Curator explains it all: The great loan show

“I’ve always been struck by the fact that in the English language, the synonym for ‘exhibition’ is ‘show,’” said Frederick Ilchman at the annual Whitney Stoddard Memorial Lecture on Thursday. Ilchman, the curator of the recent and acclaimed Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, spoke about how he conceived and carried out what E.J. Johnson, professor of art history, called “the very last of the great loan shows.” Ilchman’s lecture revealed the lengthy, often serendipitous process behind the organization of a large-scale art exhibition.

Ilchman sought to accentuate the inherent theatricality in an exhibition and thought about how one might “play up the idea of a ‘show.’” He emphasized that “curating is not just assembling a list of the most famous artists,” but rather involves the framing of a compelling historical narrative. “The idea behind this exhibition was to explore a new kind of exhibition. The traditional idea of an exhibition is a one-man show.” The traditional “one-man show” format in which an artist is equated to canonical genius reveals the limits of concentrating purely on oeuvre and chronology: “You get the sense that the artist developed in a vacuum. So I was looking for a middle way between the breadth of group shows and the single-artist show,” Ilchman said.

Ilchman chose to focus his exhibition on three legendary Renaissance artists, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, and explored the overlaps and dialogues between them during 16th-century Venice. “They were continually reminded of each other’s achievements . . . They took this continuous competition as a spur to their own creativity,” he said. Ilchman wanted to place these artists in the context of their era, using the larger narrative of the shifts from an older to a younger generation, the use of panel to the use of canvas and commissioned work to work springing from the artist’s own initiative.

The exhibition, now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, encompasses 56 paintings and employs inventive curatorial devices, such as a mini-room of technical discoveries that present the “layers and stages of a painting” using x-rays and infrareds. Ilchman also explored new ways of displaying the paintings themselves, installing a decorative work that Tintoretto painted for the critic Pietro Aretino on the ceiling, a replication of its original placement. Small but significant features like these exemplify Ilchman’s approach: “You want to take a painting that is familiar and see if you can do something to it that is relevant.”

The planning of an exhibition, Ilchman explained, is much more than a purely intellectual exercise mired in research and catalog essays – it is often also an institutional process, involving political considerations and back-and-forth exchanges between key players. The planning for Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice was particularly demanding; Ilchman described the immense curatorial endeavor as constant “refining, refining, refining.” The planning involved a balancing of cost and a frank assessment of the realities of loaning.

Ilchman’s discussion of the loaning process was particularly insightful, revealing a side of the art exhibition that a layperson normally never experiences. Ilchman described a decision-making process that took into consideration both the Museum of Fine Art’s relationship with loaning institutions and the place of a work in the greater construction of the exhibition’s narrative, asking questions such as, “Could another painting serve the same purpose?” as well as “Would this institution ever lend to us?” and “Could this painting even fit through our doors?” Ilchman’s open, engaging talk imparted greater awareness of the curator’s role in the museum world, an esoteric territory of elegant gallery openings and sparse wall labels.

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