D. Dodge Thompson is the Chief of Exhibitions at the National
Gallery of Art. Since coming to the National Gallery in 1980, he has directed the production of more than three hundred exhibitions.
He cocurated the National Gallery's version of the Art Nouveau exhibition with the NGA's Chief of Design,
We asked Dodge about the unique role his department plays in the coordination of exhibitions at the National Gallery.
How did the Victoria and Albert Museum [V&A] and the NGA
come to work together on this wonderful exhibition?
Our two institutions had been looking for a mutually compatible
project for some time. The Victoria and Albert Museum, which is indisputably the most important repository of decorative arts in
the world, had not organized any large exhibitions for fifteen years or so but was coming back to the business in great style.
The V&A considered its show on Art Nouveau as perhaps the most ambitious exhibition that the museum had done in its 150-year history.
We looked quite carefully at several of the V&A shows, wanting to be sure that the one chosen would fit the taste and
interest of the NGA's audience. And because the Art Nouveau movement in Europe had such a strong effect on this country, while
American Art Nouveau artists Louis Comfort Tiffany, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, had a profound influence
in turn on European design, we thought this show was a natural collaboration.
Is it common for institutions to partner up like this?
Typically institutions talk to other institutions that have strength
in the artist or artistic area about which they're interested in organizing an exhibition. For example, when our Italian colleagues
noted that it was going to be Titian's five-hundredth birthday in 1991, they felt obligated to put together a major quincentenary
exhibition. They looked around and noticed that we had fourteen paintings by Titian...and approached us.
Because we have highly respected scholars here at the NGA, we are often approached by other institutions. They know about an
area in which we have great depth in our collection and usually a scholar who has plumbed those depths.
In what ways is Art Nouveau a different kind of exhibition
for the NGA?
Most of our exhibitions are largely monographic, both in terms of
subject and media--for instance, an exhibition of paintings by Titian or drawings by Raphael.
Art Nouveau is a multimedia exhibition; that is, we're looking at the many sources of a complicated phenomenon: Islamic art,
Japanese art, Chinese art, rococo art are all represented here.
This show features a style of art that originated in a highly charged, highly energetic period of basically fifteen years.
It includes elaborate rooms designed by such well-known designers as Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Agostino Lauro, moving-picture
footage of dancer Loïe Fuller, and objects as small as precious jewelry. Rarely do we mount such complicated, multimedia exhibitions.
In terms of the structure of the exhibition, we are looking at variations on a theme, focusing on the unique stylistic
expressions of Art Nouveau in eight cities: Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Vienna, Munich, Turin, New York, and Chicago.
We're presenting the artistic phenomenon of Art Nouveau in greater depth than we have done for the subject of any exhibition
that I can think of in our more-than-fifty-year history.
Now for a more philosophical question. This exhibit has everything
from architectural installations to movie clips, posters to glassware. How does the multimedia nature of Art Nouveau influence
the nature of the exhibition?
Well, this is a philosophical question, but it also has practical
implications. Our design department, led by Mark Leithauser, is so experienced that the staff knows instinctively that a multimedia
exhibition can't be just a series of masterpieces--especially a show like Art Nouveau, because decorative arts by their very nature
are utilitarian. One has to sit on the chair as well as admire it. One has to be able to open a glass-fronted vitrine and see some
of the spectacular works behind the glass doors.
The exhibition becomes complicated when one is choosing artworks by disparate artists that all have to harmonize. It is a
philosophical conundrum in that many of these ensembles never would have been seen together--we have made them up. One would
never see Frank Lloyd Wright in juxtaposition with Louis Sullivan in "the real world." One would never have seen a great
painting by Fernand Khnopff over a Henry van de Velde table, as we show here. Yet because of their similar artistic sensibility,
coming from this particular time, they do really "talk" to each other. But the practice of making these combinations is an art
form in itself. I think that's where the NGA has extraordinary experience.
How much dialogue was there between the NGA and the V&A during
the planning of the Art Nouveau show?
