The Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase is known for its vast African Art Collection. Yonkers’ Hudson River Museum sits in the bucolic mecca of The Hudson River School. The Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art (HVCCA) in Peekskill—true to its name—focuses on contemporary works. And the Katonah Museum of Art (KMA), with no permanent collection of its own, stages a series of remarkably wide-ranging shows.
Though rarely considered by most visitors, the choreography behind a buzz-worthy exhibit begins several years—if not decades—before opening day at Westchester’s museums.
Every proposal starts with a committee that includes the curators, directors, education staff, and select board members or trustees, ranging in size from HVCCA’s four-man team to Katonah’s 12-person council. The top brass usually meet quarterly—with red pens in hand—to reject, revise, or archive suggestions.
They draw both from in-house ideas and increasingly popular companies that pedal traveling exhibitions like prefab homes. Tracy Fitzpatrick, chief curator of the Neuberger, schedules a continual whirlwind of visits to galleries, museums, and artist studios across the world just to keep up with developments in the field and seek inspiration.
For ideas that make the cut, the museum immediately starts raising funds to borrow pieces from other institutions. Requests require 18 to 24 months lead time to gain another museum’s trustee approval and to prepare the art for departure. After rounds of negotiations, the cost of loaning fees, insurance, and shipping can range from $100 to $10,000 per item. Collection-bearing houses like the Neuberger and Hudson River Museum naturally consult their own catalogs first to spare ever-tightening budgets. But even maintenance and restoration fees for a permanent collection set Westchester’s museums back up to six figures each year.
Once work is selected, the museum turns to its in-house curators, who make art selections, author text panels, train docents, and edit the official catalog (a task that can cost tens of thousands of dollars). At HVCCA, founders Marc and Livia Straus, who are listed in Art & Antiques magazine’s “Top 100 Collectors in America,” often curate shows. Other retrospectives require outside expertise. When the KMA presented Ancient Art of the Cyclades in 2006, only independent scholar Pat Getz-Gentle, PhD, knew third millennium BCE art from the Cycladic islands of the Aegean Sea well enough to lead the show.
It’s crating and shipping, though, that devour most of the budget. KMA doles out as much as $50,000 per show to ARTEX Fine Art Services (FedEx for art), though they haven’t used it in the past year. The Hudson River Museum’s Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth in fall 2010 included compositions from two-dozen different institutions, galleries, artists, and private collections.
Traveling shows can simplify these logistics. They charge a lump sum and provide previous hype and press. Roughly one quarter of the Hudson River Museum’s shows originate at other museums. The Neuberger’s 2012 show American Vanguards: JGraham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927-1942 was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts. But Westchester also serves as a primary exporter. The HVCCA’s After The Fall, which highlighted emerging contemporary artists who grew up in East and Central Europe during the transitional period between communism and democracy, finished up at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee in 2012.
Donors, member dues, corporate gifts, and a pastiche of grants from organizations such as ArtsWestchester and the National Endowment for the Arts fund this Kandinsky-like chaos. Because this is often not enough, the Neuberger also orchestrates an annual fall gala and spring auction. The end result for all four museums is an exhibition that runs three to four months.
As Watson notes, “It’s really hard to host great work, even good work, but we aren’t a monolithic institution and don’t do shows we don’t believe in. We’re a local necessity.”