Let’s Revive Museum Art Rental/Sales Galleries

For those of you who aren’t familiar with an art rental and sales gallery, here’s a bit of background based on my personal experience. In the mid to late 20th Century, many major museums had art rental and sales galleries. They are exactly what they sound like. They were a dedicated gallery space where visitors could rent or purchase contemporary art. If I remember correctly, work could be rented by the month and monthly fees would be subtracted from the purchase price if the work was purchased. The artists on display were usually from the area around the art museum. These galleries would have a curator and a small staff…plus a group of volunteers.

How did this work? Well there would be a call for submissions from local artists. Similar to what regional or national shows do now. Often those eligible to submit had to live within the market area of the museum (the Art Institute of Chicago for instance used a 100 mile radius from Chicago). The artists generally could submit two or three pieces. This would usually happen quarterly. And just like any other art show, the curator or a guest artist/curator would select work to be exhibited during the next time period. And the artists who weren’t selected would collect their work and wait until another time.

After the selections were made and the work hung, there would often be an opening. But during the period work would often be swapped out or rehung depending on wall space and sales and rentals. And some galleries would have featured artists who would have a special niche or wall and additional pieces shown during the period.

These galleries were very popular with young artists. They provided a cheap and easy way to get work prominently displayed in a museum. But they probably didn’t provide enough revenue for the museum to cover the expenses to run the gallery. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s rental and sales gallery was in the Cudahy Gallery I believe and the Art Institute’s was in the lower level just north of their current photo galleries.

But these galleries started to disappear late in the century. I imagine there were better uses of the space calling out to the museums and as I said, they probably didn’t provide much revenue. I don’t know how much work was sold…nor if anything was ever rented. I didn’t know any artists who had any success that way. I was lucky enough to have work in the Art Institute art rental and sales gallery from fall of 1976 to spring of 1978…a number of prints and water colors. I never rented or sold anything but I did get a north of the loop gallery out of it.

But let’s look at 2020 as we watch the nation search for ways to reach racial and gender equality in society. And we watch art museums and art groups pledge to provide more diversity in their staff and management, the artists they show, and the programming that they provide. Let’s consider reaching out to the local community by reviving museum based art rental and sales galleries.

Yes, we still have the issue of revenue/cost relationships. And even as museums start to re-open they have all been hit hard financially by the shutdowns forced on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a lot of ways, modern technology should be a major means of reducing costs compared to the good old days.

Yes, the museum will still need to provide floor space and in most museums that will still be a limited resource prized by the curators of traditional art classifications. But the museums have committed to community diversity and they have a very visual opportunity here. Now, they will still need a curator. Whether that individual is solely dedicated to the art rental and sales area may depend on the size of the museum or its audience. And they will need staff beyond the typical museum security staff because, hopefully, some sales or rental transactions will be taking place.

But in the 21st C, museums are more in tune with securing corporate sponsorship for galleries, shows, and special events. This would be a perfect instance for a local sponsor to reach out to the local community as well.

The museum wouldn’t have the sturm and drang of artists hauling in pieces for jury four times a year either. Most shows and galleries now use digital work submitted by email or other digital means. So periodical calls for submissions won’t require extra staff, storage space, or gallery interruptions. So a curator and/or invited jury could review prospective pieces and more easily put together a show.

But given a new interest in outreach, the curator could also actually curate…rather than perform a blind jury…and pull together shows of local artists that would provide a real opportunity to exhibit artists from diverse backgrounds. Not only diverse artists but primarily local artists…who would enjoy the exposure and imprimatur of showing in a museum.

This may sound grand but there are a couple of issues that I am aware of…and readers can probably come up with a dozen more.

First, the museums would need to develop the expertise to seek out and identify minority artists in their communities. That isn’t as easy as it seems. Museums tend to be white and often older and in the past 20 years, there have been fewer and fewer local galleries so local artists are harder than ever to find. (why the call for submissions and a jury process are still viable…although it may be necessary to find new venues to get the message out…hurray for social media(?))

And the second is museums are getting very expensive to visit. And yes, some museums have free days subsidized by local corporations or philanthropists, but in general museums are very expensive to visit. So to be particularly effective, art rental and sales galleries should be available to the public in an area outside the paid admission areas. Like the bookstores at the Art Institute or the Milwaukee Art Museum. Or free admission vouchers should be provided to exhibiting artists or area organizations who support minority communities or societal diversity.

