Report

Transforming Collections (Spring/Summer 2001 Trust Magazine article)

One good museum deserves another.

It was 1997, and Rena Minar needed a matchmaker—for her emerging enterprise, the Museum of Art in Tallahassee, Fla. The museum was about to open but had no permanent collection. She happened to see the handsomely designed literature from the Museum Loan Network (MLN), based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MLN connects museums—those that need objects with those that have them. The six-year-old network is the country's first collection-sharing program for long-term museum exhibits—in effect, it's a matchmaker for museums both large and small. Minar called MLN's director, Lori Gross. “Lori helped me apply for a travel grant and come up with the idea of opening an exhibit of Mexican folk art,” she says.

With the grant of about $4,000, Minar and her staff flew to Texas to meet their counterparts at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Thanks to MLN funds, this museum had previously surveyed its extensive collection of Latin American folk art. “Despite our center's 30,000-square-foot space, we are unable to display more than 25 percent of our collection at any one time,” says senior curator Marion Oettinger Jr. “Upon learning of the MLN, we quickly applied for funds to share our artwork, and in 1996 were awarded a $10,000 surveying grant” to catalogue the 75 percent that was in storage.

The result was a happy marriage between the two museums. On Feb. 18, 2000, Hecho a Mano (“Handmade”) opened to great fanfare at the Tallahassee museum (now called the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science). The show, which continues until this August, features approximately 100 pieces of hand-crafted Mexican ceremonial, recreational, utilitarian and decorative objects presented in a special interactive gallery that recreates the colorful interior of a Mexican home.

“I was invited to the inaugural,” wrote Oettinger in Museum Loan Network News, an annual magazine that discusses MLN grants. “And on the flight from San Antonio to Tallahassee,” he admitted, “I found myself fretting about the wisdom of us being involved in the MLN program in the first place. I was concerned that the borrowing institution might not understand the materials and show them the respect they deserved. My fears were allayed, however, when I stepped into the museum and saw what a wonderfully exciting and intelligent installation they had mounted.”

The success of the show has surpassed anything Rena Minar ever imagined: 85,000 visitors so far, with more than 150,000 in all expected before it closes. “It has had a huge impact on our community,” she adds. “After speaking with Lori about our museum's goal to offer educational programs to students and teachers, we collaborated with the local Mexican- American community on a program that celebrates Mexican cultural events and holidays. Our staff worked with area teachers, and we wrote an original curriculum. More than 20,000 students from a nine-county region, as well as from all over Florida and south Georgia, have come to see the exhibit. It has brought in a lot of families because adults enjoy it just as much. The materials we produced and our Web site also have been well used.”

Both Minar and Oettinger believe that joining in this project and getting to know one another created a strong bond between them. They are now discussing future collaborations.

Institutions commonly lend works of art and objects for temporary exhibitions, Gross notes, but rarely for long-term installations because funding and other important resources, such as staffing, are limited. The MLN arranges loans of at least a year—in one case, 10 years (the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College borrowed pre-Columbian objects from several museums for a decade). Among other benefits, Gross notes, a long-term loan allows a museum to develop related educational events that it could not organize if a show were up for only a few weeks or even months.

The MLN is based on the fact that a huge percentage of most museums' collections sits in storage, never put on display. The MLN helps the material circulate for the public to see. And it helps the lenders find out what they have. An MLN survey grant of about $15,000, for example, helped the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology identify pre-Columbian objects for inclusion in the MLN Directory. The online Directory lists nearly 6,000 objects that lending institutions offer. Prospective borrowers easily find out what's available.

The Directory is key to the project, which is why Gross is particularly happy that MLN is based at tech-savvy MIT: “We wanted a place that had an active arts program and an active tech side,” says Gross. The Web site (loanet.mit.edu) also has nine virtual tours of MLN-supported exhibitions, giving them life after their closing dates at their museums.

Since its inception in 1995, the MLN has funded 208 grants in 46 states in 121 cities for a total of $2.9 million. It has been responsible for the loan of 3,258 objects to 54 institutions. It depends not only on smartlooking print material and the Internet, but also on human capital. It has gathered a group of “curatorial ambassadors”—distinguished senior curators from major museums—who speak to museums that might benefit from an exchange, explain the program and point interested institutions toward the MLN.

