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.