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​The Role of Art Exhibitions in Cultural Diplomacy and the World Economy

The circulation of art among countries has spread culture and knowledge across borders. Less recognized perhaps is its function in connecting leaders of different states and in providing financial benefit to the participants. Italian leaders have long understood these principles. In the Renaissance the Medici Grand Dukes often sent works of art from Florence to royal or ducal families across Europe.

by Ian Wardropper, Director The Frick Collection The great sculptor Giovanni da Bologna (1529-1608), for example, was the late-sixteenth-century master of the small bronze statuette, a portable and durable gift. His patrons sent small images of Mars or Venus to Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna, Elector Christian I of Saxony in Dresden, and Henry, Prince of Wales in London, hoping for favorable treatment in financial or political treaties. Duke Francesco de’ Medici may have delivered some of these gifts in person to the Emperor in Vienna in 1565. Naturally, much of Giambologna’s production was sold, rather than given, to foreign collectors, bringing money back into the Florentine economy and supporting the many members of a sculptor’s workshop. Finally, these small works spread Italian Mannerist style to every corner of the continent and thus dominated its artistic language well into the seventeenth century.

Art exhibitions have similar cultural, political, and economic functions today. The Frick Collection recently collaborated with the Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova in organizing an exhibition shown in New York and moving on to Possagno (Canova’s George Washington, November 10, 2018-April 22, 2019). At the heart of the exhibition is a lifesize marble statue that the great Italian Neoclassical sculptor made of America’s first president. The State of North Carolina turned to former president Thomas Jefferson for advice on who should carve this monument. Jefferson, who two decades earlier had chosen the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, for another statue of Washington, now proclaimed Canova as the only one to consider. Not only was Canova, and by extension Italy, considered to be the dominant artistic force of the day, but Jefferson also insisted that Italian marble from Carrara be the material. Sadly, this statue and the state capitol where it stood burned a decade after it arrived in Raleigh in 1821, but the exhibition reconstituted the statue through its plaster model and the other drawings and models Canova employed in its creation. What the exhibition, co-organized by the Frick chief curator Xavier Salomon, taught an American audience is that our image of Washington based on Gilbert Stuart’s painting and engraved on every dollar bill is not the only rendering we should consider. Canova’s very different portrait, based on a bust by another Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi (Washington had died by the time of Canova’s commission), may be closer to the truth. Canova’s concept of Washington as a reflective ruler turning over power to his successor also varies from the image most Americans carry of the ruler as a man of action.

This exhibition thus demonstrated the value of one country seeing itself through the lens of another, offering a political lesson and fostering good international relations. It was valuable also in other ways. Many American and Italian newspapers and television stations featured the exhibition–no fewer than four articles appeared in the New York Times–, bringing attention to the Frick and the Gypsotheca. This brought more visitors to the institution in New York and likely more tourists and Italians will travel to Possagno. Visitors to museum exhibitions have a multiplier effect on the local economy, as they stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. The success of the exhibition also brought credit to its sponsors, which included a financial institution, Fiduciary Trust Company International; art dealers such as Trinity Fine Art and Fabrizio Moretti; a foundation, the Foundation for Italian Art & Culture; and private individuals. International exhibitions are increasingly expensive to mount as the costs of packing and shipping, insurance, research, design and installation, catalogues, and other components rise each year. Enlightened supporters are essential for museums to continue these important projects.

I am proud to note that The Frick Collection is organizing no less than four exhibitions on Italian artists for 2019. These range from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries and represent territories from Rome and Florence to Milan and Bergamo. Luigi Valadier: Splendor in 18th-Century Rome is the first show in this country, accompanied by the first comprehensive publication, on the foremost Italian designer of decorative arts in this period. Moroni: The Richness of Renaissance Portraiture is the first major show on this artist in the US. Tiepolo in Milan: The Lost Frescoes of Palazzo Archinto recreates through oil sketches, drawings, and photographs a masterpiece lost in the Second World War. Finally, the sculptor who trained with Donatello and mentored Michelangelo, Bertoldo di Giovanni, is the subject of the first serious examination of the artist in a museum. Information on these shows can be found on our website

At their best, art exhibitions contribute to art historical and cultural knowledge. They also communicate cultural values from one country to another and can foster international relations. Finally, it should not be forgotten that they encourage tourism and bolster the economy of all of the countries they touch.


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