The dangers and delights of traveling Vermeers

April 15th, 2013
looking_at_vermeer

Although after years of Vermeer-going I would love  to take a side once and for all, my feelings about traveling Vermeer exhibitions remains as ambivalent as ever. On one hand, I, and obviously millions of other worthy souls, would have never experienced certain Vermeers had they not been shipped closer to home. On the other hand, expenses and risks exist.

The possibility of a plane carrying the Girl with Pearl Earring to Japan might crash on Siberian permafrost, a terrorist attack  or some other unforeseeable event might occur while the painting is on tour cannot be ruled out. Don’t roll your eyes, an earthquake actually happened while Vermeer’s Geographer was hanging on a Tokyo museum wall and the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter escaped by a few months one of Japan’s greatest national tragedy, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The recently restored painting was, in fact,  headed to Sendai, one of the most damaged cities. The risks of fragile, centuries-old canvas being damaged through handling, climatic jumps or road bumps would appear relatively simple to evaluate, but as you would expect, there is great debate as to what really happens to globe-trotting canvases. It is rumored that some museums have declined reporting damages to loaned artworks. But things can surely go wrong at home as well, whether home be the tiny,  off-the-beaten-track Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum where Vermeer’s Girl with a Wineglass is permanently housed  or the Metropolitan Fortress of Art. The Love Letter was stolen, the Guitar Player was stolen, the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid  was stolen and The Concert stolen and never recovered, all from the museums where the works are permanently housed.

Let’s get back to people who are looking at the paintings. Heads can be counted, what goes on inside them cannot. Is it more desirable that ten out of ten thousand  visitors have life-changing experiences while the others more or less forget and move along to the next blow-out exhibition or is it better if that the ten thousand might have a mildly significant experience but no one gets too riled up? And if just one lone visitor among the millions who have attended the last decades’ Vermeer exhibitions were to receive the inspiration to become the world’s next Vermeer?

In essence,  the problem boils down to opportunity. We must calculate the money spent (usually lots and lots), add to it the risks and compare that sum to the results of a rather bizarre average: the overall quality of visitor experience divided by the quantity of visitor experiences. If this isn’t  a pit of snakes….what is?

One thing is certain, the impossibility of evaluating with any objectivity what goes on inside heads of hundreds of thousands of traveling art exhibition visitors (and the effect that this cumulative experience might have on the common good) is a blessing to those who support the exhibitions (i.e. museums and their staff). It is, instead, a curse to the arguments of those who see in traveling exhibitions more potential for damage than good.

I will follow with a few posts on my variegated Vermeer going experiences hoping to give some color to the gray picture above.

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