SAM snagged a show that is big for art lovers, could be big boost for museum
Seattle Art Museum's big Picasso show, starting Oct. 8, came about because of a coincidence of Seattle curators eager to borrow and a Paris museum ready to lend. Pieces like these haven't been seen outside the Musée National Picasso since 1980, and the timing couldn't be better for SAM, battling a tough economy.
Seattle Times arts writer
Seattle Art Museum is hosting more than 150 works from Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's amazingly varied career. Learn more about Picasso's major "periods."
More on the exhibition:
On Friday, "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris" will make its U.S. debut at the Seattle Art Museum. The exhibit, more than 150 works, will be on display through mid-January before traveling to San Francisco and Richmond, Va.
How Seattle managed to be the first of three U.S. cities to host the exhibit — from a prestigious French museum that houses a mountain of pieces from Picasso's personal collection — is a story of fortunate timing and interesting coincidence.
These factors converge at a crucial juncture for SAM: Like most arts organizations, it's facing tough times. The museum has trimmed staff, executives have agreed to a pay cut and its three principal buildings will close for a two-week furlough early next year. A show that attracts visitors from near and far could be a big boost for the museum.
While the museum doesn't release the cost of its exhibitions, SAM director of public relations Cara Egan confirms "Picasso" ranks as "one of the most ambitious shows SAM has ever undertaken." Sponsors and individual donors have contributed more than $1.5 million toward its costs. SAM hopes to have at least 200,000 visitors — a conservative estimate, Egan says, reflecting "these unprecedented economic times" as well as the fact that this is SAM's first blockbuster in a fall exhibition slot.
The story of how SAM got its big Picasso moment starts, surprisingly, not among the European sculptures and paintings, but in the museum's African and Oceanic art wing.
Pam McClusky, SAM's curator of African and Oceanic art, was inspired by a book — the first one published about Picasso's interest in non-Western artworks — and by the centenary of one of his most decidedly African-influenced works, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907).
She proposed a project where "we would bring Picasso into contact with our collection," said Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM's curator of European painting and sculpture.
In 2008, the Seattle curators discussed their idea with Anne Baldassari, chief curator of heritage at the Musée Picasso and a renowned Picasso scholar. Baldassari revealed that the Musée Picasso was to close soon for renovation and a wide range of works by Picasso, including his tribal-inspired art, would be available.
The two Seattle curators immediately realized a bigger show was what Seattle needed. "It just made all the sense in the world to us to show the retrospective because it just had never happened here before," said Ishikawa, who had visited Musée Picasso and was, in her words, "blown away" by the breadth of the artist's work there.
The last time many of the artworks now held by the Musée Picasso were on show in the United States was in 1980, at New York's Museum of Modern Art. They since have remained in Paris, the longtime home of the Spanish artist.
The closest thing to come to the Pacific Northwest was "Picasso for Portland," a 1970 loaned exhibition at Portland Art Museum that featured 110 works.
Mind in action
Ishikawa visited the Musée Picasso shortly after its opening in 1985 and found its collection "amazingly rich. ... They have such depth in so many areas."
She also was familiar with Museum of Modern Art's Picasso holdings, including masterpieces that, she says, offer many Americans "their first crystallized image of Picasso." But the Musée Picasso offered something different: a chance to see the artist's mind in action.
"They had ... these great little cubist constructions from the 1910s," she said, "when he was making variations on a guitar with scraps of fabric and string that was drawn across the surface. He always felt that musical instruments were a metaphor for the female body. They had this definite dual identity, and ... a sense of aggressiveness about them."
To see a whole sequence on this theme, Ishikawa said, was a revelation. "Most museums will have one example of something like that. But the Musée Picasso has always struck me as a place where you can observe his working process ... his thought process."
Baldassari never really put the word out that the museum would be lending works during its closure. "I think that the Musée Picasso is batting off requests," Ishikawa said. "People are requesting loans multiple times a day. So I was very fortunate we were the first American venue that she talked with. ... She loved the idea of it going to the West Coast, to a city that she identifies with the future, a city that is well-known in Europe as a leader in technology and business."
Negotiations were conducted in English, mostly via e-mail, but Ishikawa and SAM Vice Director Maryann Jordan made a half-dozen trips to Paris over a two-year period. (Newly appointed SAM director Derrick Cartwright participated in the last face-to-face meeting — conducted in French, which he speaks fluently.) Once Seattle's commitment was in place, the task became to convince the Musée Picasso that its traveling treasures would be in good hands.
"She [Baldassari] wanted to know that we were an institution that had the wherewithal to be able to present Picasso, which is her life's work, in a way that would be worthy of the artist," Ishikawa said. Baldassari, after getting general background on the new Olympic Sculpture Park and on SAM's recent expansion of its downtown museum, focused on practicalities: the square footage of the museum's special exhibition space "and things like that," Ishikawa said.
A military operation
Baldassari made her first visit to Seattle on Monday to oversee installation of the exhibit.
"Normally for a show like this," Ishikawa noted, "you'd have a pretty extensive installation time. This will be a military operation."
The planning time for the entire exhibit — two years — also is unusually short.
"If we had had to start from scratch, then it would not be nearly enough time," Ishikawa said. But earlier variations on the SAM show toured Moscow, St. Petersburg and Helsinki in the past year. And Baldassari has been at the Musée Picasso for many years, first as a curator, now as director, so she knows the collection "backward and forward."
Baldassari, Ishikawa said, is the one in charge. "She made the selection. She is responsible for the layout."
Still, SAM had some input on the paintings chosen.
"We really feel a responsibility to think about our audience," Ishikawa said. "I think these major signposts of 'Blue Period,' 'Rose Period,' cubism — they need to be represented, if we can do it well."
Nuts and bolts
After the selections came the equally complex task of shipping the artwork to Seattle. Ishikawa is leery of disclosing exact details, but she did say the works had to come in separate shipments, "because there's a limit on how much value you can have in any single conveyance, for insurance purposes."
She recalled a negotiation, years ago, with a New York art dealer "who lent us an important painting and wanted us to have a police escort with sirens from the airport so that the press would cover it. That's exactly the opposite of what we would do."
Also crucial to SAM's bringing "Picasso" to Seattle was the support of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities' Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program, which helps museums cover the insurance costs for such shows. The panel's comprehensive review process requires the submission of every last detail about the exhibit.
"If we had to privately cover all the insurance for this exhibition," Ishikawa said, "we could never do it."
Now that the artwork is being unpacked in the museum's galleries, Ishikawa has been checking in a few times a day to see what else has come out of the crates.
The thing that impresses her most about the work is its sheer "physicality." After months of looking at reproductions, seeing the artworks themselves can change your entire take on them, she says.
Some paintings, she said, are "very chunky and built up of heavily bodied paint," while others use "a very thin technique, very restrained, very classic." In many, she said, "you can see these sweeping strokes, and you can see him filling in the colors. You can see where he's changed his mind, and has covered that color up. ... Just the sense of process is really so evident when you see the works in person."
The curators' overarching aim is to create "kind of a trail of breadcrumbs through the exhibit that would lead people to a fairly complete view of the artist," Ishikawa said. "You can never get to the bottom of him, of course."
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8793
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