Nuts and Bolts and Headaches: Securing Loans for an Exhibition

By Ralph Sessions
This article is conceived as a sort of follow-up to the piece, “Curatorial Practice from the Bronx” by Betti-Sue Hertz and Lydia Yee, which appeared in the last issue of this magazine. In it, they considered issues relating to the conceptualization of an exhibition project. I am going to discuss one of the next crucial steps in organizing a successful exhibit – securing the loans on your checklist. While this may not be the first thing that comes to mind and may even seem somewhat mundane, you could be in for a great shock if you underestimate its importance. That is, you may have a truly remarkable concept for your exhibition, a great script, a checklist of masterpieces, a willing host, even sufficient funding, but if you can’t deliver the goods (a.k.a. - the Art), you’re in real trouble.

The observations presented here have been gleaned over the course of a number of years of organizing exhibitions for several different organizations. Most recently, I was the curator of a traveling exhibition entitled, The Image Business: Shop and Cigar Store Figures in America, presented by the Museum of American Folk Art. The exhibit included over sixty prime examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century figure carving in wood, most of which were done by shipcarvers. By New York standards, then, it was not a huge show, but it was a complex undertaking. We borrowed from twenty-nine lenders ranging in size from the National Museum of American Art and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian to local historical societies to many private collectors. And, while there was a certain amount of consistency among most of the museums, the loan approval process varied from the ridiculously bureaucratic to the informal telephone conversation. What follows is a brief overview of what I consider to be some of the major considerations and potential pitfalls to be encountered when approaching museums with loan requests. Call me a cynic, but my comments will hopefully be useful to those of you who have never set foot in this territory before.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the loan approval process is just as political as any other aspect of presenting an exhibition. Do not assume for a moment that your brilliant exhibition concept will carry the day, and that museums will fall all over themselves to be a part of it. Of course, if you are organizing a show for the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan or the National Gallery, you may have the clout to ignore this advice. But those of us who work with smaller institutions must be aware that most museums and many private collectors have to be convinced that they should loan to your show. Dare I say that you must sell your concept to potential lenders? Schmoozing is another word that comes to mind.

In this era of scarce funding, most museums are understaffed and overburdened with requests for loans, access to their collections or just general information. Loans are time-consuming and labor intensive. In addition, a museum’s collections are its primary assets, and most institutions would just as soon keep them close to home. This is particularly true if the object is on permanent or long-term exhibition in its galleries. No one wants their masterpiece to be overexposed in a poorly conceived or inconsequential loan show, not to mention the potential damage that can be done during a long tour to several venues. So, it is up to you to demonstrate to lenders why your project is important and why they should take the time to be a part of it.

Develop a strategy. Generally speaking, the bigger the fish, the harder it is to land. Depending on the nature of your exhibition, it is probably best to begin by trying to get commitments for some of your key loans from the most prestigious sources. This will build momentum and encourage others to participate, because everyone wants their piece to be in good company. Make sure you have personal contact with the curator in charge of the object of your desires, and stay in touch with him or her throughout the exhibition research and organization period. It’s also a good idea to contact the director if you can do so without stepping on anyone’s toes. Or, have the director of your museum contact him or her, particularly if they are acquainted. Many a loan request has suffered from being too low profile and too easy to dismiss.

You must also be aware that nowadays most museums make decisions by committee. Competing agendas, egos, work schedules and responsibilities all play a part in the loan approval process. It’s difficult for an outsider to know the internal dynamics of any particular institution, but you should be aware of their importance. All the more reason to maintain contact with a key staff member who will be an advocate for your request. One interesting and sometimes frustrating factor is the growing power of conservators in recent years. With the increasing awareness of the fragility of objects on the part of the museum community (and the increasing monetary value of artworks), conservators have, in many cases, become the final arbiters of the loan process. While this is certainly laudable for the most part and no one wants an object permanently damaged because it has been allowed to travel, it can reach the level of the absurd.

In my case, the exhibition of shop and cigar store figures involved objects that had been designed for hard use and direct exposure to the elements on city streets. One art museum from which I wished to borrow had a great collection of figures that had been given to them in the 1960s. For many years, they had been on display in the members’ dining room, which was certainly less than an ideal environment. The curator in charge was not a specialist in folk art or wooden sculpture. He supported my loan request because he realized that the figures had been somewhat neglected and deserved better recognition. Everything seemed to be rolling along quite well, until the conservator prepared condition reports for the committee meeting. Although I was not privy to their contents, apparently the reports lambasted everyone with any responsibility for the figures, citing the poor treatment that they had received and the inappropriate setting in which they were displayed. They were immediately removed to storage. And, since they all needed treatment but were not an institutional priority, my request was refused. Now, if, as I do, you take the politically incorrect position that all objects have an inherent life span and are subject to decay no matter what their environment, then you may find some irony in this turn of events. Or you may agree completely with the conservator. Either way, the figures will probably languish in storage for years to come.

On a more positive note, I can report that I did manage to secure almost all of the most important pieces on my checklist, including the only known shop figure by William Rush and a rare Mercury by two famous Boston shipcarvers, John and Simeon Skillin, Jr., that served as a sign for the Boston Post Office in the 1790s. Then, too, there was a previously unknown figure that appeared out of nowhere just a few months before the show opened. One day I received a phone call from a collector who said that he had heard about the exhibition and had a piece that he thought I might like to see. Upon visiting his apartment on the Upper West Side, I found that it was a remarkably beautiful allegorical figure in pristine condition that had only recently been “discovered” on Staten Island. He was happy to loan it, and I was more than pleased to add it to the show.

With these anecdotes, I will end my brief commentary. Hopefully it has given you a general idea of what the loan approval process entails. If it sounds incredibly time consuming - requiring sustained attention, ongoing correspondence and countless telephone calls over the course of many months or years - that’s because it is. You have little choice, though, if you want to put together a show with loans from many sources. All you can do is allow plenty of time and be patient as your loan requests lumber along. Most of them will eventually come through, and you will finally forget about all of the headaches when you see your ideas come to life on opening day.