Monet in Chicago. Vermeer in Washington. Brancusi in Philadelphia. The Barnes Collection in Toronto or Philadelphia. Conceptualism in Los Angeles. New Yorkers had to keep their bags packed (and their wallets open) to be ardent art lovers during the last few months, so many big shows bypassed the city's museums.
And 1996 will be equally busy.
Come May, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be the only American stop for the most comprehensive retrospective of Cezanne's works since the 1930's. The Art Institute of Chicago will be the only site on these shores for an exhibition of the late works of Degas. Aficionados of the Baroque will have to travel to Washington or Fort Worth to see 40 major paintings by Georges de la Tour. And if it's April this must be Washington, where 45 paintings by Jan Steen, a popular and more prolific contemporary of Vermeer, will make their only appearance in the United States.
For New Yorkers accustomed to having art come to them rather than the other way around, it's all a bit disconcerting.
Truth be told, it has been decades since New York automatically showed up on the itinerary of every big traveling show. The city's prestige is not in decline. It's just that attention-getting exhibitions have proliferated elsewhere. And the gap between what is seen in New York and what is seen elsewhere seems especially great at the moment because recent New York shows have seemed a bit lackluster: Rembrandt, Goya, Oldenburg and Hopper were all fine exhibitions, but none had visitors queueing up the way Matisse and Magritte did just two years ago. Nothing in New York, with the possible exception of Mondrian, sparked the excitement of the Vermeer and Monet shows in Washington and Chicago, respectively.
Certainly, New York museums have their pick of most traveling shows. "Not just because of the institutions but because of the press," said Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "Corporate sponsors want it and artists want it." Whether an exhibition will pass through New York does not hinge on quality alone. Indeed, a look at how and why certain shows go to certain museums sheds considerable light on the politics and culture of the museum world. Considerations that come into play range from time limits on art loans, scheduling conflicts and growing competition from cities abroad to museum rivalries, ego, money and gallery space.
Underlying all those factors are the ambitions and interests of museum curators and especially museum directors. To a remarkable extent, what is shown at New York's cultural cathedrals depends on their wants and whims. That's particularly true at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Philippe de Montebello, the director, has about as much authority as the Pope, with the same accountability.
As Gary Tinterow, the Met's curator of European paintings, put it: "Philippe is the exhibition committee at the Met. If a curator wants to do a show, he brings it to Philippe, and he either wants it or not."
The Clear Preference: Home-Grown Shows
What Mr. de Montebello and his fellow directors everywhere seem to want are exhibitions curated by their own experts. That's how careers are made and reputations burnished. And when it comes time for money to be raised by museums, basking in the light of star quality shows helps.
"The only criterion is what would make the strongest program for the museum, but you don't want to turn your curators into managers," said Martin Friedman, the longtime director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, now retired. "To a certain extent, it's staff ego -- there, I said it."
Exhibitions nowadays have grown so ambitious, however, that often these towering egos must be tamed to accede to a director's second choice: a collaboration with another top museum. That is how the Met's "Enamels of Limoges," a joint effort with the Louvre that opens March 5, came together.
Last on a director's agenda is the ready-made traveling show -- pret-a-porter in a world that values couture. "The whole point is presenting art, and if a good project comes along, we'll take it," Mr. de Montebello said.
"Faberge in America," an instant blockbuster that opened at the Met on Feb. 13, was put together by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And the museum's recent show of Howard Hodgkin's paintings was organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. "We had been wanting to do a Hodgkin show for some time," explained Mr. de Montebello, "and this came along."
"But," he added hastily, "the Met has more than 100 curators, and part of their job is curating shows. They are always proposing things to me, and we fill our schedule."
The Museum of Modern Art admits to being even more museocentric.
"It's a very rare moment when we take an exhibition we don't have a part of," acknowledged Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Modern. "Eighty-five to 95 percent of our shows are those we've been directly involved in." Perusing the Modern's exhibition schedule for shows organized by another museum, Mr. Lowry said, "I don't see anything in the next couple of years."
The Modern's reputation is so well known that many museums no longer bother gauging its interest in a traveling show.
