Thoughts on Museum Success II: Loans and Collection Relevance

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Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 13 November 2014, this is the second in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

As I sit down to write the second of these musings about museum success, I find myself in Manhattan preparing to visit an exhibition of portraits by Egon Schiele, to which the Ackland has lent its splendid drawing of a woman (right). Indeed, at the moment, Ackland works are in special exhibitions in Essen, Germany; Los Angeles; Princeton, New Jersey; Jackson, Mississippi; and elsewhere. On my desk in Chapel Hill is a letter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art asking to borrow what is perhaps our greatest painting: Valentin de Boulogne’s St. John the Evangelist (below), and I anticipate soon receiving a request to send our Cleopatra and the Peasant by Eugene Delacroix to Minneapolis and London.

Each of these loans is, of course, unique in its circumstances. Each is evaluated on its own merits. But in the aggregate, can we not see the level of loan activity as a rough measure of success? It reflects the extent to which the Ackland has built a collection that can resonate with the current interests of art publics in many different contexts. We preserve art for posterity, but we also want our collection to engage with contemporary concerns in as many ways as possible. Statistics on loan traffic can signal the current relevance of the collection (as can the number of times in any one year that Ackland works are illustrated in books, articles, and other publications).

We still have a long way to go in activating the role our collection can play in dialogues about art and culture in venues far beyond Chapel Hill. But each time I encounter an Ackland work far from home, I count that as a step towards at least one kind of success.

Peter Nisbet
Ackland Art Museum Chief Curator and Interim Director

Images from the collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Egon Schiele, Austrian, 1890-1918: Seated Woman, 1918; black colored pencil, 18-11/16 x 11-13/16 in. (47.5 x 30 cm), Burton Emmett Collection. Valentin de Boulogne, French, 1591-1632: St. John the Evangelist, c. 1622-1623; oil on canvas, 38-5/16 x 52-15/16 in. (97.3 x 134.5 cm), The William A. Whitaker Foundation Art Fund.