Andrew Dickson, in the Guardian, describes the complexities of loaning, packing, shipping, uncrating, and displaying important works of art.
Even if you are an obsessive gallery-goer, itâ€™s possible you havenâ€™t put much thought into how the works on the wall came to be there. The art world prefers it this way: what happens behind the signs reading â€œNo Entry: Installation in Progressâ€ remains a ferociously guarded secret. The only hint that this Song dynasty bronze has arrived from that private collection in Taiwan, for example, is a discreet credit on the wall. It may be that, absorbed in our face-to-face encounter with the artwork â€“ what Walter Benjamin described as its â€œauraâ€ â€“ many of us prefer not to gaze too deeply into that mystery.
Yet the mechanisms required to get that bronze from Taipei to St Ives â€“ loan agreements, insurance, packing, couriering, shipping, handling, installation â€“ are delicate, expensive and complex. Behind every exhibition is an intricate logistical web that reaches across the globe.
Institutions are under huge pressure to share collections, both in the UK and internationally. Missed Frida Kahlo at the V&A? It has recently opened at Brooklyn Museum, just as the Metropolitan Museumâ€™s 2017 exhibition of early Diane Arbus has come to London. The British Museumâ€™s A History of the World in 100 Objects is shortly to arrive in Hong Kong, by way of Abu Dhabi, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and China. It has been on the road since 2016. Many museums now rely on blockbuster exhibitions to drive visitor numbers; often, the only way of paying for these is to partner with another institution and send the show on tour.
The demands of creating large shows populated with star loans, and the logistics required to make them come together, are intense. â€œIt has become a sort of arms race,â€ said one curator I spoke to, with a trace of a sigh.
A hyperactive art market creates a momentum all its own. According to the most recent analysis, global art sales total nearly $68bn (Â£52bn) annually, a 10% increase since 2008, with some 40m transactions made last year alone. Vast quantities of art are continually being shifted from auction houses to purchasers to dealers and back again, especially in the fast-expanding Asian markets. Two decades ago, there were around 55 major commercial art fairs; now, there are more than 260.
The end result is that more art than ever, worth more money than ever, is travelling more than ever. Fine-art shipping is expensive, specialised and technically challenging work. Old masters are fragile, but some contemporary sculptures are so friable â€“ or so poorly fabricated â€“ that moving them anywhere is a major risk. And there is the added pressure of handling artefacts that are almost immeasurably culturally important.
There is perhaps another paradox here, too: desperate for a glimpse of genuine â€œauraâ€ in an era of digital reproduction, we crave that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see those real CÃ©zannes sharing a real wall, and stand in their presence, as the artist stood. But although the real value of a work of art lies in its being seen, simply putting it on display â€“ let alone making it travel â€“ is guaranteed to put it at risk, and probably shorten its life. â€œAt the end of the day, you have to make your peace with that,â€ one conservator said. â€œYou have to think what art is for.â€