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The fine art of planning an exhibit

Three years ago, officials at the Museum of Fine Arts began planning an exhibit to celebrate the institution's 40th birthday. The logical focus, they knew, was one of the museum's most prized works: a beloved Claude Monet painting of London's Houses of Parliament.

"I was sure we could get a few more Monets for a beautiful little exhibition," director John Schloder said.

Today, a week before opening, the "beautiful little exhibition" has grown into a behemoth _ one that promises to draw record crowds and may win the museum a larger star on the national map.

The show of 150 works includes a dozen paintings by the French impressionist, all but a few borrowed from 30 venues in the United States and Europe. The project has required almost nonstop traveling for chief curator Jennifer Hardin and nonstop work for the museum's small staff of about 17. The group, while maintaining a full exhibition schedule for the past three years, pulled off the kind of feat that sometimes takes much larger museums a decade.

"Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859-1914" is in many ways the most ambitious exhibit ever organized by a Tampa Bay area art museum.

To be sure, other blockbuster shows have made their mark here. The Florida International Museum pioneered them nearly a decade ago with "Treasures of the Czars" and "Titanic: The Exhibition." The Tampa Museum of Art presented a prestigious show of Greek antiquities from Italian museums two years ago. And the Museum of Fine Arts has had major exhibitions, including last year's Chihuly glass show.

But scoring a cache of works by an artist of Monet's stature, and supplementing them with important works including a James McNeill Whistler painting so fragile it rarely leaves its home, is significant and could elevate this area's status among national arts watchers.

Much rides on the success of "Monet's London," not the least of which is the financial investment required to mount a show featuring loaned works by one of the world's most beloved and valued artists. Schloder wouldn't say what he spent to bring the show in. But, factoring in sponsorships and other underwriting revenues, the exhibition's cost could exceed a half-million dollars.

The Museum of Fine Arts set attendance records with last year's Chihuly exhibit, which attracted 150,000 visitors. Organizers hope Monet's star power will draw the same or even greater crowds.

One mark of the show's importance: After the show closes here in April, it will move on to two bigger and better-known institutions, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

This week is the culmination of a process that has been part treasure hunt, part psychological warfare.

Time-consuming, frustrating, exhilarating and sometimes agonizing, original exhibitions such as "Monet's London" are touchstones for a museum's reputation and bottom line.

Most museums organize a number of their own shows each year, but, except for those at the largest institutions, they are usually modest in size and intent.

There are a number of reasons a show such as "Monet's London" is so difficult to create. Showing such a wide range of art by multiple artists almost always means working with a number of institutions. Besides having the money to pay the very high costs of insurance and shipping, museums must have staffers with the time and expertise to find that art at other museums or from private collectors. Even more important, they must have the clout to persuade owners to part with priceless treasures for months.

And the organizing institution itself must have works so outstanding that other players want them in the game.

For the Museum of Fine Arts, "It began with our own Monet," Hardin said, "which is one of the most important works in the collection."

Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog, dated 1904, was painted late in Monet's career and is one of a series of about 100 he made during several trips to London beginning in the late 1800s. By that time, Monet, 64, who had been scorned by critics and patrons in his early years, was popular and admired. He had long preferred painting many versions of the same subject _ haystacks, a cathedral and, most famously, water lilies _ and for this series he chose three views of the Thames River in London. The smallest number, and to many critics the best works, were those he painted of the Houses of Parliament, only 25 out of that 100 or so.

Hoping to gather other paintings from the series, Hardin traveled to Paris' Musee Marmottan Monet, which has the largest collection of Monets in the world.

"They have drawers full of letters asking for loans they showed me and said they're almost always denied," she said. "They're not going to risk lending a painting unless it will enhance the artist's reputation and say something new about the art.

"We had to make the exhibition," she said, "unique."

Finding a novel way to showcase an artist as studied as Monet is like trying to find a new note in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

"I started thinking about doing an exhibition about London at that time because it was such an important city, and so many artists went there. But London was just too broad. We realized it should be about the Thames. Other curators were intrigued by that idea."

Curators hold a special, powerful place in arts administration. To them usually fall the decisions of what will be shown and with what prominence. In a very real way, curators write art history, assigning importance to certain artists and devaluing others, making connections that invite reappraisals. And in asking another institution to entrust yours with a priceless work of art _ one that could be damaged, stolen or even lost _ you ask a lot. Some museums will not loan out their art under any circumstances.

