In this episode of “The Kids Are Alright” podcast, American and Jordanian reporters examine how the art world is protecting culture and heritage.
By Isabella DeMarco
In this episode of the The Kids Are Alright podcast, American and Jordanian students learn more about what the art world is doing to preserve the cultural origins of pieces of art and artifacts.
Students Yoanna Gammoh, Tara Tarawneh and Masa Masri from King’s Academy in Jordan and News-Decoder’s Alexandra Grey report for this episode.
You’ll hear from the owner of an art gallery in Jordan, the president of a major international art auction house, a Smithsonian museum curator and two art historians.
Listeners will learn about how museums create interesting spaces to view art from abroad as well as the steps buyer, sellers and auction houses must follow to ensure transparent and fair sales.
Amber: Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast that explores big, global issues from a young and fresh perspective. I’m Amber Miller.
Gareth: And I’m Gareth Lewis. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students interested in learning more about the biggest issues facing the global community.
Amber: Art history students are often shocked to learn that a great deal of art and artifacts are permanently housed or on display long-term outside the countries they come from. This is easy to see here in London where many museums are grappling with repatriation claims.
Gareth: There are always new cases popping up about antiquities being returned to their countries of origin. And while there are cultural property laws, international treaties and intergovernmental organizations in place to address these cases, this episode delves into the motivations and challenges of bringing art and artifacts together from different regions of the world.
Amber: Four art enthusiasts sat down with leading experts and top students in the art world to learn more about what institutions are doing to promote culture abroad while preserving its origins and ethnic ties.
Alexandra: Hi there! I’m Alexandra and I studied art history at the American University of Paris. I have long been curious about what goes on behind the scenes to organize global auctions and exhibitions. Today, I’ll be speaking with a curator at one of the Smithsonian museums in the United States and the president of a major international auction house. Would you mind introducing yourselves?
Caroline: Hello, my name is Caroline O’Connell, and I am a curatorial assistant at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I’ve been at the museum for about three and a half years and previously I held another position in the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design department. I have a master’s in decorative arts, design history and material culture.
Dirk: My name is Dirk Boll. I’m the President of Christie’s in charge of a region we call EMEA that stands for Europe, Middle East and Africa. I have been working with Christie’s for 21 years. I was trained as a lawyer and did a postgraduate study in art management.
Alexandra: Caroline, how has the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum built up its collection of works from 84 different countries?
Caroline: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is unique, I think, especially in the United States. We are one of not very many design museums in the U.S., but we’re part of the Smithsonian, so we’re part of the largest research institute in the world. I believe there are 19 Smithsonian units, so we’re one of those. So I think we occupy an exciting and slightly unusual position. We’re not an enormous institution in terms of size, collection, personnel. We have just about 210,000 objects in our collection.
So, we were actually founded in 1896, which is right around the time when a lot of U.S. museums were being formed. And we were actually originally a part of the Cooper Union Art School, which is in downtown Manhattan, and the collection was founded, really, as a teaching collection. And it was heavily rooted in European art. And it was kind of modeled actually — this will be fun for you, Alexandra — after the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, so meant to provide budding American designers, American makers, American crafts people with inspiration from Europe so that perhaps their training didn’t necessarily mean having to go abroad. And the U.S. at this time, you know, is still really a nascent country, so there was quite a lot of anxiety about whether we were performing culturally at the same level as other countries.
So, at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. was financially really making a big dent in global markets and certainly geopolitically, but there was anxiety that culturally we were still lacking, so museums and the founding of art schools were really all tied into this mission to try to engender some homegrown creativity. So fast forwarding, you know, this last hundred years, I think, in some ways, we’ve come back around towards our original mission. We became part of the Smithsonian in the ’60s, and we moved uptown to our current location, and I think over time one of the exciting things is the institution has really shifted in its priorities a little bit.
So, our collections now, you know, we really aim to collect with a more global vision in mind, and I think we want to think more expansively about where, how, why we’re collecting these things so it’s not just to inspire budding designers. Of course, that’s always an exciting part of our mission, but I think now we want to make sure we’re presenting more narrative.
Alexandra: Dirk, could you walk us through Christie’s due diligence process prior to an international art sale?
Dirk: We have a detailed process at Christie’s covering the necessary due diligence, and that includes the ownership of an item, so the title. It includes the condition of the item; the authenticity of the artwork; the attribution, in case there is one, and, of course, the provenance. This is a process that continuously evolves and develops and also includes material research, academic advances, scientific research and other developments.
We put out items into the public sphere, and this is very important because otherwise that would be an illegitimate market because things are traded, and therefore we need to have a legitimate forum where everybody respects due diligence and the legal framework of a trade. So, at Christie’s we use all external research resources such as UNESCO, Interpol. Every item we trade, every catalog is submitted to the Art Loss Register to make sure that we are working within the legal framework. And we think that space within the legal framework is extremely important to have that legitimate market for works of the art of the ancient world in which we actually have participated in since 1766.
