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Critic’s Notebook

MFA expands loans of well-known works

“Dance at Bougival,” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, has been on loan from the MFA for more than one-third of the time in the past four years.

Museum of Fine Arts

“Dance at Bougival,” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, has been on loan from the MFA for more than one-third of the time in the past four years.

Pierre-August Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” is on the cover of the Museum of Fine Arts’s highlights handbook for a simple reason: It’s one of the museum’s most beloved works.

It’s also one of Renoir’s greatest. Six feet high and more than 3 feet wide, it shows a handsome couple dressed in the latest summer fashions, dancing at an open-air cafe on the outskirts of Paris. The chalky pink dress of the woman — who was modeled by the trapeze artist and painter Suzanne Valadon — fans out around her feet as she twirls. The man, modeled by Renoir’s friend Paul Auguste Llhote, leans in amorously. (Llhote was a well-known seducer).

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“Dance at Bougival” is not quite the MFA’s “Mona Lisa,” but it’s close. It’s one of a handful of pictures out-of-town visitors come to the museum eager to see.

But if you visited the MFA on any given day over the past four years, there was a good chance you would have missed it. That’s because, for more than a third of the time, it was elsewhere.

Between January and July in 2010, “Dance at Bougival” was on display in Japan, first in Tokyo, then in Osaka. From October 2013 until April last year, it was in Vicenza and Verona, two cities in northern Italy. Six months later, it was sent back to Tokyo, whence it traveled to Fukuoka, and then on to Kyoto.

All in all, “Dance at Bougival” was on display in these foreign cities for 17 months, not including preparation and travel time. And at each of the eight venues it went to, it was earning money for the MFA.

“Dance at Bougival” is by no means the only MFA masterpiece that is frequently absent.

‘Our primary responsibility as Trustees is to safeguard the art. If these works are placed at risk too often and without sufficient justification, then we are not fulfilling that obligation.’

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Eighteen months after the museum’s director Malcolm Rogers acknowledged, in an interview with the Globe, there was a “traffic jam” of missing masterpieces — works of art lent out from the MFA’s galleries, often in return for substantial fees — the museum continues to ramp up its practice of raising revenue by renting out dozens of its most prestigious works, putting the MFA at odds with comparable museums across the country.

The practice has seen such MFA masterpieces as Monet’s “Grainstack,” Van Gogh’s “Postman Joseph Roulin,” and Degas’s “Edmondo and Therese Morbilli” sent to fee-paying museums in Japan, to the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, and to shows in northern Italy organized by Linea d’Ombra, a profit-making company that organizes blockbuster exhibitions with a thin scholarly veneer in hired venues, bypassing Italy’s state-run museum system.

The practice has also contributed to tensions between the MFA’s management and some of its trustees, at least three of whom have resigned this year.

Margaret Koerner, an art historian who was a trustee, acknowledges that the MFA’s leasing practice was the principal reason for her departure. Responding to the Globe by e-mail, she wrote: “Our primary responsibility as Trustees is to safeguard the art. If these works are placed at risk too often and without sufficient justification, then we are not fulfilling that obligation.”

Serving trustees contacted by the Globe also expressed concern about the leasing practice but would not speak on the record.

Rogers, who recently announced plans to retire, contends that the rentals conform with the MFA’s ambition to share the museum’s collection with audiences around the world.

The MFA has “a strong missionary reason for lending abroad,” he told the Globe in a phone interview from England. “To bring it all down to money is rather crude.”

But MFA board members familiar with the museum’s financial situation have told the Globe the fee-based loans, which they said have brought in earnings approximating $5 million this year, are also about paying down debt and balancing the budget.

Rogers and his deputy director, Katie Getchell, say the MFA is in line with other museums, which pursue similar fee-based loans. “It surprises me that this has become such a big thing here’’ in Boston, Getchell says. “It surprises my colleagues at other museums, too.”

But the directors of two of the museums Getchell cited as having loan-for-fees programs that compare with, or go beyond, the MFA’s program told the Globe they have no such programs.

“Lending exhibitions for fees is categorically not part of our business model,” said Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He listed five exceptions to this policy since 2009, each one a traveling exhibition that brought in fees. All either coincided with the closure of a gallery for renovations or had some other one-off strategic purpose.

The Met, Campbell said, does not exploit such shows “to underwrite our expenses or operating costs. We don’t lend to or organize exhibitions through companies like Linea d’Ombra or other for-profit organizations.”

