How Do You Get 150 Picassos to Come Visit Seattle? Schmooze, Court, and Cajole

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Yesterday's announcement that the Seattle Art Museum will be hosting a major traveling show this fall from the National Picasso Museum in Paris--the first of only a few cities on the U.S. itinerary--was front-page news in the Seattle Times. Yet there was nothing in the story about how exactly SAM had won this prize, a guaranteed blockbuster.

It got us wondering: Does this kind of thing basically come down to a bidding war between museums? Or is it more like wooing a Boeing plant, with offers of tax breaks and maybe a share of ticket proceeds? Or perhaps it's more like trying to get the orthodontists to hold their annual convention in your city, as you try to convince the lending museum that your metropolis is vibrant and appealing.

Different traveling exhibits have different ground rules, says SAM's PR director Cara Egan. Some shows are just offered up for a price, and you either want them or you don't. Others emerge from a more complex negotiation and partnering.

"This one in particular," says Egan, "was years and years of courting."

The home of the Picasso Museum.
In early 2008, SAM was about to host a big traveling show of Roman art from the Louvre, and "a lot of the [SAM] leadership was in Paris, talking to other institutions," says Egan. That's when SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa, along with then-director Mimi Gates, first approached the head of the Picasso Museum, Anne Baldassari.

Baldassari had never visited Seattle (and still hasn't), but Ishikawa says, "Seattle has a presence overseas. There's an impression of it as a lively, exciting place to be."

The museum showed her info about SAM, the recent expansion, the many new gifts to the collection, the Sculpture Park, and the community in general. Baldassari was drawn to the fact that there had never been a major Picasso exhibit in the Northwest, Ishikawa says.

"We have all this post-war art [at SAM], whose foundation is Picasso," she says. Yet SAM has no Picasso paintings or sculptures, "and there's almost none in the [local] private collections as well." By turning to the Picasso Museum, SAM gets work that covers the span of the artist's career.

Luckily enough, Baldassari recently closed her museum for renovations. That worked for SAM's timing. Says Ishikawa: "Things fell into place for both of us.

"We also kind of hit it off personally," she says.

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