Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
It was the talk of the art world: Last month, a woman accidentally fell through an $80 million Picasso painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The painting survived with a tear that seems to be repairable.
This sort of thing has happened before: back in 2006, a Las Vegas casino magnate stuck his elbow through another Picasso.
How do Balboa Park’s art museums — which include works by Rembrandt, El Greco, Rubens and, yes, Picasso — protect their collections from the clumsy and the touchy-feely? To get some perspective, I talked with Julia Marciari-Alexander, interim co-director at the San Diego Museum of Art, who revealed the painting that patrons most want to touch — it’s under glass for protection — and discussed the challenges of a “touching gallery.”
Do some paintings just demand to be touched?
One of our most famous paintings is a still life (“Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber,” from 1602) by Juan Sánchez Cotán. It’s so tantalizing and appealing that people do reach out and try to touch it.
Paintings of objects, for instance still life paintings or trompe l’oeil subjects, are meant to entice viewers to look more closely. (A trompe l’oeil is a painting that tricks the eye by appearing to be three-dimensional.) Each object in the painting, for the subject to resonate with the viewer, must seem real enough to draw immediate comparison with daily life.
For that reason, the artistry itself draws one in close and often, especially with trompe l’oeil work, viewers reach out to find out for themselves whether a painted object is real or not.
Other than stationing security guards in galleries, how do you protect the artworks in your museum?
Sometimes when we borrow works of art or a work of art is particularly fragile, we’ll put a physical barrier in front of it, like a rail on the floor. Sometimes we put tape on the floor as a suggestion that people not get too close.
Have there been cases where people have ignored the barriers?
We recently had a traveling exhibition on display in which a contemporary artist had carefully laid three thin planes of red, brown, and yellow spices on the floor. Just after the exhibition opened, we found footprints both in the beds of spices and on the floor around the work, indicating plainly that a visitor had walked across the spice beds.
Although we did lay tape on the floor around the work to prevent this from happening again, it happened at least two more times during the run of the show! Happily, no damage was done – and it did indicate that people were intrigued and compelled by the work of art.
Are there some protective measures that the museum won’t take?
Many museums have motion detectors that make sounds when people get too close. You’re constantly being whistled at in the galleries, which I find unfriendly. We want people to have fun when they look at art, and the more barriers we put up, the more difficult that is.
In Europe, there’s a move toward putting a kind of Plexiglas over everything, and in the best-case scenario it doesn’t reflect light. But American museums believe that when possible, one is able to enjoy a work of art when it doesn’t have that glass in between you and the work. But we do it if a painting is particularly fragile because it’s lived a hard life and is old and does better under glass.
— RANDY DOTINGA