Alexandra: How have you worked across borders to organize an exhibition or sale?
Caroline: So, probably the best example I can give is the one of the most recent shows I worked on which was our Triennial, which was organized around the theme of nature. So, our Triennials are every threes years, of course. This is the sixth in the series, and this is the first time we had done something like this in that we had international, active international collaborators on the organizational side. And that was a really new and exciting challenge for us.
So, to give you a little more context, we actually co-organized this triennial with Cube Design Museum in Kerkrade in the Netherlands. So, what it meant is that we were asking designers — really we were trying to create two parallel shows — so in a lot of cases we were showing almost the same or as close as we could, projects and each institution. So, that was exciting, and, you know, the thinking was that it would really increase the kind of, as you say, global reach of this type of an exhibition.
These Triennials tend to be on really broad themes, and they’re meant to, kind of, provide a window into the pulse of, you know, kind of take the pulse of contemporary design threads, you know, trends, we’re seeing, things we’re excited about, and kind of look at it from a broad thematic perspective. So, because one of the missions is to be emphatically international in terms of designers and types of projects and the ways that they’re being integrated, it made a lot of sense to have an international partner. Now what that meant from a kind of organizational and administrative standpoint, was, you know, a lot more, kind of, back and forth, which was exciting and certainly challenging. So, as I mentioned, you know, because the triennial is, is emphatically contemporary, and a lot of the pieces we show are not just new from the last three years but they actually might be brand new just for this exhibition, it meant that we asked a lot of our designers too, and that was something new as well. So, if they were creating new work for the exhibition, we were essentially saying, “Great, is there any way you could create two of these so that we could show them at our at Cube as well as at Cooper Hewitt?”
So, this is, as I said, this is the first time we have done something like that, and, you know, we’ve been really happy with the results. It’s exciting. The exhibitions, of course, don’t look exactly the same, even though there are a lot of similar projects. The exhibition design varies a little bit, and I always joke there’s a kind of irony there. Here we are in this historic Gilded Age building, and Cube Design Museum is very much a white cube. So, they’re kind of environmental factors, the architecture, even things like regulations with how to hang things, all of that — very, very different between the two institutions.
Dirk: The due diligence process is the same no matter what type of item we are selling or we are offering. So, the due diligence process is irrespective of the content of the sale, so we do everything in the same way for every kind of item. And then you have particular items where you need a special due diligence, so for example you need to do CITES (Eds: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) checks. For example, whether your item contains protected materials like ivory, rosewood or other flora and fauna. The CITES is closely connected to import and export regulations because some materials are not allowed to be moved or to be traded. And, of course, there are a wide range of other export regulations such as the protection of cultural heritage. The granting of an export license is part of the due diligence process, and it’s the export from the country of location prior to sale. Then we have a due diligence process on the seller, either the person or the company, and the same due diligence process on registered bidders. And this you can imagine as a “know your client” process, a KYC process a bank would do for when you would open an account.
Alexandra: It would appear that even with proper due diligence and international cooperation, auction houses and museums today are still quite self-conscious about the origin of their foreign artwork, whether the objects come from archaeological sites, previously colonized countries or warn-torn environments. How can institutions strike the right balance when showcasing works from around the world?
Dirk: Well, I think that observation is accurate, actually, and as we all know, these items were exported from countries of origin since the 16th-17th century, so they are all over the world, and therefore it is very important to create a, as I call it, a legitimate forum for that, be it a marketplace, be it a place to exhibit and discuss these items. I think it is important to have that out in the public sphere rather than behind closed curtains, and therefore the legal framework is incredibly important market where we move collectors items from one generation of collectors to the next, but also for institutions and museums exhibiting these items.
Caroline: Hmm, that’s a great question. No, I think I would just say that one of the things that’s exciting is that I think more and more museums are working on exhibitions that are collaborative, and I think that extends in a number of ways. They’re collaborative with other institutions, and that’s not a new thing. They’re collaborative with other peoples or with other countries, and I think that really gets to the heart of the role of cultural institutions. We can be these connectors. And I see that as one of the most exciting but also the most challenging parts of the job. So, whether that’s the nitty gritty, for example, of international shipping and creating costs — a huge part of a budgetary consideration for an international exhibition, and sometimes one that is prohibitive. But it’s also, I think, from these kinds of problems, questions, design concerns that we get some of the most rewarding creative work, and that we’re able to tell the most, as I say, relevant stories because we are interconnected these days on a number of levels.