Michael Conforti, the director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown — another museum cited by MFA leadership as pursuing a comparable program of loans for fees — was eager not to be seen as criticizing the MFA. He noted that lending art works in exchange for fees was not only “discussable” but “doable” when it was in the interests of both parties.

But of the Clark, he said: “We have never sent a single object out on loan for a fee. We don’t participate in those kinds of projects.”

Deborah Ziska, the chief of press and public information at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, reported that the NGA only attaches fees when it lends exhibitions or large groups of works during periods of major gallery renovation. “The fees are not a regular source of revenue,” she said. She said the gallery does not work with Linea d’Ombra “except when it lends small numbers of works to their exhibitions,” and it does not charge fees that go beyond covering costs.

Walter Petersen, the director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, refused to discuss fees but reported that the institute lends out its collections for fees “rarely, and typically only when works will be off-view due to renovations or extended gallery work.”

Things are different at the MFA. Eighteen months ago, the museum had lent out — simultaneously, and in most cases for fees — all five of its paintings by Cezanne, five of its six paintings by Manet, its two great Van Gogh portraits, and its most famous Renoir, along with major paintings by Velazquez, El Greco, Degas, Rembrandt, Sargent, Copley, Munch, Courbet, and Picasso.

Asked whether any measures have been put in place at the MFA to prevent a similar “traffic jam” of missing masterpieces from happening again, Rogers said: “We’re generally more vigilant. We look very much at how often these things have been loaned. We don’t want that kind of traffic jam to happen.”

Yet lending for fees continues as the museum ratchets up its earnings from the practice, and iconic works of art continue to be absent for long stretches from the MFA’s walls.

Enriching new audiences

Of course, all the museums mentioned above, including the MFA, lend generously to exhibitions organized by other museums — locally, nationally, and internationally. They also organize exhibitions of works drawn entirely from their own collections exclusively for the purpose of traveling.

All these loans, which share works from the collection with new audiences, might encourage reciprocal loans or bring other benefits. Traditionally, they do not incur fees that go beyond the costs associated with transportation and security.

But over the past decade, even as it continues to lend generously in this way, the MFA appears to have become more financially reliant on the revenue it raises by organizing fee-based shows of its own or by lending groups of individual works to commercial enterprises such as Linea d’Ombra.

Although the MFA is by no means the only museum converting its art works into cash — the practice has become more widespread in recent years — the Globe has been unable to find another major American museum renting out so many of its most prestigious works of art so frequently.

Between 2006 and 2013, 10 of the MFA’s 37 paintings by Claude Monet were rented out for more than three years each, according to MFA documents obtained by the Globe. Most of the other 27 Monets have also been rented out for extended periods.

Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From, Who Are We, Where Are We Going?” — perhaps the most prestigious single work in the MFA’s collection — was only very rarely allowed to travel until recently; it was considered both too fragile, and too important.

But in the past five years, it has been rented out to four different venues for approximately 14 months, the MFA’s spokeswoman said.

Van Gogh’s “Postman Joseph Roulin,” meanwhile, has been rented out for more than 19 months since 2005, as the MFA acknowledges. The painting, which is on the cover of “Director’s Choice,” a book of museum highlights selected by Rogers, spent three months earlier this year in Japan — part of a revenue-earning exhibition called “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”

It will return to the same show when it travels from Japan to Quebec and San Francisco, from the middle of next year until early 2016.

The Van Gogh painting’s celebrated companion piece, “Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse),” has spent more than six months since late 2012 away from the museum earning fees. It is presently in the Japanese leg of “Looking East” and won’t return to Boston until mid-May next year.

But these figures present only a small slice of a bigger picture. Dozens of other prestigious works, by Rembrandt, Munch, El Greco, Cassatt, Velazquez, Picasso, Sargent, Pissarro, Homer, Millet, Manet, Cezanne, and Degas, among others, are being rented out on a regular basis.

And in most cases, they have also been sent out for substantial periods of time for non-fee-paying loans.

Thus, the Museum of Fine Art’s great Gauguin has been away for a total of almost two years since late 2006, while Van Gogh’s “Postman Joseph Roulin” has been away for a total of 28 months over the past 10 years. (That’s not counting the seven months it will stay away in 2015-16.)

And “Dance at Bougival,” which only recently returned to the museum’s gallery walls after spending seven months earning money in Japan, will be on loan again to an important, non-fee-paying exhibition for an entire year, beginning in October.

