UP CLOSE | Stranded, stuck and sensitive: Upheaval in the world of art loans
The pandemic saw artworks from Yale's collections stranded across the globe. To retrieve the loaned works, art institutions have developed creative strategies that will likely outlive the pandemic.
Instead of traveling to St. Louis, Missouri to examine Jean-François Millet’s “Starry Night” in person, Yale University Art Gallery registrar L.Lynne Addison inspected portions of the painting in as much detail as was possible on an iPad. Addison zoomed in to look at Millet’s depiction of the earth, trees and the night sky, appearing on the small screen as expanses of cracked oil paint and vague shadows. Typically, Addison would have conducted this routine condition check — intended to verify that the artwork was being returned to the YUAG in the same condition in which it had been loaned out — in person at the Saint Louis Museum of Art. But due to the pandemic, she conducted the check remotely, from New Haven.
“Starry Night” is one of many loaned art objects whose trajectories were thrown off course due to the pandemic. Addison’s condition check came months after schedule, and “Starry Night” returned home to the YUAG similarly late.
Art institutions typically rely on object loans from their peer institutions to build their exhibitions and, in turn, loan items from their collections to other museums. At the start of the pandemic, building closures and lockdowns halted loans that had been organized years in advance. Now, though institutions have begun to reopen, social distancing measures and travel restrictions continue to complicate the process, at Yale-affiliated institutions and across the country.
For the YUAG and the Beinecke Library — which lend more artworks than they borrow — the cancellation and postponement of scheduled loans resulting from the pandemic have created a logistical nightmare for registrars. At the YCBA, an institution that borrows more frequently than the YUAG or Beinecke, these delays have interfered with loans and, as a result, the planned exhibitions.
“What people don’t realize when they visit an art museum is how many people it takes to make it work,” said Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art at the YUAG. “It just seems like an open-and-shut experience. But when you get to the point of an exhibition where you’re having phenomenally fragile and valuable things moving all around the globe all the time, it’s amazing the machinery that’s involved in keeping it afloat. And when something like a pandemic hits and stops it all cold, the effects can be really quite remarkable.”
“What people don’t realize when they visit an art museum is how many people it takes to make it work. It just seems like an open-and-shut experience. But when you get to the point of an exhibition where you’re having phenomenally fragile and valuable things moving all around the globe all the time, it’s amazing the machinery that’s involved in keeping it afloat. And when something like a pandemic hits and stops it all cold, the effects can be really quite remarkable.”
—Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art at the YUAG
Immediate effects of the pandemic: Stranded artworks, suspended loans
In March 2020, when the pandemic first hit, objects belonging to the Beinecke, YUAG and YCBA were scattered across the world. This is typical, since museums in the United States and Europe frequently request objects from these collections. However, none of these institutions anticipated navigating the retrieval or return of borrowed objects amid museum closures.
“We have a very very robust loans program at the museum because the collection is so incredible,” Addison said. “Almost immediately, we had loans that were postponed, cancelled, rescheduled. Anything and everything that changed did. And it has pretty much continued to change since then.”
Museums typically request loans years in advance — often as far as four years ahead of time. According to Kanter, this is due to both the scholarship needed to organize an exhibition and the time it takes to prepare loan requests. Many of these artworks are in high demand, so museums must reach out in advance to ensure works’ availability during a given period.
“If I’m going to plan an exhibition on a major European artist — for the sake of argument — or on a topic with Asian art, and I know that I want to schedule it for the year 2025, I need to start thinking now about what my exhibition object list is going to look like so I can contact the owners of objects to see if their thing might be available in 2025,” Kanter said.
Once an object’s availability is established, the borrowing institution then has to convince the lender that it is a good idea to let a fragile object travel. The prospective borrower must also provide cost estimates of preparing and transporting these objects. These arrangements are often expensive and logistically complicated — Kanter said they typically involve packaging an object, conservation work, glazing and framing. Additionally, couriers are designated to accompany objects and ensure nothing goes awry, he said.
At the onset of the pandemic last year, most of these processes were halted. Of the Beinecke’s collection, a diary of military officer, aviator and writer Charles Lindbergh was at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., while a collection of papers about Victorian Era art critic John Ruskin was at the Watts Gallery near London. The Beinecke also had a variety of materials loaned out to the YUAG, as part of an exhibition called “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art.”