The exhibition of conceptual art organized by MOCA, "Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975," would have fit there, but Mr. Koshalek set his sights instead on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which eventually decided that the overlap with its permanent collection was too great. He did offer a show of Sigmar Polke's photoworks to the Modern, which passed because it is planning its own Polke show.
Mr. Lowry has no compunctions about displaying an attitude that smacks of Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake." The Modern sees itself as the sender, not the recipient. "We are in the business of developing exhibitions and circulating them around the country," Mr. Lowry said. "It's part of our mandate to do that."
But museums elsewhere pine for space in New York. "There has always been a concern outside New York that the city does not have enough space and enough interest to take shows from outside," said one out-of-town museum director who insisted on anonymity. "The frustration is out there."
David A. Ross, who headed Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art before becoming director of the Whitney Museum of American Art five years ago, felt it too: "New York has a reputation of being hard to get shows into." When he came to New York, Mr. Ross believed that the city wasn't getting enough traveling shows and set out to make the Whitney more open to them.
"No one in the general public cares where the shows are organized, and trustees don't care." he said. "They care about the quality and level of service to the public."
The Whitney now curates 60 to 70 percent of its shows, according to Mr. Ross. "Dozens are offered to us," to fill the rest of the museum's schedule, he said. "Every week I get four or five proposals in my office." Individual curators also get many, added the Whitney director: "We're filled to 2001, except for one or two little slots."
The Odyssey Begins With a Green Light
Years before any paintings go up on the walls, museums start thrashing things out at routine meetings of the director and curators, where ideas compete for space and resources. At some point, the show's organizing curator may visit to make a pitch, sketch out the exhibit, show slides and discuss costs.
What happens next depends. At some museums, like the Modern and the National Gallery, the director and curators on the exhibition committee together decide, collegially. At others, like the Whitney, the director decides. "I rely heavily on discussions in our meetings," Mr. Ross said. "Then I decide what's right."
At the Met, Mr. de Montebello decides, strictly on his own, without benefit of a formal structure. What he asks from a curator, he said, depends on the curator's experience, how successful that curator's previous shows have been and the nature of the show.
"It can be as simple as an idea, 'this artist has not been done in this many years and I've got a few discoveries,' and I'll decide yes or no on that," Mr. de Montebello said. But, he added, "If I hate the artist, or feel he should not be shown here, I'll say no."
And although at the Met and elsewhere trustees may offer their opinions, museum executives insist that in big cities the board's interest is fiduciary, not artistic.
On occasion, the art world is far less genteel than it looks. A lot of jockeying goes on behind the scenes. Consider Philadelphia's Brancusi show.
"In London, the Tate and the Royal Academy were scrapping for it," said Joseph J. Rishel, curator of European paintings at the Philadelphia Museum, which organized the show with the Pompidou Center in Paris. In the end, neither London museum nor any other one got Brancusi, because the sculptures were too fragile to travel extensively. "We had to have a two-shot deal," Mr. Rishel said.
The Modern later wrote a happy ending to the tale for New Yorkers: It worked out a separate deal with the Pompidou, which allowed its 14 sculptures to be part of a smaller Brancusi exhibition, now on view at the Modern, before they returned to Paris.
Museums clearly use their works of art as cards to play, to win a stop on a show's tour or to ease the borrowing of some work they want. Indeed, when curators plot shows, part of the job is to know which museums have the essential paintings and whether they will merely lend them or will want to play host.
"One of the prime things in the museum world is your key lending pieces," said Mr. Ross of the Whitney. "The organizing museum doesn't make decisions about a tour until it decides which museums it has to get loans from."
He "would have loved" to have the Winslow Homer show that opens in June at the Met, he said. But the Whitney had no chance for it, despite its Homer holdings, because the Met had a more important cache -- 18 paintings wanted by the curators at the National Gallery, Nicholai Cikovsky Jr. and Franklin Kelly.
At least Homer is coming to New York. Not so Cezanne. Having left Paris, this blockbuster is now in London and opens in Philadelphia on May 18 (running through August). It is not coming to New York, even though the Metropolitan is lending four paintings to it.