The MFA has also spent several years planning yet another major revenue-earning exhibition, to be called “Great Collectors.” The show, which would tour three venues in Japan for 12 months in 2017-2018, has not yet been approved by the board.

Getchell, the museum’s deputy director, said “Great Collectors” would try to “tell the story of how the [MFA] collection formed.” A provisional list of proposed objects obtained by the Globe indicates it would include both Van Gogh portraits of the Roulins, a Rouen Cathedral facade and a “Water Lilies” by Monet, major works by Sargent, Copley, and Cezanne, and a long list of Egyptian and Asian masterpieces, including Chinese ink paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries and Japanese masterpieces from the 18th century.

MFA leadership justifies these fee-based loans with a number of arguments. Above all, they stress the salutary effects of sharing great art with people in other parts of the world — especially those who don’t have access to collections as extensive and remarkable as the Boston museum’s.

“We want the widest possible audience,” Getchell said.

Defending the regular loans to the Bellagio hotel and casino, she asked: “Where else are the people of Las Vegas going to see fine works of art? School groups go to that gallery to see our works. We think of it as serving an underserved local population.”

Japan, similarly, might have a voracious museum-going public, but not many of its museums, Getchell said, have the kinds of collections that would allow them to offer reciprocal loans.

Backed by media conglomerates that organize and publicize imported exhibitions, these places expect to pay fees.

Rogers and Getchell argue that the fee-based MFA on Tour shows help promote the museum and the city of Boston and might even go on to generate gifts and sponsorships from new sources. (As an example, Getchell cites “high-level” meetings with representatives of Toshiba in the wake of the MFA’s successful multivenue “Japanese Masterpieces” exhibit in Japan last year.)

When the traveling shows are devoted to particular areas of the permanent collection — Islamic art, Japanese art, Classical art, Impressionist art — money raised from fees, they say, can also be put toward conservation of works in those collection areas, new staff hires, and renovations to the relevant galleries.

Fees brought in by “Looking East,” for instance, paid for more than a year of intensive conservation work on Monet’s “La Japonaise,” which was too delicate to travel before its treatment, said Matthew Siegal, the MFA’s chairman of collections and conservation management.

It now graces the cover of the Japanese catalog of “Looking East” and will be away from the MFA until late May or June next year.

Damaging works, audiences

All this sounds laudable. But it is hard not to treat the museum’s claims about what its fee-based loans pay for with some skepticism. The revenue brought in by fees, in the end, is fungible, and while some of it might be earmarked for the purposes specified by the MFA, it also goes to help the bottom line.

In the meantime, many of the galleries dedicated to relevant areas of the collection continue to languish; Asian masterpieces that have dazzled audiences in Japan and China have been returned to storage in Boston; and senior curatorial appointments have been left open for long stretches.

All these arguments, in any case, ignore the core issue, which is that MFA masterpieces are being treated as cash cows and spending long stretches away from the museum’s walls. The amount of traveling some of these works have endured also has to be a major concern.

“There are always risks to the integrity of a work of art when it is taken down, crated, shipped, uncrated, and installed,” said James Cuno, the president and chief executive of the James Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, in an e-mail to the Globe. “And those risks should never be minimized. They should only be undertaken for extraordinary reasons.”

The MFA’s arguments about sharing its enormous collection might be more persuasive if the vast majority of the works sent out on loan in return for fees were drawn from storage (where something like 96 percent of the collection, on average, resides at any given time).

Many are taken from storage. But the economic reality is that, while the MFA can assemble very good and even outstanding works mostly from storage and command a fee of, say, several hundred thousand dollars, it knows that if it also includes Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival,” a great Rembrandt, several first-rate Monets, or better yet, all of the above, the potential fee will increase exponentially.

Exhibition organizers such as Linea d’Ombra need exactly those kinds of works if they are going to create the event glamour, the blockbuster frisson needed to attract huge audiences and recoup their expenses. And so the pressure is always on to throw those same prestigious works into the mix.

It is pressure the MFA seems unable to resist.

Speaking generally of the practice of lending art works in exchange for fees, the Met’s Campbell said, “It’s a slippery slope. And I’m not sure it’s worth the return. You’re going to send precious, rare objects on the road for perhaps a million dollars. You’re exposing them to risk of all kinds in return for cash.”

