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Art Exhibits Take Years to Prepare - 2001-08-20

Visitors at an art exhibit often encounter a well-crafted experience visually, intellectually and emotionally. But that short-lived experience is the result of a long and arduous process. There is more to an art exhibit than meets the eye. It takes years, sometimes decades to conceive and realize.

London's Courtauld Institute of Art opens a new exhibit, called "Art on the Line", in October. The show focusses on the golden age of British art by recreating the art salons that took place in London from 1780 to 1836. It will be open to the public for just three months.

Research fellow Ann Puetz started working on the show more than three years ago. "You can't come up with an exhibition like this today and expect it to happen next year," she pointed out.

After getting approval for the idea, Miss Puetz and her team had to track down more than 300 paintings at museums around the world and choose works from artists as different as John Constable and Sir Joshua Reynolds to include in the show.

Sometimes, Miss Puetz says, she felt more like a private investigator than a museum curator. She first had to pour over entry lists and critical reviews from original art shows to choose paintings she wanted for her exhibit. It was not as easy as it sounds.

"So the only way to identify paintings was by a little number chalked or stuck to the frame," she explained. "Then they had hand lists, which gave the exhibition number, the artist's name and number. And, often the title is incredibly unsatisfying. It just says portrait of a lady, or landscape noon, or a ship. So you have this problem of identifying exactly which lady, which landscape and in which collection it is nowadays."

Once she identified the representative works she wanted for the exhibit, the challenge was to find them. She contacted museums, art institutes and private collectors. It sounds like a fairly routine procedure but it may take months, sometimes years, hundreds of letters and phone calls and a lot of coordination.

Some paintings are not available for special exhibits because they are already on loan or scheduled to appear in other shows in the museum in which they are located. Curators usually book requests for a loan at least a year in advance.

Then there are the logistics.

Miss Puetz had to eliminate some paintings that are just too big to get up the narrow stairs and into the Courtauld Gallery's special exhibit room.

"There's a kind of ideal exhibit you can do on paper and then there's the real exhibit you can do practically," she said. "We have limitations. Our door openings are something like 2.5 meters on the diagonal, and any frame bigger is not going to fit in through the doors.

"There's a magnificent Benjamin West painting," she went on, "Moses Bringing Down the Tablets. It's in the Houses of Parliament and it is gigantic. Clearly it is not something you can have."

Once curators finalize a show's contents, they must worry about insuring, transporting, cleaning and hanging the art works on the gallery's walls.

Other experts working with Miss Puetz have already been researching and writing an exhibit catalogue and producing videos, lectures and reading material to enhance the show.

Maryann Stevens is senior curator at London's Royal Academy. She says museums rely heavily on the collaboration of other museums and private collectors.

She remembers how discussions with a colleague in a Boston museum helped refocus her exhibit of 20th century works of French Impressionist Claude Monet - a show she had been contemplating for ten years.

"At that stage we did not have any precise exhibition concept but we certainly were beginning to allow ideas to mull, turn over, explore, if you like, and that's terribly important in the making of exhibits," she said.

Mrs. Stevens also expects an exhibit to have an impact on the spectator. An educator at heart, she wants art to provoke, teach and expand the viewer's horizons.

"There has to be an intellectual argument behind the exhibition, which justifies doing it in the first place," she stressed. "And it's that argument that you present on the walls of the Royal Academy in exhibition form, which is what we hope will be the revelatory factor, alongside the beauty of the works, that goes without saying."

Putting an art exhibit together may be a lot of work for the museum experts but it is an instant pleasure for private collectors. American collector James Dyke says most owners are happy to lend their art works, saying "the whole point of art is that it be seen and the best place is usually in a museum."

Mr. Dyke says he enjoys traveling the world to see the art he owns on display including several Fauve paintings he donated to a U.S. museum that are now on show in London. "I like the idea a lot. I visited [the Fauve exhibit] in London and then the week after that I went to the Van Gogh [show] for the opening. Yeah, it's a lot of fun," he admitted.

But, does the general public feel as satisfied and fulfilled? It may take art experts years to organize an exhibit but the show's success depends on the reaction of the spectator whose visit often lasts less than an hour.