Masterpieces for Rent at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883). Photo: courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Bougival is one of the highlights of the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA), but many visitors don’t get to see it. As reported by the Boston Globe, the museum has lent the painting to other institutions for more than a third of the last four years, as part of its growing program of renting out its biggest masterpieces in exchange for cash. The Renoir has earned the MFA $5 million this year alone.

This seemingly innocuous practice can lead to problems, however, when too many major works are loaned out at once. A year and a half ago, for instance, visitors were denied the chance to see all five of the MFA’s Cezannes, five of its six Manet, two Van Goghs,  major works by Velázquez, El Greco, Degas, Rembrandt, Sargent, Copley, Munch, Courbet, and Picasso, and, yes, Dance at Bougival.

These for-profit loans have caused some museum trustees to resign. “Our primary responsibility as Trustees is to safeguard the art,” trustee Margaret Koerner told the Globe. “If these works are placed at risk too often and without sufficient justification, then we are not fulfilling that obligation.”

Director Malcolm Rogers pointed to “a strong missionary reason for lending abroad,” telling the Globe that “to bring it all down to money is rather crude.”

The MFA’s practice stands in sharp contrast to that of many other museums. Vermeer’s iconic Girl With a Pearl Earring, for instance, recently undertook a bit of a world tour while the Hague’s Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery was closed for a two-year renovation. Now that the museum has reopened, however, the painting will be staying put, so as to not disappoint visitors who have come specifically to see it (see artnet News report).

Many museums only lend their major works during gallery closures. Other blockbuster paintings that never leave home include Las Meninas by Velázquez at Madrid’s Prado, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, and Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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