"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," Polonius advises son Laertes in "Hamlet." Good advice to sons, but not to museum directors.
Lending artworks from the permanent collection to other institutions for big exhibitions is one of the functions of a museum. Without loans, the blockbusters that bring in the crowds — like the Philadelphia Museum of Art's just-closed Van Gogh exhibition seen by more than 250,000 visitors in three months or the National Gallery of Art's current Joan Miro retrospective — would not be possible.
But lending creates a recurring dilemma for museums: By definition, museums only get requests for the most prized works in their permanent collections — and a painting that's on loan is not hanging in its usual space. So how do you loan significant pieces in the collection and satisfy your loyal visitors at the same time?
"There's definitely a tension," said Sylvia Yount, chief curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. This week, the VMFA agreed to loan one of its most sought-after paintings — Edward Hopper's "House at Dusk" (1935) — to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid for a major Hopper show.
For the VMFA, it was a wrench. The last time the Hopper went on loan was to the National Gallery in Washington in 2007. "It's one of our icons and very often requested, but we like to keep it at home, and we're very selective," Ms. Yount said. "But lending is also what museums do."
To sweeten the deal, the Thyssen agreed to lend the VMFA "Portrait of Helena de Kay" (circa 1872) by Winslow Homer, a painting rarely seen in this country — and now on show in Richmond.
"It's a balancing act," concedes Joseph J. Rishel, senior curator of European paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "but we have a very liberal lending policy."
Mr. Rishel said their most frequently requested work is Salvador Dali's painting "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)" (1936) because it is so representative of the artist's surrealist style. But the museum's large collection of Impressionists is also much in demand. "Our Pisarros are always coming and going," he said.
The Philadelphia Museum supports the loan system in part because it's a two-way street, Mr. Rishel said. The museum is borrowing about 40 works from public and private collections in the country and abroad — not an exceptionally large number for a blockbuster — for its show, "Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia," opening June 20. But, Mr. Rishel observed, museums also have a second, more scholarly, motivation to share: Paintings tend to reveal more when seen together in a special exhibition than in the context in which they are normally seen.
At Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, "the two perennial favorites" for loan requests, says Nancy Zinn, associate director of collections and exhibitions, are Claude Monet's "Springtime" (1872) and Paolo Veronese's "Portrait of Livia da Porto Thieni" (1532).
Walters' lending policy — posted, like those of many museums, on its website — includes "making sure that the borrower meets our required standards for security, climate conditions, etc." said Ms. Zinn. And the rules specify that the mayor of Baltimore has to be notified of any planned loan. (There is a mayor's representative on the board.)
"One of our most asked-for paintings" is how National Gallery of Art director Earl "Rusty" Powell described Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra de Benci. They can ask; but they don't receive. The only da Vinci painting in North and South America is so closely guarded that Ginevra — who was quite a girl in her day — leaves the NGA less often than a cloistered nun leaves the convent — in fact, not at all.
"Our Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces from the Chester Dale collection are also some of the most requested works of all," according to NGA spokeswoman Deborah Ziska. But the gallery is legally barred from loaning them, as stipulated by the New York banker who donated them.
Almost the same goes for the Phillips Collection's most consistently sought-after painting, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." It last left the Phillips as part of an exhibition of works from the collection in 2002, when the gallery was being renovated.
Apart from Renoir's masterpiece and works by Paul Klee, which are quite fragile, and by Mark Rothko, the Phillips "embraces a generous loan policy," in which "each request is evaluated on a case-by-case basis," the museum said in a statement.
Experts say lending among museums had fallen off because the global economic crisis has forced them to cut back on expenditures. You'd hardly know it from the number of current or impending major shows in and around Washington. The NGA has the Miro retrospective, while the VMFA offers "Maharaja: The Splendors of India's Great Kings." At the Walters, the intriguing "Paradise Imagined: The Garden in the Islamic and the Christian World" opens later this month. And that's just a sampling.