The museums, and not the MLN, determine the pieces of interest. “We have never, even in the beginning, defined what is art,” says Gross. The MLN has thus brokered many innovative matches:

  • An implementation grant (up to $45,000) in 1998 enabled the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester to borrow 31 objects from five museums for About Face: Copley's Portrait of a Colonial Silversmith, Contextualizing John Copley's Portrait of Nathaniel Hurd (see sidebar on page 15). “What was wonderful was being able to travel together— curator and educator—to see objects, not just talk about planning,” says Marjorie B. Searl, curator of American art at the Memorial. “MLN encourages this serious type of communication between museum staffs.”

  • On an MLN travel grant Joseph Schenck, director of the Mobile (Ala.) Museum of Art, went to Long Island City's Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum to discuss the possible loan of a Noguchi sculpture. Months later, three Noguchi sculptures were unveiled in a Japanese garden at the Mobile.

    The collaboration grew to include institutions throughout the Alabama city. Says Alfred Stokes, chief of staff to the mayor of Mobile: “It reaffirmed what we define as our strategic plan: to put arts at the center of what Mobile is, should be.”

    (Those who can't get to Alabama can go online for a 3D virtual tour of the Noguchi garden.)

  • In 1999 the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Ind., received an implementation grant to bring 55 Native American artifacts from storage to The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, where they were integrated into the latter museum's own collection.

    During the exhibit, says Cathy A. Burton, education director at the Eiteljorg, Native American artists-in-residence made cloth dolls and tipis, and children learned about Native American culture through toys and games. “Our journey of collaboration became more involved as we headed down the road.”

    Thanks to an MLN planning grant, the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., sent staff members to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., to research the possibility of loan of artwork to supplement Joslyn's collection of Asian art. The Nelson-Atkins has more than 8,500 objects of Asian art, one of the finest collections in America. The Joslyn team had hoped to borrow 25 to 50 pieces, but they were lent more than 70 for five years.

    “The new installation strengthened Joslyn's ties to the Asian community, not only in Omaha but throughout the region,” says its director, John E. Schloder. “This is of special importance, given increased economic and cultural ties with Asia and the region's growing Asian population.”

  • The University of Kentucky Art Museum supplemented its collection of Southern landscapes with paintings from the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. The exhibit led to a particularly beautiful book titled A Place Not Forgotten: Landscapes of the South, in which the art appears with essays on the South by such artists as writer Bobby Ann Mason and photographer Sally Mann.

    The MLN, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, was conceived by the late Lee Hills, a Knight Foundation trustee and lover of art. According to Gary Burger, director of Knight's arts and cultural programs, Hills was struck by how much inventory museums had in storage and how much the public never got to see. He was not simply concerned with the “haves” lending to the “have-nots,” but with “horizontal” sharing, so that the institutions might recognize their mutual interests.

    In the early 1990s the Knight Foundation conducted a feasibility study within the art-museum field. Burger remembers that 100 museums and service organizations were called: “It turned out that each call was a 40-minute phone interview. I asked each institution if it would be willing to participate as a borrower or lender. I found a lot of interest, so I also asked them, ‘If there is so much interest, why isn't it happening?'

    “We asked if there were models out there. At the time, the NEA had a collection-sharing program, but it was under-subscribed, perhaps because it required matching grants. We looked at the National Gallery, which had a small sharing program, as did the Guggenheim. The Pew Charitable Trusts had the closest model.”

    The Trusts had started a longterm museum-loan program in 1988 among 32 institutions in the Philadelphia area. Marian Godfrey, director of the Trusts' Culture program, elaborates: “The grantees ranged from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia to the Franklin Institute to Hahnemann Hospital. Most of the materials exchanged were manuscripts and archival materials.

    “For example, the Athenaeum, through a grant, borrowed and conserved architectural drawings from 11 other institutions around the city and region. (Architecture is a major area of focus for the Athenaeum, and these materials were not in the center of the other institutions' collecting missions.)

    “The program demonstrated the great strengths of Philadelphia's archival and manuscripts collections. And because it allowed materials to be conserved and catalogued as part of the lending process, there was much interest in it.”