A John Ruskin sketch of the Aiguilles Ranges. (Courtesy of the Yale University Library)
A number of works belonging to the YCBA were left at other institutions, including prints and illustrated books that were at the Toledo Museum of Art when the pandemic began.
Due to the pandemic, the YUAG’s “Starry Night” was left stranded in St. Louis.
Due to the YUAG’s closure, the museum’s staff was not allowed into the gallery for months. As a result, the gallery canceled a number of scheduled loans. Even now, with travel restrictions still in place, gallery staff is unsure about whether it can send couriers along with fragile objects that cannot be transported without accompaniment.
Kanter said, though small on their own, many of these logistical problems can “become insurmountable” when taken together.
Prior to the pandemic, the YUAG had scheduled to loan out 15 paintings by Josef Albers, works from its American Decorative Arts Collection and from its Société Anonyme Collection, which features work by prominent American and European modernist artists, according to Kanter and Addison.
The YUAG was initially happy to comply with an art museum in Paris’ request for Albers’ paintings, but the loan became complicated due to the pandemic, according to Addison and Kanter.
In order to safely transport these works, Kanter said the gallery would have to first reframe them with glass. But since a borrowing institution might cancel its upcoming exhibition, the YUAG risks facing a financial loss by reframing the pieces. On the other hand, Kanter said that if the gallery waits too long to see whether the exhibition will take place, it may run out of time to complete the reframing process before the works need to be transported.
According to Addison, the loan with works from the American Decorative Arts Collection has been difficult to reschedule, as it is meant for an exhibition that was planned to travel to four different locations. As a result of the pandemic, all four borrowing institutions had to change their exhibition dates as well as the order of venues.
“Every time you change the date of one venue, you have to shuffle all the other dates of the other institutions,” Addison said.
Unlike the YUAG, the Beinecke did not have to cancel any loan requests. However, the library has declined loan requests made after the onset of the pandemic due to understaffing and continues to turn away requests even now, according to Hatcher and Mulroney.
“We just don’t want to commit to doing something that we don’t have time to do or which would keep us from supporting the on campus programs,” said Rebecca Hatcher, preservation coordination librarian at the Beinecke. “That’s our highest priority, and we don’t want to have that suffer for a loan.”
According to Lucy Mulroney, the Beinecke’s associate director for collections, the pandemic also came at a time when the library was already preparing to halt its regular loaning program in order to discuss an expansion of their current loan program. This meant the pandemic interrupted less loans than it otherwise would have, Mulroney said.
Martina Droth, the YCBA’s deputy director and chief curator, said the YCBA has faced similar challenges. “We have continued to receive loan requests, but we have found that many museums have moved their exhibitions, and in some cases canceled them because of museum closures and the difficulty of traveling art objects during a pandemic,” Droth said.
Droth added that the YCBA has shown other institutions as much flexibility as possible, and in turn has benefitted from the flexibility of other museums as their own exhibitions were postponed.
“We have a very very robust loans program at the museum because the collection is so incredible. Almost immediately, we had loans that were postponed, canceled, rescheduled. Anything and everything that changed did. And it has pretty much continued to change since then.”
—L.Lynne Addison, Yale University Art Gallery registrar
Museums since the pandemic: Safety and security for artworks
For institutions like the Beinecke and YUAG — whose objects out on loan were stranded across different locations — it was necessary to negotiate the secure storage of objects as well as their eventual transportation.
The Beinecke elected to leave several materials in place rather than transport them. For instance, it allowed its materials from the exhibition “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings” to remain on display at the YUAG due to the museum’s location in New Haven for an extended period of time due to its closure. The exhibit was originally scheduled to close in June 2020 but remained on view until February 2021 despite the fact that the gallery was closed during most of that period.
The Beinecke also chose to leave the Ruskin materials — which included pages from Ruskin’s sketchbooks, drafts of books, photographs and a mailbag he once carried — at the Watts Gallery in England for longer than planned.
Ruskin's mailbag. (Courtesy of Yale University Library)
The Watts Gallery, which plans to reopen in May, received permission to keep the materials longer than originally scheduled to give the public an opportunity to view them.
When it was time for the materials to be installed, rather than ask a conservator to travel during the pandemic, the Beinecke instead arranged for a YCBA courier, who had just landed in the area, to oversee the installation process.
