QAGOMA director Chris Saines said it was a triumph for Queensland, and a coup for Australia, to have such rare pieces in Brisbane for the first time, opening the doors for many to see famous paintings they might never otherwise see in real life.
He said the European Masterpieces exhibition would span the arc of Western art history from the 1420s, with Fra Angelico’s The Crucifixion, to Monet’s Water Lilies, painted in 1909.
The opportunity to bring such rare pieces of European art to Australian shores came about only because of The Met’s decision to renovate skylights in its famed European Galleries for the first time in 70 years, and a conversation Saines had with The Met’s chief executive Daniel H. Weiss in May 2018.
“I think they’d given some thought to the idea of potentially taking some of the work out of those galleries that are going to be in refurb and changeover mode, and touring them internationally,” Saines said.
“But it hasn’t crystallised, and I certainly wasn’t able to walk away from that meeting thinking it will happen.
“But because we had the conversation, about two or three months later they wrote to me and to Art Exhibitions Australia … and said, would you be interested? And that was of course an extremely easy email to respond to.”
It took three visits to New York to narrow down the arrangement and agree on the list of works to be sent to Brisbane, Saines said.
“Many works that ordinarily, even for a tour of this kind, they just wouldn’t release – I believe they were very, very generous in releasing far more works of that very sort of top-rank of work that they house many of,” he said.
“When you’re doing a major exhibition of this kind, you might get a certain proportion of them, and then a balance of works that act to supplement and support the stars, as it were, of the exhibition firmament.”
The agreement reached between The Met and QAGOMA, and the list of works, was of such quality that the exhibition would bring more “stars” than Saines expected at the start of the negotiation process.
Saines said the exhibition was the only tour The Met would operate next year, with the global art loans program between museums significantly slowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic – another boost to Queensland, as it put more artworks on the list that might otherwise have been unavailable.
The exhibition is being supported by the federal government’s international exhibitions insurance program, without which the cost of insurance for such artworks would be prohibitively expensive.
Spanning 500 years of European history, and telling stories and interpreting culture, religion and faith through art, the exhibition will give Queensland’s art and cultural scene a “remarkable gift”.
It will also specifically target anyone with no art history at all, with QAGOMA developing a strong interpretation program to explain each piece and its significance.
Max Hollein, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the exhibition would be presented with programs and workshops, talks and a major publication.
“It brings great joy to see such magnificent paintings, and the many stories they tell, come to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art,” Mr Hollein said.
Saines said that, in a time of global shutdown and difficulty, he hoped the exhibition would bring light to Queensland and be a positive sign of things to come.
“When I first presented this proposal to the Premier in 2018, without any prompting, her first response was, ‘Every child at a school in Queensland needs to see this exhibition’,” he said.
“This is a remarkable education in one building at one moment, and gives people a real sense of not just the span and narrative arc of art history, but it also shows the way in which artists of today are utterly informed by artists and artworks that preceded them.”
Queensland Arts Minister Leeanne Enoch, speaking at QAGOMA on Friday, said the exhibition would be an “immersive look into a unique world”.
“Let me tell you, this is quite frankly, absolutely remarkable,” Ms Enoch said.
Tickets are on-sale now at the QAGOMA website.
Lucy is the urban affairs reporter for the Brisbane Times, with a special interest in Brisbane City Council.