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Latest Lucas Collection strategy leaves art pros leery


The latest strategy for preventing the Maryland Institute, College of Art from selling its vast Lucas Collection has some professionals in the art world worried about setting a precedent that could make patrons leery of lending their work to museums.

The Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Art Gallery, which have had the collection on loan for more than 60 years, argue that if it is sold, they should receive compensation for taking care of the collection and increasing its value through 80 exhibitions.

That tactic has the potential to undermine the sale by making it less profitable. But in the museum world, where art objects on loan are as common as gift shops, some professionals say it also could have unsettling ramifications.

"It would set a very unusual precedent," said Marie Malaro, an attorney and director of museum studies at George Washington University. "If people are fearful that the museum is going to do some work on the collection and then charge them, then I don't think many people would lend things to the museum."

The logic behind the argument for compensation also could be )) turned on the museums, said Steven E. Weil, deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. "The institute could send them a bill for fair rental for the art works over the years," he said.

The issue arose when Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled that the institute -- as owner of the 19,000 prints, paintings and sculptures -- had the right to sell some or all of the art to bolster its $9 million endowment.

But he added a caveat: Before any sale, the BMA and the Walters may argue in a separate hearing for compensation for housing and maintaining the collection. That hearing is scheduled for next spring.

Museum officials, who have vowed to appeal the decision allowing the sale, say they could be owed "millions" -- a figure institute officials say is absurdly high. The collection is worth about $10 million, according to Robert Shelton, chairman of the institute's board of trustees.

The museums' argument is based upon the concept that they maintained the Lucas Collection as a public trust for art lovers. It raises questions about the terms of a 62-year-old loan agreement, and the intentions of the city's cultural leaders when it was made.

And if the judge agrees that the museums are owed money, two even thornier issues will have to be resolved. How much does exhibiting art increase its value? And how much is a museum's curatorial labor worth?

While most art professionals agree that artworks become more marketable as a result of exhibitions, the notion of putting a dollar figure on how much the value increases sends shudders through museum circles.

"Asking this question is going into an absolute never-never land," said Ms. Malaro, of George Washington University.

There's no question that showing a work in a renowned institution adds to its value, said George Neubert, director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "Now to try to give some sort of exact amount? I don't know how."

Compensation has merit

Though some art professionals express surprise at the museums' legal argument, others say the BMA and the Walters may deserve some form of payment for their years of care.

"There is considerable merit to the notion that it is appropriate for the museums to ask for compensation. It could be that the amount of resources that are owed is worth close to the value of the collection," says Robert P. Bergman, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and former director of the Walters Art Gallery.

If the judge decides the museums are owed millions of dollars, it might not be worth it for the institute to sell the collection amassed by Baltimore native George A. Lucas.

Lucas died in 1909 and left his collection to Henry Walters, who followed his friend's wishes a year later by giving it to the institute.

In 1933, the institute, with no place in which to keep its large art collection, lent it to the BMA. Several years later, five works were transferred, also under loan, to the Walters Art Gallery.

Factored into the judge's decision will be the terms -- explicit and implicit -- of the decades-old loans.

To the museums, the collection was accepted, protected and maintained over the years with the understanding that the art would be held forever for the public's use. And, they note, the work was paid for partly with public money.

To the institute, the loan was a loan.

Court documents filed last summer by the institute include a copy of a resolution on the loan passed on Dec. 11, 1933, by the institute's board of trustees. In it, the trustees resolved to maintain ownership of the collection.

They also wrote that the BMA could exhibit the works and that it JTC should "proceed to put the paintings in proper condition, and agree to pay the costs of necessary repairs."

Finally, the resolution says, the loan agreement shall be "evidenced by a contract in writing executed by the proper officers of the respective institutions."

Also included among court documents is the loan agreement between the institute and the Walters Art Gallery, drawn up and signed on May 8, 1944, when five pieces of the Lucas Collection were transferred from the BMA.

In it, the trustees of the Walters agree to "give the paintings and bronze the same care and protection as similar objects in the Walters Art Gallery, and to insure them. " The institute also reserves the right "to withdraw any or all of the objects, the loan of which is herein provided for, and to terminate the loan at any time it may desire."

What's missing is the loan agreement between the BMA and the institute.

"There are a series of written documents and they all say the same thing and I'm not going to comment on that," said the institute's attorney, Benjamin Rosenberg. But he declined to produce the agreement, adding, "These are matters that are going to be litigated."

Officials at the BMA say that if there is such an agreement, they cannot find it.

Elusive agreement

"I don't know what is in the loan agreement. I only know what has been suggested by the Maryland Institute," said Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA. He added that "it is not appropriate for me to discuss this issue at this point" because the museum's board is meeting next week to discuss its position.

Neither long-term loans -- nor arguments about their terms -- are unusual in the museum world, in part because in the era when the Lucas Collection was lent to the BMA such deals often were made as "gentleman's agreements," said Mr. Neubert.

"But now -- 25, 30 years later when financial issues arise -- institutions are looking at their assets," he said. "Then you start looking between the lines."

These days, because of the potential for misunderstanding and the huge amount of work maintaining a collection entails, many art professionals caution against accepting long-term loans unless their terms are explicitly detailed in contracts.

"The history of museums is littered with all kinds of wreckage because of misunderstandings," said J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Art Gallery.

Given the expense of caring for art, Mr. Browns said that during his years in Washington he did not accept loans without a detailed contract or the strong possibility that the collection would be given to the museum permanently.

The expenses include the price of insurance, curatorial salaries, security, storage, cataloging, as well as the additional expenses incurred when exhibiting. Works on paper, which make up the bulk of the Lucas Collection, require particular care.

"Paper is a very fragile medium, much more fragile than sculpture, than works on canvas," Mr. Brown on canvas," Mr. Brown noted. "It has a risk of deterioration that depends on the acidity of its mount, the amount of light it receives. It often has been stained and needs to be cleaned, it needs to be protected from mold. All this takes time and effort."

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