It is one thing to embrace diversity through hiring and exhibitions…but at some point you have to provide a means to embrace the whole community as well.

Ok, I haven’t actually solved anything here…just made some suggestions off the top of my head…but I’d like to see major museums again invite local artists back into the house…all local artists…and then provide means for the whole community to celebrate those artists.

A Tale Of Two Cities: Notre Dame Cathedral and Hagia Sophia

In the past week or so there have been major announcements that will affect two of the world’s most famous and most popular tourist attractions. One announces the plans to rebuild Notre Dame in Paris and the second to re-convert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque.

First the good news about Notre Dame. After a devastating fire that nearly destroyed the cathedral in April of 2019, there were several discussions about restoring the building. Several suggestions include wild new components that would have significantly altered the buildings appearance and some that might have been welcome enhancements.

But French President Emmanuel Macron has declared that the cathedral will be rebuilt exactly as it was…well as of the 19th Century after the restoration completed by Viollet-le-Duc. That would include the spire that we are all familiar with that replaced the aging and deteriorated spire that Viollet-le-Duc replaced during his work on the cathedral.

This on the face of it is good news…but I am wondering what President Macron means by: “the “redesign” will look exactly the same as the original Gothic design.”

Will the roof be reconstructed of wood? Something that isn’t as readily available as it was in the 13th Century. There is no reason that the roof and upper portions can’t be re-created in modern materials to resemble the original materials. After all, the cathedral at Chartres which also suffered damage to its roof by fire and it was replaced with an iron roof without changing its appearance dramatically.

And I would hope that a substitute is found for the lead that was used extensively throughout the roof and spire. After the fire there was serious concern about the amount of lead that was distributed throughout the area by the fire and smoke itself as well as the efforts of the fire fighters. There certainly must be other materials that will serve without compromising the feel and look of Notre Dame.

This fire took on a personal aspect as I was planning a vacation in Paris for May and June of 2019. I had climbed the tower in the past but in January during semester break but was looking forward to doing it again and seeing a lush and green Paris from this bird’s eye view. Instead I was greeted by this (some of the scaffolds in this photo were left from the work teams who may have started the fire):

© 2019 Ed Heinzelman
© 2019 Ed Heinzelman

President Macron’s plan is to have the work completed in time for the 2024 Olympics that are being hosted by Paris. I look forward to visiting it shortly after that.

And now I am just showing off a bit: here is what the under roof and over cathedral space currently looks like at Chartres:

© 2019 Ed Heinzelman

So let’s move on to Istanbul! The Hagia Sophia has a long history as a place of worship. Built originally as a Roman Catholic basilica by the Roman Emperor Justinian I as the centerpiece of Christendom in Constantinople, it later served the Eastern Orthodox Church, and finally became an Islamic Mosque when the city fell to the Ottoman Empire. But in 1934 it re-opened as a museum in the modern secular nation of Turkey.

Now, during its original conversion to a mosque a large number of the Christian mosaics were covered with plaster. Most followers of Islam do not believe that man should create images of living things. But during the conversion to a museum, the surviving mosaics were cleaned and restored and Hagia Sophia showed off the best artistic practices of the Christian and Islamic eras in the region.

But now in 2020, there has been a renewed movement toward nationalism in Turkey as in other nations, and after some controversial legal maneuvering, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared the Hagia Sophia will once again serve as a mosque. This decision has roiled the Catholic and Orthodox worlds as well as UNESCO which has named Hagia Sophia as a world heritage site. President Erdogan has assured the world that the site will be open to visitors from around the world but not during prayers.

Erdogan, who said the first Muslim prayers would begin in Hagia Sofia on July 24, has insisted the building will be open to all, including non-Muslims.

“We will preserve Hagia Sophia’s status as a cultural heritage the same as our ancestors did.”