The MFA presents its loan-for-fees program as a win for the museum and an art-hungry world alike. But works of art are singular. They can’t be in two places at once, so someone inevitably loses.

Very often, it is the people of Boston, the MFA’s members, the city’s art students, teachers, scholars, and its out-of-town guests, who pay considerable entrance fees in the expectation that they will see one of the world’s greatest collections of art. They often come away having failed to see many of the masterpieces that make the MFA famous. What should have been an overwhelming experience might turn out to be merely very good.

Getchell said, “We don’t get a lot of complaints from people who come and don’t see something they were looking for.”

But it’s asking a lot to expect people to complain about what they can’t see. Are schoolchildren or college students who could have — but didn’t — see Van Gogh’s “Postman Roulin” really going to protest? Are interstate or overseas visitors? It’s doubtful, unless someone tells them what is missing and why.

Often, the MFA, blessed as it is to have two Rouen cathedral facades or two “Grainstacks” by Monet, treats one of them as somehow spare, or usefully redundant (as if it had two Lionel Messi World Cup player cards and could, on a hot day, trade one for an ice cream). But of course, Monet painted the same motifs under changing light conditions for a reason. And if an art museum is lucky enough to own two in a series, they should be shown in the same room whenever possible.

It’s the same with the Van Gogh portraits of the Roulins. What are these two portraits about if not intimacy, particularity, and the persistent oddity of human unions? These works ought to be shown together, rather than clocked in and out on an alternating basis.

Despite its denials, when it comes to renting out its most prestigious works on a regular basis, the MFA is out on a limb. Even museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York that earn substantial fees from loans put a wall around their most prestigious works.

MoMA’s director of communications, Margaret Doyle, confirmed that it does not send out key works such as Cezanne’s “Bather,” Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” or Matisse’s “The Red Studio” to raise revenue. Why? Because of “the expectations of our visitors in terms of seeing these cornerstones of the collection on view in our galleries,” she told the Globe.

The MFA’s great Gauguin, its Van Gogh portraits, its “Artist in the Studio” by Rembrandt, its “Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair,” and its “Don Baltazar Carlos with a Dwarf” by Velazquez are equivalent to those modern masterpieces at MoMA.

The MFA is different from the Met and most comparable museums (although not from MoMA) because it receives less than 1 percent of its revenue from the government. More than 60 percent of its annual revenue is earned. This adds constant pressure to the budget.

But Campbell’s slippery slope argument is real. Many US museums are in more precarious circumstances than the MFA, which has an endowment of $584 million.

If smaller institutions with great (and easily monetized) collections like the Detroit Institute of Art, the Worcester Art Museum, or the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, see the MFA regularly monetizing its more prestigious works, they will probably be pressured to follow suit in order to solve short-term budget issues.

The long-term risk is that many of America’s greatest museums might become like glorified rental facilities, their most celebrated art works treated as chips in a bigger game of profit-making and civic diplomacy.

There are obvious costs to playing this game. Campbell, who noted that “there is certainly more discussion of [loans for fees] in the industry” of late, said he is concerned in part because the Met organizes more than 30 exhibitions a year. “We depend for those exhibitions on the good will of other institutions we’re asking to lend works to us.”

His fear, echoed by Cuno, the Getty Trust executive, is that as museums increasingly charge fees, there will be a “copycat process” — more and more museums will charge fees when they receive requests for loans, and it will become harder and harder to put on important shows.

“Adding a leasing fee can make it impossible for museums to organize important and increasingly expensive exhibitions,” Cuno said.

Curators might find, too, that key works will be unavailable for significant shows because they are away for long stretches, under contract, earning money.

Donors, Campbell noted, give objects to a museum in order to make them available for display in that museum’s galleries. They’re generally supportive of lending those works to exhibitions in other museums. But, he said, “they don’t expect them to be used to raise cash.”

It follows that the MFA also risks alienating potential donors who fear that the works of art they are considering giving to Boston will be used as cash cows. Many potential gifts hang in the balance at this very moment.

Rogers said lending works in return for fees will be a trend of the future: “Museums are going to be doing it more and more.”

If they do, they might, as Anna Somers Cocks, the founder, editor, and chief executive of The Art Newspaper has warned, find that they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

“After all,” she wrote in a 2008 column, “why should [museums] be deserving of tax-free status, of donations from business and the rich, of being considered superior to ordinary commercial life if they themselves become so commercial as to rent [out] their collections?”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Correction: Deborah Ziska’s name was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.

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