The Great Museum Swap

October 13, 1991

The opening of the Monet exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art today inaugurates -- along with last weekend's opening of the Cone Collection show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts -- an era in American museums. This is the first temporary swap by two major museums of hunks of their permanent collection, of this importance and magnitude. There will be more.

Museums in such centers as New York and Washington lured the multitudes with "blockbuster" shows, painstakingly curated over years with works tracked to owners around the world and borrowed simultaneously at great care and expense. The Smithsonian Institution's National Gallery of Art in Washington is preparing for next year what may be the greatest and last exhibitions of European art circa 1492: the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. The genre is getting too expensive and difficult as packing and shipping and insurance costs mount and owners resist risking their irreplaceable objects.

As a result, museums are telling themselves to lure their &L audiences more to their permanent collections. The less-visited permanent galleries of museums usually have treasure for the eyes beyond a dozen crowded flashy exhibits in the temporary gallery.

The temporary swap of permanent collections is a compromise costing less in all respects than the blockbuster to mount, and easily managed by two museum staffs working together. What each museum lends enriches the other. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is strong in Impressionism, where the BMA's collection is modest. The BMA's Cone Collection is one of the world's best on the birth of Modern Art in the early 20th century, where the Boston museum's collection tails off. The BMA owns but two paintings by Claude Monet, the Impressionist master, and the Boston museum only two by Henri Matisse, the central artist in the Cone Collection and Monet's junior by 29 years.

To accommodate this show, the Baltimore Museum of Art is entering what is for it new ground. It is charging admission to the exhibition in addition to admission to the museum, letting a commercial ticket agency's computer regulate the flow of reserved admission times to avoid over-crowding, advertising in Washington and nearby parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania. The rentable self-guided tour tape was narrated for the BMA by actress Meryl Streep. For weekday visiting, parking is available at the Venable parking lot across 33rd Street from Memorial Stadium with shuttle buses provided by the MTA.

However these arrangements work out, Baltimore has a three months' look at a major part of Boston's priceless patrimony, and vice versa. What a splendid idea.

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