“There is no obstacle from a religious perspective to Hagia Sophia Mosque being open to visitors outside prayer times,”

President Erdogan isn’t totally insensitive to the issues he is causing but:

“I want to stress that Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque from a museum, not from a church”

So, the site should be open most of the time…but I don’t know exactly what ‘outside’ of prayers will mean in the future. And this may be an example of cutting off one’s nose…as 3.8 million people visit Hagia Sophia each year. That has to be a sizable revenue source for Turkey and if this change discourages tourists….it may be a very expensive decision indeed.

But my biggest concern is the mosaics and other non-Islamic imagery that remains and that was restored when the old version of the mosque became a museum. Currently this is the plan:

Diyanet (Istanbul’s religious authority) said in a statement on Tuesday that the Christian icons in Hagia Sophia were “not an obstacle to the validity of the prayers”.

“The icons should be curtained off and unlit through appropriate means during prayer times,” it said.

That’s today. Last month we didn’t anticipate this renowned museum becoming a mosque. Will the icons and mosaics at some point become a liability and religious leaders or worshipers demand their removal or worse yet destruction? I am not feeling comfortable with this change in status for Hagia Sophia. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Hagia Sophia via UNESCO

Can We Conserve Time Based Media in the 21st and 22nd Centuries?

When we visit our favorite art museums, we’ve gotten pretty casual about our expectations. Of course our favorite pieces of art will be there…properly presented…perfectly maintained…carefully preserved. The Mona Lisa is always at the Louvre (albeit you have to look around 500 other heads and selfie takers), the Impressionists are all at the d’Orsay or the Art Institute of Chicago, and of course David is in the Accademia in Florence!

But we forget how lucky we truly are. Not only have these works literally survived for centuries on their own, some of them have survived vandals and thieves as well. And sometimes it takes something like the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to remind us of how lucky we are.

But there is more to luck than simply luck. We are also lucky that museums, collectors, and other institutions have trained and retained conservators over those centuries. Professionals who can repair flaking paint, replace darkened glazes, strip smoke and soot from frescos, and on occasion repair fire or flood or vandalism damage.

But we are talking about traditional materials. And when they have completed their work, we accept that the artwork is still the work of the master even though we know that there has been more recent intervention.

From the 19th Century and primarily in the 20th Century (and into the current periods), technology has introduced a myriad of new innovations…materials for lack of a better word…time base media…essentially film, video, audio, recordings, and of course photography and slides. And artists from that time to this have adopted those new media as art media or adapted them into their otherwise more traditional offerings. So that now brings to mind, are we training conservators to think about how they will conserve ‘modern artifacts’ as the technologies change and morph in the coming centuries.

Why am I thinking about this? Well as I approach my 70th birthday, I realize that just in the realm of commercial music, there has been the move from 78s to 45s to LPs to CDs to digital to streaming to ???. Not to mention the sidebar of reel to reel tape and 8-tracks and cassettes. So it is easily assumed that time based media are going to continue to change and ‘improve’ as we move forward. And that has certainly happened already as I’ll discuss as we go along here.  

But we also realize that there has been a fairly vigorous discussion around the sound quality and atmosphere surrounding the music as we’ve made these advances. Particularly the move from LPs to CDs. Despite their hiss and pop, LPs are held to be warmer and more accessible, while CDs, though often clearer, are considered to be colder. And often, for commercial rather than artistic aims, the music is remastered for the newer technologies…CDs…to other digital…to streaming. Not always from the original master recordings and not always with input from the artist. So are these recordings true to the artist’s vision?

This originally occurred to me maybe a dozen years ago while visiting an MFA show at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. One of the graduates was exhibiting in installation that included images projected on a backdrop of gauze. I don’t remember if the images were slides or a short film, but I wondered out loud what would happen to art like this and could they conserve this stuff in the future. A prominent Milwaukee artist who was standing nearby was sure that they would… but will they? And will it be the same?

In the past year, I have attended two shows that included films created by the artist. The first one was the Milwaukee Art Museum Show: Nares Moves, which I responded to here, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s: Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again.

Let’s start with the Warhol. In one of the galleries, a pair of Warhol short movies were running side by side in the darkened room. They were projected from on high from the back wall onto the front gallery wall. Near the ceiling on the projection wall, two old film projectors were clacking away but I don’t think they were the actual mechanisms projecting the movies. I think that we were seeing digital versions being projected with the mid-20th Century projectors there for atmosphere and that familiar (at least to us coming from the mid-20th C experience) clackety clack of the running projector. I should have paid more attention to how these films were being presented.