"We could have tried to horn in, but a fourth venue was inconceivable," said Mr. Tinterow, because many lenders would not part with their paintings for more than the year the show will be on the road. "Philadelphia had a few great masterpieces, and that was their entry card to that exhibition."
The same dynamics doomed New York's chances of landing the Vermeer show, which the Met would have gladly taken.
That exhibition was conceived by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., a Vermeer scholar and curator at the National Gallery. Starting with four paintings in the National Gallery's collection, he enlisted The Hague's Mauritshuis Museum, which owns three Vermeers, as collaborator. And lenders simply would not allow the rare works to go beyond those two institutions.
On occasion, a show has even been snatched from the institution that proposed it, as was the case with last year's big Whistler retrospective. Michael Shapiro, who was then chief curator at the St. Louis Art Museum and is now at the High Museum in Atlanta, proposed to do a Whistler show with the National Gallery in Washington. The plan was also to send it to London.
But St. Louis never got the show. As Mr. Tinterow of the Met put it: "It was subject to a hostile takeover. St. Louis did not have a nuclear block of paintings to insure that it would keep the exhibition." The third stop became Paris, because otherwise authorities there would not lend Whistler's portrait of his mother from the Musee d'Orsay.
"I wouldn't really fault the French," Mr. Shapiro said. "It's Realpolitik." The moral of the story: Even if you have the idea, you may lose a show once other institutions get involved. Whistler never made it to New York either, although Mr. Ross said he wanted it.
"We did everything we could, but the lenders wouldn't let it go on longer," he said.
Balancing the Variables: Time, Space, Fragility
Beyond the growing unwillingness of museums and individuals to allow fragile works to be on the road for a year or more at a time, another factor is cropping up: the traveling exhibition business is, like everything else, going global.
"In the past, most shows stayed in the U.S.," Mr Koshalek said. "But other cities -- Tokyo, Paris, London, especially with the new Bankside Tate, Madrid -- are competing with New York."
Still it was money, not travel limits, that bollixed the Barnes Collection's appearance in New York. A stop at the Met during the two and a half-year tour would have cost the museum $2 million.
"At the time when corporate sponsor money had shriveled to nothingness," Mr. Tinterow said, "we looked at our schedule, including 'Origins of Impressionism,' and said why should we hand $2 million to the Barnes? It would have meant not doing 'Origins,' which cost several million."
Scheduling is yet another problem. Since a museum's calendar fills up fast and so early in the game, a show that comes up late has high hurdles to clear. "It's a complicated jigsaw puzzle," said Michael Govan, who is the director of the Dia Center for the Arts. Previously, while Mr. Govan was deputy director of the Guggenheim, "there were at least three or four shows that we tried and tried but couldn't fit in."
The problem is particularly acute for contemporary art shows seeking a place at broad-based museums. It often takes years to develop major shows of, say, old master paintings, while contemporary shows have a shorter time frame. But, said Earl Powell, the director of the National Gallery, "we tend to plan further ahead, and we can't accommodate them."
All of this is sending Mr. Koshalek, for one, in search of alternative sites for shows the Museum of Contemporary Art is not able to place in New York. The museum, for example, has organized a show documenting 20th-century architecture that will open in Japan and stop in New Delhi and Berlin.
Mr. Koshalek wants to close it in New York, but he can't find a home for the show. "We are considering leasing a large armory space in 2000, to keep it up 24 hours a day for a very short period of time," he said. "And we'll keep exploring other options."
Such determination, spread widely, would be good news for New Yorkers. Meantime, art lovers can take heart from a belief shared by many chauvinistic residents that even if they never travel to other museums, they will eventually see much of the world's best art right here.
Many of those Degas paintings heading for Chicago, for example, were part of Metropolitan's 1988 Degas show, which traveled only to Paris and Ottawa. And the Metropolitan is already planning a show to salve the past year's biggest sore spot: Vermeer. And even though New York has eight of his paintings, on view all the time, it is reborrowing several others for "Vermeer and the School of Delft," which is scheduled for January 2000.