Commercial galleries Exhibitions Market United Kingdom

Shows they can’t sell

Why some commercial galleries think it’s worth putting on exhibitions of borrowed work

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait, December 1886—January 1887, at Eykyn Maclean

A series of loan exhibitions currently taking place in London suggests that there is a new way of doing business at commercial galleries. The ability to show genuinely museum-quality works (because many have, in fact, been loaned by museums) adds to the prestige of a gallery, even though mounting such exhibitions may at first seem to defy commercial logic.

At Eykyn Maclean, it was only possible to stage “Van Gogh in Paris” (until 29 November) because the exhibition was fully non-selling, says the gallery’s co-founder Nicholas Maclean. Hauser & Wirth’s London galleries are currently dedicated to a loan show, “Re-View: Onnasch Collection” (until 14 December), which—like a blockbuster museum show—will then travel to the gallery in New York (February-April 2014). The prime works on display include pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Christo and Clyfford Still, and the exhibition “provides a rare opportunity to see major works by these artists in London”, says Neil Wenman, a director at the gallery.

Pilar Ordovas (for whom, like Eykyn Maclean, the loan exhibition has become a signature set-piece) has joined forces with the Rijksmuseum to show works by Rembrandt for the first time in the UK, alongside works by Frank Auerbach. “Raw Truth: Auerbach-­Rembrandt” is on display in her London gallery until 1 December, and will then travel to the Dutch museum (12 December-16 March 2014). The London dealer Andrew Clayton-Payne has also linked up with one specific museum, to show 16 watercolours by J.M.W. Turner from Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery (21 November-8 December). The Whitworth has also lent a watercolour by Van Gogh to Eykyn Maclean—Fortifications of Paris with Houses, 1887.

The star loan in Eykyn Maclean’s Van Gogh show is a self-portrait, 1886-87, from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. Maclean is not revealing how he arranged the loan, but it can be assumed that a fee would be paid for such a work. Even if a direct fee is not paid, there are “in-kind” advantages—for regional institutions, in particular—given the prominence of London’s commercial galleries (all of the above exhibitions were timed to coincide with the Frieze art fairs last month).

David Morris, the head of collections at the Whitworth, says: “We frequently lend to exhibitions in the UK and abroad, and individual works in our collection become well-known in this way.” Of the Turner exhibition, he adds that “opportunities to show a substantial group of works… are rare… because of the high cost of mounting such exhibitions”. His ­museum is temporarily closed for expansion (for a year, until September 2014), so loan exhibitions are a way to keep its collection in the public eye. Nicholas Maclean expects around 10,000 visitors to his nine-week show in London, which compensates in part for the Whitworth’s loss of 170,000 visitors while it is closed.

Although works from museums are not for sale, there can be grey areas elsewhere. At Frieze Masters, Thomas Gibson Fine Art presented a solo show of around 25 works by Henri Matisse, of which around eight were not for sale. Those that were loaned by private collectors were not intended for sale, according to Hugh Gibson, the director of the London gallery, but “if someone is prepared to offer something irresistible, who knows?” However, this is not the point, he says. “We could have had a booth with everything on it for sale, but there is poor material out there and we’d rather show quality.”

There are still costs to be recouped. Nicholas Maclean will not disclose his, but altogether they must have exceeded £200,000. He says: “Our exhibition is bringing in collectors, curators, specialists and dealers, so it’s an excellent way of expanding our contacts. It’s also satisfying to mount a Van Gogh show and open it up for visitors.”

Christo, Wrapped Road Sign, 1963 at Hauser & Wirth London
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