There was a great deal of dialogue and cooperation, but also, as
happens in the best of collaborations, occasional artistic tension. We, or they, would be pushing the envelope in ways that made
the other partner a little uncomfortable. In the end I think plans were resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
For example, we felt obliged to our audience to show the way Art Nouveau was interpreted in Chicago and Turin. We thought those two
cities, for us, were more important than Helsinki or Budapest. For the European audience at the V&A, however, the latter two made
more sense. So in this respect we agreed to disagree. I think it benefited both exhibitions.
Would you elaborate on the reasons for substituting Chicago and
Turin for Helsinki and Budapest in the NGA exhibition?
There is only so much space in the East Building, so we had to
make some judicious cuts. We believed that Helsinki and Budapest, two cities at the geographical extremes of Europe, were less
interesting and relevant for our audience. When Americans think of the Art Nouveau phenomenon in this country, they think of two
towering figures: Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York and Louis Sullivan, the visionary Chicago architect.
Sullivan, who is credited with the building and promotion of the first great skyscrapers in any country, adapted an ornamental
style from Celtic and Irish sources, some of which had been shown at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Famous Irish archaeological
objects that had been excavated earlier in the century--the Ardagh chalice and the Tara brooch, for instance--became the basis for
particularly exuberant, floriated patterns that Sullivan incorporated into his terracotta, ironwork, and wall hangings. Art Nouveau
was more comprehensive in--and had a more lasting impact on--Chicago than New York, so we felt that we had to show Chicago.
In Europe, the Italians were the most interesting and diverse practitioners of Art Nouveau. Because Italy was essentially a
confederation of city-states, separate styles developed in Palermo, Rome, Bologna, Milan, and Turin.
Turin stands out because that was the site of the extraordinary World's Fair in 1902, where many of the Italians and other
international practitioners of Art Nouveau showed objects in greater numbers than ever before. Charles Rennie Mackintosh in
Glasgow and the Viennese Secessionist artists, among others, all sent examples of their work. This was really, I think, the
last and perhaps the most extensive coming together of strands of Art Nouveau. And so we felt that it was important to present Turin.
There are also Italian artists and artisans that inspire surpassing interest because of their idiosyncrasy. For example, Carlo
Bugatti, whose family is better known for automobiles but whose own furniture is strongly influenced by Islamic art and architecture,
should be a revelation to our audience.
How else does the NGA version of the Art Nouveau exhibition
differ from the V&A's?
It differs both in subtle and substantial ways. When the V&A started
its exhibition research, one of its points of departure was the 1900 Paris World's Fair itself, because the museum's mandate is to
use its own collection first and foremost to tell an important cultural or artistic story. The V&A had bought many works of art
from the 1900 World's Fair.
What is perhaps the most original part of the V&A's approach is its use of its unparallelled collections. No other museum in the
world could have done this, to show the sources of Art Nouveau in earlier epics of Islamic art, Japanese and Chinese art, rococo,
folk art. No other museum has the resources.
The V&A started with a definite historical framework. Our frame of reference was somewhat broader. We were at greater liberty to
look for the most spectacular works of art, regardless of their collecting history. The V&A decided not to borrow from the United
States and not to borrow as extensively from private collectors as we were inclined to do.
Since the Second World War, however, Americans have been at the forefront of the appreciation and collecting of Art Nouveau.
American dealers have become major resources and scholars of Art Nouveau and in turn have worked with American collectors who
have put together perhaps the greatest modern collections of Art Nouveau.
So, as curators, our approach was to find the most beautiful, the most essential, the most elegant, the most important works that
we could and to add or substitute those objects. As a consequence, of the 375 works we have in the exhibition in Washington, 150
were not seen in London. This is a significant difference, without changing significantly the structure of the exhibition.
Could you paint a picture of the NGA's internal approval process
for an exhibition like Art Nouveau?
There's a great deal of variation when another institution
organizes an exhibition. Typically we ask for a précis of the exhibition and a list of all works we would be expecting to borrow.
That's a reality test, because there may be works that can't be borrowed, for either legal or political reasons.