Gareth: After her interviews with Caroline and Dirk, Alexandra touched based with her fellow reporters, Yoanna, Tara and Masa, in the Middle East. Based in Madaba, Jordan, they wondered about the Middle Eastern art that has ended up in the United States and Europe and how the cultural context of a piece changes its identity. They asked an owner of an art gallery and two historians for their thoughts.
Ghassan Gammoh: Hi my name is Ghassan Gammoh. I am an Art History teacher at King’s Academy, and I studied art in university. I think that all art takes on a new identity and a new meaning based on the context, right? So, depending on the audience that is viewing an art piece, it will gain new meaning. So, if you have, for example, the Lamassu that were from Iraq and they’re placed in New York City at the Met Museum and someone from the United States or someone from Canada comes and sees this piece, they might appreciate it as a Western audience for reasons other than what Iraqis might’ve appreciated it for, and that might be due to people’s different, you know, interests and understandings of style and visual elements. I think that all art really gains its meaning and gains its function from how people internalize it and how people and audiences react to it.
So, I think in all contexts the art does change meaning and does change function. I think that a nice strategy for museum curators and artists is that art be, you know, art take a tour around the world— that pieces move from place to place just like people do, because artworks are a testament of human stories, I think they can help a lot in us understanding our place in this larger world of globalization.
Something that seems fair, to me, is that art moves, that art should be able to move and take on — as we started this interview — taking on new life and new meanings wherever it goes. But I think that just as the West has benefited so much from, you know, the art of other cultures — right now I’m thinking about how so many Western art movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were inspired by like African objects from Ghana and from Nigeria and from Benin and from all these different places, I think that those places deserve to be inspired, to be recognized but then also to, you know, see the impact and understand the impact they have had on the West. So, Western art, there needs to be a recognition of that and an homage being paid, and I don’t see anything wrong with Western art being shared with those different countries and those different continents that haven’t necessarily had access to them because we can learn from all kinds of art from all cultures, and it comes with a story and it comes with an identity.
Majdoline Al-Ghezawi Al-Ghoul: My name is Ms. Majdoline Al-Ghezawi Al-Ghoul. I’ve been having Dar Al-And gallery for more than 22 years. I appreciated art all my life, and me and my husband are collectors of Middle Eastern art. There is a lot of foreign art, valuable artworks, like in Egypt. The Egyptians were among the cultured, upper class art-appreciating families of Egypt. They were buying, so there’s a lot of Monets, Picassos, Gauguins, I mean you name it, you would find it. And lucky enough, they are aware of these things, so many of the old palaces through, when it was a kingdom, turned into public galleries, sorry, museums, and they are showing these valuable pieces. Unfortunately, we lack the funding and sponsoring of getting these things in, and the insurance is very high, handling is very high. It’s a big responsibility, but we’re getting there. But again, like, for in Jordan, as in Jordan, its limited resources — we’re very new but there’s a lot of activities. But, unfortunately, the absence of the Minister of Culture, and like there’s no, no organizations that would sponsor such things, and again we’re lacking funds as well. But globalization is very important because I do believe, these are like — heritage, culture, art — it’s an international language, even if you don’t speak a language of — any like, we don’t know the foreign language that we’re talking or we don’t know like hieroglyphics — but when you go there, you would feel that this is a foreign, like, thing but everybody from all over the world would come and see this civilization, and there you know, like temples, and all that.
John: I think one of the things about this century is of course the digitization of everything. You really could stay home and see art from around the world today. However, it does not replace seeing it for real and seeing it in context with other people. I was just in Japan, and I found out the Japanese love going to art shows, both of Japanese art and Western art. And I also learned you are not to talk as you look at the art. You’re supposed to just be silent, so of course I chatted to somebody, wanted to talk about the art, and was told, “That’s not how we do things.” What I think was wonderful was that the Japanese were trying to figure out how the Western art fit into what they know about art, and I think it’s very healthy and exciting to see art of somebody else’s society. However, the whole thing of just saying: “Well ,I am the only one who can maintain this and we have better funding,” is not going to help create better spaces.
Gareth: Art historian John Lesitler makes an interesting closing point: There’s a fine line between protecting art for future generations and acting as a cultural guardian. Our top priority is to protect and preserve art — keep it safe and present it in a legitimate, legal forum so that generations to come can appreciate pieces of our common heritage and ancestry. But the owners and context in which works of art are presented do matter.
Amber: It’s worth considering how an exhibition space alters viewers’ understanding of past civilizations, while still upholding the collaborative spirit of the international art world. There seems to be no one answer to the big question, “Where does art belong?” but there are exciting and innovative solutions out there that allow people to appreciate the artwork of foreign cultures.
Gareth: You’ve been listening to an episode of The Kids Are Alright, brought to you by Podium.me and News-Decoder. We hope you tune in for our next episode on democracy in South Africa.