Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wide awake in Málaga: Spanish museum guards don't sleep on the job

Museo Picasso, Málaga

There's been much animated discussion following the theft on August 21 of a Van Gogh painting from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum (see Security problems abound in Egypt's Museum on MSNBC.com for a summary).

Understandably, the Khalil Museum's inoperative surveillance and alarm systems have come under fierce scrutiny, as have the museum's security guards. Associated Press reporter Hadeel Al-Shalchi offered a first-hand account of guards visibly slumbering on the job or engrossed in reading the Quran instead of keeping an eye on the objects in their care.

I recently wrote to Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities tsar, requesting a face to face interview. I wanted to ask him a host of questions about cultural heritage restitution, museum commerce, museum security, and the rest. I pitched the idea to The Art Newspaper, but having recently run an item on Hawass, they wanted a stronger news hook. At that moment, a week before the theft, there wasn't one. There is now.

In the wake of the theft, Hawass told reporters he was satisfied with his museums' security ("I am assuring everyone that all of my 23 museums are well-protected and have good security systems," Hawass told reporters.) That is manifest rubbish, as the van Gogh theft makes clear. Hawass, a bellicose figure in the cultural heritage repatriation debate, may have been attempting to see off the inevitable accusations that Egyptian museums can't look after their own treasures. But let's not get too high and mighty. Last week the British Museum was evacuated after an unidentified toxic emission scare. We're just better at spinning the media.

Ton Cremers, one of the world's leading authorities on museum security and art theft, rightly pointed to the yawning gap between the cost of an up-to-date museum security system and the market value of the sort of art being targeted by thieves. Ton's right, it's a no-brainer, but does anyone heed that logic? It's easier to find a scapegoat. According to The National, the Egyptian courts are now chock-full of rueful museum officials and culture ministers awaiting punishment for their part in the incident (11 facing trial for negligence after thieves steal van Gogh painting).

To those of us who monitor art crime closely and professionally, this judicial outcome is a queasy thing to witness. Few European or North American art thefts have ever led to the prosecution of museum directors or ministers of culture, despite the fact that ultimately they are probably to blame. Were any officials in Paris fired after it was found that the alarms weren't operative during the recent theft from the Musée d'Art Moderne? No. (Or not yet.) If a corporate building were broken into and and its valuable assets stolen, heads would doubtless roll. But generally speaking, with museum thefts we merely shrug and put it down to constrained resources, an occupational hazard. In many cases, however, it's due to lamentably poor management. Perhaps it takes a legal precedent like the one unfolding in Egypt to encourager les autres.

Last week, I visited the Museo Picasso in Málaga in southern Spain. At first I thought I'd inadvertently wandered into Málaga airport when a security guard insisted that I surrender my bag, which was put through an airport-style electronic scanner and then confiscated for the duration of my visit. (A shame, as I'm rather attached to that box-cutter).

Security could not have been tighter, which is perhaps not surprising given that Picasso is the prime target for high-end art theft. But although it took longer to get into the Picasso Museum, the process was neither onerous nor intrusive. Once inside, I noted that all the rooms were patrolled by young, alert-looking security guards in chic, tailored suits. They may have been toreadors working part-time for extra cash, so even if you got the painting off the wall, you'd need to be pretty bullish to get past them.

It goes without saying that guarding a museum is not as exciting as bull-fighting, but there is no question that the young Spaniards looking after Picasso's bequest take it seriously. And they were smiling and courteous too.

The Physical Impossibility of Buying and Selling in the Minds of the UK Museum Establishment

The breakdown of talks between the Arts Council and Charles Saatchi over Mr Saatchi's plan to donate his gallery and collection to the public touches on a critical issue facing museums today. How to sustain the institution as a dynamic entity without engaging more actively with the market?

According to The Independent (Saatchi rues lost art of conversation as gallery donation talks collapse), the discussions broke down over the mooted plan to part-finance the new publicly-owned gallery by buying and selling works from the £25 million collection. (Incidentally, that valuation seems absurdly low given the hike in prices since Saatchi first invested in work by Damien Hirst and his Brit-Art cohorts in the late 1980s).

How to engage with the art market is arguably the thorniest issue confronting museums today. The Code of Ethics that underpins the UK Museums Association expressly forbids the sort of commercial activities which, over the last twenty years, have allowed Charles Saatchi to build the institution that bears his name. But if the relevant chapters on ethics in my copy of The Handbook for Museums are anything to go by, one can see why most museum mandarins still see the art market as shark infested waters.

It's those two dirty words — buying and selling — that stick in the curator's craw. If you keep to the guidelines, then buying doesn't present an ethical problem (although in economic terms buying is now more difficult than ever as art market prices rocket, museum management costs rise too, and acquisitions budgets whither accordingly.) But selling — or 'deaccessioning' to use museum jargon — is another matter altogether.

Like him or loathe him, Charles Saatchi has been instrumental in expanding British public awareness of contemporary art, using his resources to build a collection that the public visits in droves. In principle, his approach has not been all that different from that pursued by the great proto-museum pioneers of the European Enlightenment who began by sourcing objects from around the world and building collections for their own delectation before donating them to the nation. The British Museum would not exist today without the intellectual curiosity and pioneering acquisitiveness of Sir Hans Sloane, but there are numerous other examples — the Wallace Collection and Dulwich Picture Gallery to name just two.

The eighteenth-century Weltanschauung from which the British Museum emerged still dominates museum thinking in Europe. It has become a seriously constraining factor, notwithstanding a prevailing belief in the crowd-pulling power of contemporary art that most museums now strive to capitalize upon.

Saatchi's decision to offer his collection to the public was grounded in a desire that it would be "a living and evolving collection of work, rather than an archive of art history". That is a model that many museums aspire to, but which few will ever attain without a step change in attitudes towards deaccessioning.

This is not a manifesto for commercialising museums, or for turning museum directors into corporate CEOs (many fulfill that role already). Rather it's a call for a more enlightened approach to collections and for more innovative ways to engage with the market.

Finally, some of the resistance to Saatchi's donation seems based on a fear that it might in some way conflict with Tate Modern. Tate Modern may be an incredible building — with an even more striking extension rising as I write — but the collection is decidedly second-rate. That too can be blamed on British museum conservatism at a time when America was pioneering taste.

The Saatchi Collection remains a big draw for tourists. There's no reason why it shouldn't continue to be so without taking anything away from Tate. But if the talks don't progress just because of Establishment sensibilities over 'buying and selling', one can be fairly sure Saatchi will look to donate his collection elsewhere.

Then, like Ms Emin, London will have made its bed and will have to lie in it.