Searching for small treasures


Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat, circa 1665–66, oil on panel, 9 1/2 x 7 1/8 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.53

by Dennis P. Weller, curator of Northern European Art, North Carolina Museum of Art

As I watched more than 150,000 visitors file through the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Rembrandt in America exhibit I curated in 2011, a small voice in the back of my head was already asking me: What comes next? The answer turned out to be Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries, set to open on Oct. 11. Devoted to small-scale figure paintings, especially portraits, the exhibition might be considered as an appetizer or dessert to Rembrandt’s main course. Paintings selected for Small Treasures are no less delicious, only on smaller plates!  

I am often asked how an exhibition idea is generated, how much time is needed to bring the concept to reality, and how much it all costs. To carry the culinary metaphor a step further, exhibitions, like fine dining, require proven recipes, excellent ingredients, and time.

Rarely is an exhibition mounted in fewer than three years, especially if a catalogue is to be written. Costs can vary, but after one accounts for shipping, couriers, insurance premiums (don’t even ask about the insured value for the paintings in Rembrandt in America), design and installation, marketing, and catalogue production, the amount will surely reach the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not higher.     

An exhibition lives or dies by its concept. In Small Treasures, as with Rembrandt in America, it was imperative that I devised a concept that navigated the fine lines between star power (think Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Rubens), scholarly rigor, and popular appeal. Although the scholarly component of any show is probably the aspect least understood by the public, it can be the most crucial to its success. Private collectors and museums, including the NCMA, are not inclined to place their treasures on loan unless they feel the exhibition has something new to say about the art. One cannot request a Rembrandt or Rubens, or even a Monet or Van Gogh, for that matter, without good justification.              

Once Small Treasures passed the scholarly hurdle – by becoming the first exhibition organized to focus exclusively on Dutch and Flemish 17th-century, small-format figure paintings – then the fun really began.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Bearded Old Man

Rembrandt van Rijn, Bearded Old Man, circa 1630, oil on panel, 7 1/4 x 6 11/16 in., Private Collection

Just as food critics seek out fine cuisine, my task, one that took approximately a year to complete, was to seek out, identify, and inspect the small masterpieces destined for the exhibition.

By the end of my journey I had traveled across the United States – from a museum in San Diego to a penthouse on Park Avenue – and then on to Holland, where I secured treasures from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and from collections in the cities of Enschede and Groningen.

By the time my mission was accomplished, the tally of paintings for Small Treasures totaled more than 60 works, with 14 paintings coming from The Netherlands, one from Canada, and the rest from public and private collections in this country.      

It wasn’t easy. After all, there are loans, and then there are LOANS. My goal of gathering small-format masterpieces required that I obtain examples by headliners such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals, and Rubens. If I failed, the exhibition would be unlikely to come together at all. Fortunately, Arthur Wheelock, my doctoral advisor and mentor at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, came to the rescue. Through his good graces we secured a Vermeer and three other pictures from the gallery. In addition, the same private collector who so generously loaned eight Rembrandts to my previous exhibition came through again with more than a dozen small-format paintings. Included is this haul was a second Vermeer, as well as a Frans Hals, another Rembrandt, and a remarkable group of Leiden fine paintings by Gerrit Dou and others.

Once these important loans were committed to Small Treasures, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders as I continued my search. Private collectors in New York, Boston, Toronto, and just down the road in Wilmington answered the call. So did the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and a number of other museums, including the NCMA, as we recently acquired three superlative small-format paintings with the exhibition in mind.   

In a perfect world I would report that all the paintings I envisioned for the show and requested to borrow were loaned to us by their owners. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Without naming names, the reasons for the rejections varied. One picture was restricted from ever being loaned; two others were already committed to another exhibition; another was a crucial part of an installation in a recently re-opened museum; and The Getty (I guess I will mention one name) responded negatively to my overtures for two of their paintings.   

Once all the loans were set, my role changed from traveler and “gentle” persuader to researcher and writer. Consequently, the middle year of my three-year journey found me immersed in producing the text for the exhibition catalogue. At the same time, many of the other departments within the museum were gearing up for the show, especially our fundraisers.

By the beginning of the third year, catalogue editing and design, exhibition design, shipping details, wall labels, marketing, and a myriad of other tasks were well underway. The team at the NCMA seems to have met all challenges, for which I am grateful, and Small Treasures will open in just a few days.     

Much too quickly, the details of this exhibition will fade from memory as my next show begins speaking to me. Still, I will always remember Small Treasures for the remarkable ease in which it came to fruition.

To say it was without its difficulties would be a misstatement, but only one will linger with me — its title.

My initial thought was to call the show Little People. That was followed by Modest Masterpieces and Tiny Treasures. For various reasons, all were rejected. At the end of the day, however, titles are largely insignificant. For me, only the art matters. Consequently, my advice to our visitors is simple. Enjoy the exhibition and bon appetit!   

The NCMA’s Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Their Contemporaries exhibit runs Oct. 11-Jan. 4, 2015.
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