"The question on contracts is always, "Why would you endanger these paintings?,' " Hardin said. "It's the most serious question a curator could be asked. You have to really believe in your idea, and they have to really believe in it, too."

In addition to the scholarly interest in her Thames concept, Hardin's case was boosted when the U.S. government agreed to indemnify the exhibit. The Federal Council of the Arts and Humanities gave the exhibit what is essentially a no-cost insurance policy for loss or damage sought by all large museums to offset the cost of private insurance.

The little Monet show had expanded to also feature Whistler, an American expatriate who, in the mid 1880s, produced an influential set of prints known as the Thames Set and a number of paintings of the river, too. But in early 2002, that concept hit a snag.

Hardin learned that some of the paintings she wanted were already committed to "Turner Whistler Monet," a collaboration between major galleries in Toronto, London and Paris.

"It hindered us for a while," she said with understatement. "But it was early enough that we could shift our emphasis back to Monet. Trying to put his art in a context was always our intention, so I searched for more views by other artists."

While most major art shows in the Tampa Bay area travel here from elsewhere, Schloder and Hardin knew that what they were compiling was good enough to export.

He shopped the idea among colleagues, and almost immediately the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art signed on as partners who not only would get the exhibition after the Museum of Fine Arts, but who also would contribute art to it from their own collections.

While upping the profile hugely, it also increased the workload, as contracts and agreements had to be rewritten, and some lenders, notably the Marmottan, declined to extend the loan of their Monets beyond the St. Petersburg show after it closes here April 24.

Hardin had to arrange for loans from other museums to replace them at the other venues. And the Museum of Fine Arts agreed to reciprocate with some of those museums. A Cezanne, one of the museum's choice paintings, for example, will go to New York's Museum of Modern Art for a few months, and a painting by Jacques-Emile Blanche will be lent to the Rhode Island School of Design.

The Museum of Fine Arts had good will and insurance. But it still needed cash. Schloder and the museum's development director worked for about two years enlisting major sponsorships to pay the upfront costs and provide a cushion in case attendance is disappointing. Some are in-kind donations; British Airways, for example, contributed tickets for couriers transporting the art. As is customary in the art world, Schloder wouldn't enumerate the final tally, but he did say that the museum needs only 30,000 visitors to break even _ which seems an easy mark given the popularity of Monet with the public.

Hardin has spent most of the past year continuing to travel to museums, coaxing ever more art from their curators. She also has been overseeing a glossy catalog with essays by notable art historians that will accompany the exhibition, another key to establishing the importance and prestige of the show.

But it is the virtue born of necessity that really distinguishes this exhibition. Once the Whistlers she had hoped for proved unavailable, Harden had to get creative. She ended up gathering an unprecedented variety of media, including paintings, photography and prints, to explore this artistic terrain. In addition to the dozen Monets and a delicate Whistler Nocturne, visitors also will see a fine, signed edition of Whistler's Thames Set from 1859. Adding to the historic interest of the show, Harden included a range of stylistic takes on the Thames by a number of significant European and American artists that illustrate the evolving artistic currents before World War I.

Works began arriving around Christmas, brought in by special transport vans or flown in from London and Paris, always accompanied by couriers from lending museums. The art is protected by an enhanced security system and guards. Like most museum directors, and especially in light of thefts from museums during the past year, Schloder does not like discussing security, but, as at most other museums, guards at the Museum of Fine Arts, though more plentiful, will not be armed.

Coordinating those dropoffs was as complicated as arranging the art in the galleries. The Chihuly show was set up aided by a large team from the Seattle artist's studio; this one relies on about three museum employees.

Hardin, who should be basking in triumph, continues to fret.

"Is it too focused?" she asks of the exhibition. "When you're a curator, you have an ideal, and you're greedy." She mourns the paintings, especially a Monet in private hands, that she couldn't get. "You always think about how it could have been better," she said.

Her boss doesn't share her anxiety.

"I think it's a revelation," he said. "It has been a tremendous strain on the staff, and we probably wouldn't have done it so soon after the Chihuly show had it not been our 40th anniversary. But this pushes us and makes us realize what we can do."

"I don't think I want to do this again for a long time," said Hardin.

"Oh, really?" said Schloder, smiling.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lenniesptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

IF YOU GO

"Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859-1914' opens Jan. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg and continues through April 24. Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $12 adults, $10 seniors and college students with ID, and $5 children 7 to 18. Group rates are available. For information, call (727) 896-2667.

ON THE WEB

For more information, related links and continuing coverage, go to www.sptimes.com/monet.

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