More Talk With: Michael Conforti

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Let’s finish that conversation with Michael Conforti, director of the Clark in Williamstown. Ma. He’s also upcoming president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, so in this part we talk about some issues affecting museums generally.

LACAYO: As everybody knows, Italy’s been reclaiming antiquities from American museums that were looted from archeological digs. So museums are taking more seriously the cultural property laws of other nations. But we also want museums that can show people what other cultures have created. Are there arrangements that could protect archeological sites but still supply museums with works?

CONFORTI: We need to figure out a way to enhance loans. We had a Clark Forum two years ago called “Art for Hire” that was about the whole issue of sharing and whether it can ever be about money. That was about the time of Louvre-Atlanta. [Lacayo: This is the agreement by the Louvre to send several hundred works on loan over a three-year period to the Atlanta High Museum in exchange for a payment of $6.4 million.] I don’t see money in entirely negative terms if it serves the purposes of the institutions involved. There’s more and more conversation about this. Neil MacGregor and I are doing a Salzburg Global Seminar in May, inviting colleagues and thinkers and ministry people from around the world on the question of how to effect a more positive environment for loans.

LACAYO: Last fall you organized a one-day conference at the American Academy in Rome of American museum people and Italians to discuss relations in the aftermath of the Italian campaign to reclaim antiquities.

CONFORTI: I wanted to join with the Academy in trying to improve Italian-American relations in the cultural sphere, because relations had so deteriorated. We could talk about that conference as the beginning of turning the corner. We came up with a list of eight things to work on. One is the establishment of an office in the Italian Culture Ministry which would oversee which objects are coming into Italy on loan and which are going out to the U.S. Because Italians borrow a great deal from American museums. The Italian public has gotten more interested in art [from other nations] that they can’t see in Italy. But if you’re sitting in an office in the Uffizi you don’t know that there are fifteen loan requests to the U.S. from modest scale Italian museums. So we wanted an awareness of the number of American institutions that lend to Italy and a sense of responsibility on the Italian side to lend back.

LACAYO: What else did you discuss?

CONFORTI: We talked about the possibility of joint archeological excavations with the potential that partage might be re-instituted — in the form of long term loans, title would not be shared. [Lacayo: Partage is the practice of sharing archeological finds between source nations and the foreign museums or universities that sponsor the digs.]

LACAYO: You talked before about the exchange of money for loans, what some people call renting out the collection.

CONFORTI: We’re seeing experiments in which money is exchanged in return for objects being leant for longer periods of time. You could have objects going to institutions for twenty or thirty years, at which point the loan could be renegotiated or the objects could go back. The exhibition market place is taking care of this already, with arrangements like Louvre-Abu Dhabi. [This is the $760 million agreement by the Louvre to establish a satellite museum in Abu Dhabi.] And there are more modest ideas too, like the proposal by Alice Walton to share art with Fisk University. If you begin to think of a world like that, and treat it positively, then we’re talking great things.

LACAYO: But for you new loan arrangements of whatever kind are the main answer.

CONFORTI: It isn’t just about loans. There also needs to be established a “licit” market in works of art, including antiquities, in those countries that currently ban it. That’s clearly what’s encouraging so much illicit excavation. The source countries have a responsibility to establish some way that they can endorse a licit market. And that’s a process that we would like to be part of at the Association of Art Museum Directors. We see traditional acquisitions as part of the future of museums as well.

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