    Initially, Godfrey recalls, there was suspicion that the program was really about forcing institutions to give up their objects and concern that 10 years was too long a loan period. “But in the end, the long loan period turned out to be one of the program's greatest strengths and, in some cases, was probably responsible for the permanent accession of materials by the borrowing museums— because, in many instances, after the grant periods, the loans were converted to outright gifts.”

    Because the Knight Foundation took the lead, points out Godfrey, “we at the Trusts were able to benefit from the knowledge they built early in their own exploratory process and to add the insights from our local program, ultimately sharing the design responsibility and program cost after Knight's initial jump-start of the process.” (The Trusts' support to the MIT-based MLN has amounted to $3.3 million.)

    Before the Museum Loan Network was launched, Gary Burger picked 30 museums he had contacted and re-interviewed them to find out what they hoped the MLN would be. “They told me that they wanted a forum-like atmosphere,” he says. “And they brought up the concept of a directory, or database, of museums and art objects. The final program design was based on all of this input.”

    The museum people knew they'd be collaborating, so the travel grant came into being. And to stimulate interest, grants did not require matching monies. “It was more than altruism,” notes Burger. Curators and directors wanted an exchange of information as well as of objects, and they anticipated the increased public attention they would get.

    They also told Burger that the MLN would have to be aggressive in marketing the program in order to get museums engaged. “To this end, the MLN sent out 330 notices to museums and then called every one of them,” Burger continues, pointing out that most grant programs don't promote themselves. “The museum directors also insisted that the grant application process be straightforward and not complicated. Most important, the MLN staff had to help broker [partnerships] because small institutions would feel intimidated when asking larger museums.”

    And so, when the MLN was established, Lori Gross saw her role as a facilitator as well as matchmaker. “She nurtures,” says Burger. “She redoes proposals, so that the ones that come before the advisory committee are always well-crafted. Lori and her staff make sure that the MLN is a user-friendly network.”

    The MLN, however, did not take off so quickly. “Museums are very insular and hermetic,” comments Stephen E. Weil, chairman of the MLN advisory committee and emeritus senior scholar at the Center for Museum Studies at the Smithsonian Institution. “Museum lending is a remarkably timid field. We have about 10,000 museums in this country, and I would like to see more of them applying for grants. Competition among applicants engenders better programs.”

    The MLN also had to overcome the suspicion of some critics that items stored by museums are not worth showing. Weil scoffs. “Museum storage is a vast underwater iceberg,” he says. “In many cases, large museums just don't have the funds to survey and catalogue what they have in storage, a high percentage of which would enhance the collection at a smaller institution.”

    Gross and Weil believe that the MLN is an open-ended program that can go in many different directions. Museum networking is not restricted to art institutions; cultural and historical museums are also getting involved. “For example,” notes Weil, “we recently funded the loan of a defused nuclear missile to a naval museum in New Jersey so that the plane and the tactical missile can be shown together.”

    And the MLN is branching out to the performing arts. Through the MLN the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas is mounting a show of Latin American art (with material from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin and the Brooklyn Museum of Art). In order to make the project more interdisciplinary, Andrea Norris, the Spencer's director, applied for a grant in a pilot program, a collaboration between the MLN and the American Composers Forum. The idea is to select a composer who will serve as artist-in-residence, meeting with students in connection with the exhibit, which opens later this year. During the next academic year the composer will write music relating to art, and music students and faculty will perform the new compositions in concert.

    One MLN fan is Joseph J. Rishel, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “A great triumph,” proclaims Rishel, former member of the MLN advisory committee. “Matching large and small museums initially sounded gimmicky, but it really works. I am not talking about building blockbuster shows, just getting art to the people. I'm speaking of Robin Hood kind of principles.”

    For her part, Lori Gross says: “The Museum Loan Network is the most exciting endeavor of my 25-year museum career. I love bringing people and ideas together, and I can use that in a very powerful way.

    “But not everything comes from the MLN. The participants give back to us. For example, the Copley-Hurd exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester was so successful in bringing in historical artifacts that it pushed us to explore objects of cultural heritage. It gave us ideas, and this keeps the program dynamic.”

    The Museum Loan Network is located at 265 Massachusetts Avenue, N52-401, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139- 4307. The phone is 617.252.1888, and the Web site is loanet.mit.edu.

    Jane Biberman, former editor of Inside magazine, writes frequently on culture.