When the Watts Gallery shut to the public, Hatcher said they emailed Beinecke staff members about precautions they were taking to ensure the safety of the borrowed materials. These precautions included covering display cases, shutting books and switching off the lights.
“It’s not good for materials to be exposed to light,” Hatcher said. “You don’t want to waste that exposure on time when no one can see them because no one is there.”
On the other hand, the YUAG used technology to aid in the retrieval of their items. After conducting her condition check for “Starry Night,” Addison supervised the piece’s deinstallation over Microsoft Teams. The YUAG then arranged for a security car to follow the piece back to New Haven and placed a tracking device on the crate containing the painting, she said.
Other materials, including Lindburgh’s diary, remain stranded across the world. Lindbergh’s diary is secured in a vault in the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Beinecke has also held onto an object it was borrowing from The Elizabethan Club and is storing it in a secure space, Mulroney said.
The future of art loans
Building on the last year of experience, art institutions have adapted to managing loans during a pandemic in various ways, including enlisting virtual couriers’ like Addison for “Starry Night” and using digital tracking devices. Addison and other conservators think some of these strategies might persist.
“It’s a new world, and it will be really interesting to see what patterns and what new techniques we’ve developed creatively to make all this work might just stick,” said director of preservation and conservation services for the Yale University Library System Christine McCarthy. The library system loans to museums all over the world from its collections, in addition to curating exhibits at the Beinecke and other campus libraries.
McCarthy described new alternatives to the Library system’s operations. The library is considering implementing a new database and collection management system that would allow loan condition checks — typically conducted on paper — to be monitored on tablets or smartphones instead. Modules on the system would allow conservators to enter information about an object’s loan history, and even produce an estimate of the object’s cumulative light exposure.
McCarthy said that having this information at hand might reveal overestimations in an object’s cumulative light exposure, and thus allow the library to loan it more frequently than previously thought possible. McCarthy’s department keeps “medical histories” for art objects, and technology can make a “patient’s” record much easier to access, according to McCarthy.
Virtual couriering has had mixed results. Addison, for example, was amazed by the clarity of “Starry Night” on her iPad screen. Yet in other cases, conservators have reported trouble viewing paintings and found it difficult to fill out a condition report, Hatcher said.
“It’s a new world, and it will be really interesting to see what patterns and what new techniques we’ve developed creatively to make all this work might just stick.”
—Christine McCarthy, director of preservation and conservation services for the Yale University Library System
Addison thinks virtual couriers, as well as “book-ending couriers” — an alternative form of couriering in which one courier sees an object until it gets on a plane, while a second courier oversees the object upon the plane’s arrival at its destination — will become a permanent institution in the museum world.
The YCBA’s registrar staff — Chief Registrar Corey Myers and associate registrar Nancy MacGregor — agreed, saying that though in-person couriers are the ideal, virtual couriering will likely remain as “an additional tool in certain circumstances by many museums and institutions going forward.”
The transition to virtual couriers has been hastened by museums’ financial struggles due to canceled exhibitions during the pandemic. According to Addison, museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, are announcing that they will no longer pay for in-person couriers.
Addison called these measures “black and white statements in a very gray world,” adding that she thinks institutions should determine what kind of courier to send on a case-by-case basis. For example, some objects might be fragile or valuable enough to warrant an in-person courier.
Further, Addison is unsure if virtual couriers will actually save institutions money in the long run, as the required security measures used in lieu of couriers — such as escorts and contract registrars — are also expensive.
McCarthy, who is more optimistic about virtual couriering’s ability to cut costs, said this alternative approach might make loans more accessible.
“Couriers are actually a pretty big expense to the loan, and we ask those institutions to carry that burden for us a lot of the time,” McCarthy said. “So it could be that with these kinds of techniques, maybe smaller institutions who can’t afford to pay for one of us to go with an object might have an option — something we could do to even the playing field a little bit.”
Still, despite art institutions’ adaptations to the pandemic, the staff members at the YUAG, YCBA and Beinecke remain unsure how and when the institutions will be able to retrieve certain works — some of which are too fragile to travel without a person to accompany them — that remain scattered across the globe or reschedule canceled loans.
“Some of these arrangements are still in the air, even at the 23rd hour,” Kanter said.
Annie Radillo | firstname.lastname@example.org