by a courier, usually a conservator from the lending institution, who stays with a crate until it is loaded into a cargo hold, travels on the same plane and oversees the transport and unpacking at the other end. Today, even if museum staffers could get into galleries to pack shows, they couldn’t get the work shipped nor travel with it.
The Picasso show will require 30 couriers, while the British Museum would normally send its own conservators back to Montreal to inspect the mummies when they come off display, and then oversee their move to Toronto. Museums are beginning to discuss the possibility of virtual couriers, including video links that would allow conservators to watch packing from afar.
Some Canadian museums are emerging from lockdown – the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria both reopened in May – but many expect to remain closed until August or September. When not discussing timed ticketing and limits on visitors for each room, museum directors spend their days on conference calls with far-flung colleagues juggling hypothetical schedules and horse-trading precious loans.
“There is a lot of solidarity,” MMFA director Nathalie Bondil said. “Frankly, I have never exchanged so [many conversations] with so many directors.”
However, friendly agreements to extend most loans are sending dominoes tumbling. How individual institutions will fare depends largely on the shows they happened to have in the works.
In Vancouver, for example, the Polygon Gallery had already received the crates for a spring show entitled Third Realm, featuring Asian art of the 1990s and 2000s from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. As part of a staged reopening, the Polygon hopes to finally unveil that exhibition in September and the Chicago gallery, which wasn’t touring it elsewhere, can extend the loan as long as necessary.
In Montreal, the MMFA is also well placed: What was supposed to be its big summer show – Paris in the Days of Post Impressionism: Signac and the Indépendants – comes from a single private collection based in Switzerland and France, and had already arrived in Montreal. The reopening museum has now negotiated an extension until the end of October and hopes to launch the show soon.
On the other hand, Montreal won’t be getting a show of Diane Arbus photographs; it is staying in Toronto all summer, helping fill the gap left at the AGO when the Picasso had to be postponed.
A project six years in the making and inspired by research based on X-rays of a painting in the AGO collection, that show has drawn out valuable loans from the Picasso museums in Paris and Barcelona as well as several lenders in Japan. It’s a collaboration with the Phillips Collection in Washington, and its launch would require the border to reopen and international shipping to return to normal. The AGO is now aiming for the fall of 2021.
The National Gallery of Canada finds itself in the oddly enviable position of having previously cancelled its summer show of art from the royal collections in Liechtenstein, apparently after reconsidering the war record of the Liechtenstein princes, whose Austrian estates employed slave labour.
Come fall, when the gallery expects to reopen, its big temporary exhibition space should have been filled by the triumphant return to Ottawa of the Canada and Impressionism show but that now needs to stay longer in Switzerland and France. When it can be accommodated is a question mark because another part of the puzzle is immovable: a show of early Rembrandts arriving from Europe in 2021 on a schedule that remains unchanged.
One difficult issue facing several of these institutions is whether it will be financially possible to reopen immediately. In Ottawa, the National Gallery plans to reopen no later than September but director Sasha Suda wonders whether there will be enough visitors in July and August to cover the hard costs if it opens any earlier.
Blockbusters, in particular, are budgeted on ticket sales that ensure long lines and crowded rooms while physical distancing measures are going to require the exact opposite. At the ROM in Toronto, director Josh Basseches hopes to announce a September opening for the mummies soon, but also has to calculate whether reduced visitation might make the $3-million show a financial liability.
The pandemic has thrown the whole future of these large, touring exhibitions into doubt. Curators and museum directors agree they must rely more on imaginative uses of their permanent collections, and think locally: For example, Julian Cox, chief curator at the AGO, foresees more co-operation with other art galleries in Ontario. Still, nobody is predicting the death of the blockbuster.
“There is an appetite among the public to see beautiful and rare works of art in interesting new contexts, which is why we do those exhibitions,” said Cox, adding, “There is enough ingenuity in our field to rethink how we can make them happen.”
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