Paris's Picasso Museum Stirs Controversy With Selective Loans of Art — For Cash

Paris's Picasso Museum Stirs Controversy With Selective Loans of Art — For Cash

Last week, one thousand French museum directors signed a letter lambasting the Louvre for loaning art works in return for money — a policy that they say commercializes the museum and runs counter to a ministry of culture statement from 2007 declaring that "a loan cannot be treated as a rental." But the Louvre is not the only high-powered Paris museum engaging in the practice. Now Anne Baldassari, director of Paris's Picasso Museum, is under fire for loaning out artworks for cash while snubbing an important Picasso show at Zurich's Kunsthaus. In fact, in what would appear to be a truly bizarre contortion of logic, Baldessari has simultaneously defended herself by saying that loans are strictly forbidden during the museum's current renovation, and claimed that she needed to make loans to help pay for that same renovation.


The Kunsthaus put on Picasso's first retrospective in 1932. To celebrate its centenary in 2010, the museum recreated that historic show, though in a somewhat smaller format, the Tribune de Genève reported. Institutions including New York's MoMA, London's Tate Modern, and Madrid's Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza loaned works for the show, which ended January 30, along with several private collectors, including the Nahmad family of prominent Swiss art dealers. Yet Paris's Picasso Museum — which has been closed for construction since August 2009 — did not lend major works from its collection that were once part of the 1932 exhibit, including "Pan's Flute" (1923) and "The Model's Studio" (1926), leading to dismay and accusations of unfair practices from the Kunsthaus.


Baldassari defended her decision in a recent interview with Le Monde, saying that some of the works requested by the Kunsthaus are too fragile to travel and that the others had already been loaned elsewhere. She also referred to a decision by former culture minister Christine Albanel in effect since 2009 that "loans are frozen during construction." "True art museum professionals know this," she added, "and so this is a deeply irresponsible attitude on the part of the Kunsthaus." She added that a similar policy is in effect at MoMA and the Cleveland Museum of Art. (When contacted by ARTINFO, a MoMA spokesperson confirmed that "for a good part of the period that MoMA was under construction for the 2004 renovation and expansion we had a policy of not lending works from the collection to other institutions," while a spokesperson for the Cleveland Museum of Art said that the institution had "restricted its outgoing loans at critical junctures" during an eight-year renovation project.)


Yet despite the policy referred to by Baldassari, works from the Picasso Museum are in fact on loan during construction, as she herself acknowledged in the same interview. A show of 176 works from the Picasso Museum's collection will open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond on February 19, before traveling to San Francisco and Sydney. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts web site states that "the unique opportunity to exhibit Picasso's work at this time is possible because the Musée Picasso National in Paris is closed until 2012, allowing for a global tour of this full-scale survey to travel for the first and possibly only time." And a show at the Seattle Art Museum featuring over 150 paintings from the Picasso Museum just ended January 17. When the show was announced early in 2010, the Seattle Times reported that the Picasso Museum had originally intended to lock up its collection during renovations, "but someone somewhere along the line changed his or her mind. And the Seattle Art Museum is the first American beneficiary of that change of heart."

Baldassari affirmed to Le Monde that the museum has always been generous, lending an average of 1,000 works per year before the alleged freeze. As for loaning works from the collection for money, she firmly defended the practice — which pre-dates her tenure — and cited figures: the museum makes about €1-3.5 million ($2-4.75 million) annually by loaning out works for a total of €16 million ($21.75 million) since 2008. When asked how she justified turning down non-paying loan requests in order to send paintings to paying institutions, Baldassari cited the museum's need to finance much of its renovation, stating that "the only resource we have is producing exhibitions for foreign museums." 

Originally slated for completion in 2012, the Picasso Museum's expansion — which will triple its exhibition space — is now predicted to be ready in 2013. The museum is responsible for €23 million ($31.5 million) of the €45.5 million ($62 million) construction bill. Culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand has pledged €19 million ($26 million), leaving a €3.5 million ($4.75 million) shortfall that Baldassari is confident the museum can make up.

Asked about the French museum directors' organization's opposition to treating works of art as merchandise, Baldassari maintained that "our exhibitions are not mercenary, cynical, and meaningless, as some people would have you believe. On the contrary, these are exemplary, original exhibitions, based on innovative concepts. They have been seen by 3.7 million visitors."