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Sometimes Art Can Trump The Golden Rule Of Sharing. Just Ask The Clyfford Still Museum

Courtesy of Clyfford Still Museum
'Double White' is one of the exhibitions showcased at the Clyfford Still Museum's show 'Repeat/Recreate.'

Not every museum can own a Picasso. It helps when you can borrow one.

It's not something the average art goer thinks about, but borrowing works is pretty common in the art world, said Dean Sobel, director of Denver's Clyfford Still Museum. It kind of has to be, because at some point, everyone needs a hand.

"It's the Golden Rule, I think," Sobel said. "You're going to be out asking for loans for your projects and so you want to have the same consideration given to what you're organizing as what people are asking you to do… And sometimes institutions have long memories."

But what happens when you're a museum that can't share your works?

Dedicated to the art of its namesake, the Clyfford Still Museum is the pre-eminent source of Still's works. But when it came time to put together its latest exhibit, Repeat/Recreate, the museum knew they would need a little help.

The exhibit features multiple similar compositions that Still referred to as "replicas." That meant borrowing works from some heavy hitters in the art world.

The potential problem?

When Clyfford Still passed away, he noted that he would bequeath his entire collection to a city that would create a museum to showcase them in their entirety – "with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given or exchanged but are to be retained… in perpetuity for exhibition and study."

"This is one where there was absolutely no expectation that we would do anything for them – tit for tat, so to speak," Sobel said.

Here's where you could get tripped up by the art world's Golden Rule. Would museums loan works knowing there would be no reciprocation?

Yep. The museum received 15 works, including some from MoMA, the Met, and the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.

Credit Courtesy of Clyfford Still Museum
In 'Double Yellow' the painting on the left belongs to the Clyfford Still Museum. The one on the right is on loan from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

It's not always about reciprocation, Sobel said. Sometimes it's really just about what's best for the art.

"I do think, honestly, the reason we were able to get such important loans from some of the country's most prestigious art museums is that they knew that this was a worthwhile topic and that we could only do it here in Denver," he said. "And that it would be important for an understanding of their painting to have it hang next to the other very closely related version that we had here in Denver."

There's also the cache.

"So for example if you're organizing the definitive Clyfford Still exhibition for this generation I think there's probably questions – why your work wasn't included? - you know for example," Sobel said. "It can kind of go both ways. You know, sometimes you wish people would contact you so your work is one of the 30 or 40 paintings or 100 paintings that are part of a major exhibition, but at the same time it's difficult to let these things go."

Some museums have works that simply aren't ever loaned out.

Like the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece hasn't traveled away from the Louvre since 1974, when it was shown in Tokyo and Moscow. In 1963, it was displayed in the United States at the Met.

In 2011, there was an effort to encourage the Louvre to loan it for an exhibit in Florence, Italy – where it was painted - but officials declined citing concerns about damage to the work from travel.

"It's just too iconic, too valuable," Sobel said. "You know, it will just never get lent again."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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