In the instance of Art Nouveau, Mark Leithauser, our chief of design, Susan Arensberg, our head of exhibition programs, and I met with the V&A
staff in London, and they presented the exhibition at an early stage of its development. We all were intrigued by it. Maybe
six or eight months later, the curator, Paul Greenhalgh, made a presentation to our exhibition committee. At that point, there was
discussion and playing with numbers to see how much the show would cost and whether we could afford it. Then, with the director's
approval, the proposal went to the arts and education committee and the Gallery's Board of Trustees. Both groups approved it,
and we were off and running.
What is the normal gestation period for a show of this magnitude?
In my experience the longest was nineteen years, and the shortest
for a major exhibition was six months.
It took nineteen years to realize plans for the Albertina old master drawings exhibition. Negotiations involved four successive
ambassadors. Finally the museum in Vienna agreed to lend Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer and many other timeless masterpieces.
It took only six months to organize the Aztec exhibition. The Mexican ambassador was leaving Washington to become foreign minister, and
after consulting with the government in Mexico City, he said, "We'd love for you to have an Aztec exhibition. Aztec is the soul of
modern Mexico. We'll give you all possible cooperation, but you would have to do it by such and such a date." Of course, we couldn't
imagine doing a major catalogue in six months, but somehow we did.
What role does the exhibitions department play once a proposal is
approved and you have a budget and a timetable for an exhibition?
At any one time our office may be working on fifty to sixty
exhibitions. The first and most complicated issue is coordinating and scheduling not only our administrative efforts but those
of other departments that are involved. To accomplish this, three exhibitions officers divide the projects among themselves.
Because the NGA typically opens twelve to fifteen exhibitions a year, each exhibitions officer manages four to five exhibitions
a year. But our planning horizon is four to five years ahead, so multiplying that out, you can see how complicated their balancing
We prepare a production schedule very early in the process. It starts with exhibition approval and goes literally through thank-you
letters to the lenders and the return of the works of art. The schedule is drawn up in consultation with several other critical
departments, like the editors office, the design and installation department, the curators, the treasurer's office, the
administrator's office. All of us agree that the dates are reasonable and practical, taking into consideration the other exhibitions
and projects on which these departments are working. We create a two-page outline noting all of the red-letter dates, and the
curator, the editor-in-chief, and I have to sign the document to indicate our acceptance of the plan. These dates become critical.
Another aspect of exhibitions overseen by my department is the tours. Many major exhibitions are shared with other institutions.
A show may travel to as many as four countries, involving four different cultural sensibilities and four different legal systems.
Art Nouveau is so big and complicated that one might think that it could not be shared, but a smaller version of the show is being sent
to Tokyo. It will be seen by the Japanese, whose culture exerted a powerful influence on Art Nouveau and who are fascinated with
the expressions of Art Nouveau. I think the exhibition will be extremely popular in Japan as well.
How many lenders and countries have participated in the
staging of this exhibition?
More than 150 lenders from fifteen different countries.
So throughout the entire development, construction, and presentation
of an exhibition, your department serves as a sort of ringmaster in a circus, making sure all of the acts are coordinated?
Some would say a ringmaster, some would say a ringleader, depending
on the exhibition and how they felt!
The NGA is one of a handful of large museums that has a person or persons dedicated to the coordination of exhibitions. This has
set up a small confraternity that allows us to get on the phone to one another and resolve a problem very quickly. We have worked
out so many loan agreements that we can, in a matter of minutes, negotiate the main logistical, administrative, and legal parameters
of exhibitions. We have worked together so many times that we have almost come to know how our colleagues think.
The NGA also has a large, very capable legal staff that can address new or deeply embedded local, domestic, or international legal
issues expeditiously and thoroughly. Because our in-house team of lawyers specializes in art law as well as publications and
copyright law as related to the art world and exhibitions, we have become a resource for the rest of the American and indeed
the international art community.
Working for the National Gallery of Art, we fully accept our responsibility to impart our experience to others in the museum
profession. We are only too happy to share the wisdom and tricks of the trade that we have learned along the way.