BMA to launch debut in Japan Cone works expected to enhance its prestige

September 29, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

When the Cone Collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings debuts this week in Japan, it will bring together that country's fascination with modern European masters and the Baltimore Museum of Art's desire to shine on an international stage.

This first overseas loan of the BMA's renowned collection offers the museum a rare opportunity to introduce itself to hundreds of thousands of people who have little knowledge of the institution -- and, perhaps, to make a profit.

In return, the museum is giving the Japanese a chance to see the best works from an extraordinary collection of modern European art assembled earlier this century by Baltimore sisters Dr. Claribel and Etta Cone.

"It is equivalent to the symphony traveling to Japan. It's wonderful promotion for the city to have institutions here that attract international interest," says Constance R. Caplan, who chairs the BMA's board of trustees. "The symphony benefited tremendously from the exposure. People looked at its conductor and its musical ability in a new way. It elevates you."

The Japanese exhibit, which includes 65 paintings and sculptures by Henri Matisse, as well as eight additional works by artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, opens Thursday at Tokyo's Ise- tan Museum of Art. The gallery is on the seventh floor of the Isetan Department Store, one of a chain of stores often described as a cross between Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus.

While the notion of masterpieces keeping company with displays of men's and women's fashions may seem unusual to Americans, museums housed in retail venues are a long-standing tradition in Japan.

"We in the West are not used to having art exhibited in department stores, but my experience in Japan is that the facilities at department stores are extraordinarily well-fitted, and the Japanese handle works of art with extreme care," says J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art.

Since opening in 1979, the Isetan Museum has offered shows ranging from European works from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and masterpieces borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to a Norman Rockwell show and a display of designer wedding gowns.

"It's very smart because the art is where the people are," says Christopher Goldsmith, executive director of the Milwaukee Museum of Art, which sent 20th-century American and European paintings to Isetan in 1994.

The Japanese, he adds, were enthusiastic about the Milwaukee exhibit. "Many were familiar with the works already. They would read and stand and look for five to 10 minutes at each painting, and to museum people that's a real thrill to behold."

The Cone Collection will be on view in Tokyo through December, when it will move to the Osaka Municipal Museum, about 275 miles southwest of Tokyo. It will remain there until Feb. 11, 1997.

During its absence, the BMA will present "Andrew Wyeth: America's Painter," an exhibition organized by the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina, and on March 12, the Cone Collection will be back at the BMA.

Much like the 1994 Asia tour made by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the loan of the Cone Collection offers the BMA the kind of prestige and exposure of which cultural leaders dream. This year, the BMA expects to draw 350,000 people. In 5 1/2 months, the two Japanese institutions expect 500,000 viewers.

However, in the museum world, a road trip also can be the stuff of nightmares.

As custodians of art, museum staffs have an obligation to make the objects under their care as accessible to the public as is reasonable. However, that responsibility always must be weighed against the risks to art posed by travel.

"Whenever our objects travel, I am anxious, actively anxious, until I get that phone call that says they have made it," says Brenda Richardson, BMA's deputy director and author of "Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta: The Cone Collection."

"It's a very personal thing. I'm not sure people understand that: The objects become our children. We are here to protect them. I'd sooner have someone slash me than slash one of 'my' paintings."

The artists represented in the Cone Collection are as revered in Japan as they are in the United States and Europe.

Beginning in the early 1980s, works by these Western artists became the targets of bidding wars that caused prices to spiral worldwide and left Sotheby's and Christie's regulars gasping. Japanese buyers, both private collectors and corporations, set records for prices paid at auction. In a two-day shopping spree in 1990, for example, Ryoei Saito, owner of a paper manufacturing company, bought Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Doctor Gachet," for $82 million and Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Le Moulin de la Galette" for $78.1 million.

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