The Nares exhibition featured a number of James Nares short films. And the identity tags clearly stated that they had already been converted from film to digital.

 So, contemporary art institutions have moved reel film one generation or so up the path in conservation. Can they continue to do that as ‘improvements’ in technology appear and what does it really mean for the art?

In our current mindset, when we see a painting that has had the glaze restored or flaking paint replaced or repainted, we still accept that the work is from the hand of the original artist. And I guess that it is. But as we move from what to today’s eye is a fairly primitive technology like film to cleaner more modern digital media are we still seeing the vision of the artist when the original was conceived and created? Andy Warhol certainly took into account the flicker and noise and grain and attendant scratches when he put together his originals. Sometimes he played with them and featured them. What would he think of the conversions to modern digital? What would he or any artists sense be if conservators ‘cleaned’ up the images and sound as they upgrade the media (I am ignoring commercial media here…as long as Hollywood films or mass media music remains a viable source of revenue they will be modified and upgraded at will)?

So were those Nares and Warhol films on display in 2019, in digital form, true to the vision of the artist? I don’t have a clear answer for that.

But let’s look at another example that may prove even more problematic: Nam June Paik. Mr. Paik is recognized as the creator of video art…and he used it in every possible aspect as art. From sculptures consisting of televisions, to manipulating the abstract images on the screen, to applying magnets to the picture tubes to distort the image, to utilizing Sony’s new video tape technology, to including TVs in clothing and musical instruments, to interactive video presentations, to just about anything video.

Nam June Paik, Li Tai Po, 1987, 10 antique wooden TV cabinets, 1 antique radio cabinet, antique Korean printing block, antique Korean book, 11 color TVs, 96 by 62 by 24 inches. Photo John Bigelow Taylor. @Artnews December 18, 2014.

Now, anything that Mr. Paik recorded would have the same issues as those I mentioned about for Mr. Warhol and Jamie Nares. As his existing videos are upgraded to newer digital formats, are they the same works as envisioned by the artist? Of have they lost some of his hand? And is the art the image or is it the whole experience? The clatter of earlier projectors? The grain of video tape (or film)? The refresh rate on the screens being used to display the work? Is the series of images or story the artwork or the entire physical experience?

Now, Mr. Paik’s work is even more problematic. He used a lot of, by our contemporary place in art history, some pretty archaic television sets. Certainly museums and collectors can conserve the old television cabinets and a competent furniture maker would repair or replace damaged wooden pieces. But what about the tubes that powered a lot of 1950s and 1960s televisions? Fortunately there is a revival of mid-century radios and musicians’ tube amplifiers so there is some limited availability to replace power tubes. But what about the picture tubes (cathode ray tubes)? Will there be a limited supply available for restorations in 2075 when an old Paik TV wears out? That’s a good question. Will the antique and collectible market along with the conservators provide enough demand for those things to be manufactured ad infinitum?

And what if someone decides to replace that old picture tube with a contemporary LCD display? What have we lost? Can they physically do it? The flicker rate is different. The image definition is different. Colors will appear with different intensities and tones. Can a LCD fit into a mid-century wooden chassis? Will the rest of the electronic portion of the unit need to be replaced as well? And if any or all of this is replaced, is this the same sculpture as created by the artist? Or is only the concept the relevant art here and not the equipment? Will we accept it as a Nam June Paik? Will a museum? Will a collector?

Btw: I asked a friend who repairs old radios. He is not aware of anyone who manufactures new picture tubes but they can sometimes be repaired.

I don’t envy future conservators. It seems to me that the conservator staff will expand beyond the experts with paint brushes and q-tips to include people who can solder and test vacuum tubes and repair picture tubes and migrate videos to whatever the new technologies bring. Oh oh, technologists! Can they get along with arty types? LOL!

P.S. I haven’t been able to find the exact quote on the internet, so I’ll paraphrase. But in Men In Black (I), Tommy Lee Jones’s character Agent K is explaining a new alien audio technology that is about to be released and he laments that he will have to buy another copy of The Beatles White Album now. Maybe we’ll all be feeling his pain in the near future.