Bug Infestations at Museums Surged During Lockdown. Here’s How They Are Fighting Back to Defend Their Art From Pesky Critters

What’s a museum conservator’s greatest enemy? If your mind went straight to men in ski masks, disorderly visitors, or even climate-related threats, you’d be wrong. A much more banal threat haunts these experts’ nightmares: bugs.

And the problem has only gotten worse lately. Many pests are most active in the springtime. Thus, conservators were alarmed when museums were forced to lock down at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

“The combination of spring breeding season and dark, undisturbed galleries with no visitors as a result of lockdowns created favorable conditions for pests to thrive,” Madeline Corona, assistant conservator, decorative arts and sculpture conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, told Midnight Publishing Group News recently. “It’s no surprise that museums all over the world saw an uptick in pest activity during this time.”

At the Getty, shortly after lockdown began in the spring 2020, routine pest monitoring revealed an uptick in the number of webbing clothes moths in some of the decorative arts galleries. Having located the unwelcome guests hiding around one of the South Pavilion decorative arts galleries’ most popular works—the pink 18th-century French day bed—the museum embarked on a year-long project to deep clean the galleries.

This level of intense concern about infestation is hardly unique to L.A. As Corona puts it, “Pests are a constant, inherent challenge in collections care worldwide.”


Bugs Everywhere

According to a spokesperson for the British Museum, the biggest threat it sees is from webbing clothes moth Tineolla bisselliella, which “can pose a risk to collections with a high organic content.” These common moths will munch through clothes, tapestries, even carpets.

Other pests that pose significant threats to museum collections, especially in the U.K, include bugs like silverfish, which eat books, paper, and cotton, and carpet beetle larvae, which munch on silk, wool, fur, and feathers. 

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Even at museums that don’t have original textiles on display or organic objects in the collection, like London’s quirky cabinet of curiosities, Sir John Soane’s Museum, clothes moths still pose a threat. “They are a threat to reproduction textiles such as wool curtains and carpets and are more active here than other pests such as carpet beetle and silver fish,” the museum’s conservator Jane Wilkinson explained. 

Fortunately, many of the U.K.’s institutions had carefully thought-out procedures in place to avoid infestation during lockdown. Neither the British Museum, Sir John Soane’s Musuem, nor the Victoria & Albert Museum, which looks after an impressive 14,000-piece collection of garments from the last five centuries, reported any increase in pest activity during lockdown—in fact, the V&A reported a decrease in pest infestations.

But experts at all three museums attributed this to rigorous cleaning processes, as well as official IPM (Integrated Pest Management) policies and procedures which allowed them to keep the necessary expertise on the ground at all times, monitoring insect traps, inspecting collections, and doing environmental checks.


Gameifying Pest Control

Not all institutions have been able to keep eagle eyes on site at all times during the pandemic. With limited numbers of expert museum staff on the ground, it became more important than ever to ensure that frontline workers—from cleaners to security staff—were educated about how to spot pests that may look harmless but that could have devastating effects on collections.

To this end, Helena Jaeschke, a conservator at the Southwest Museums Development consultancy in the U.K., even developed a card game called Save the Museum. The deck has 26 cards, each featuring life-sized silhouettes of common pests with more information about the damage they inflict on the reverse of the card. 

Save the Museum card deck. Image via Conservation Resources.

Save the Museum card deck. Image via Conservation Resources.

“You can flick through the cards to learn details about pests and possible treatments whilst having a coffee break, or else challenge each other with a game,” Jaeschke said in a statement. “It’s a great way for everyone to become more confident in identifying and dealing with pests and protecting our heritage.”

The cards are available to buy online. Decks have been delivered to some 138 museums in the southwest that signed onto the region’s Pest Partners initiative, along with kits designed to help museums identify, trap, and track pest activity.


Counting Moths at the Met

Teamwork and proactive examination is also very much a part of the battle plan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “We have a comprehensive integrated pest management program,” said Lisa Pilosi, conservator in charge of objects conservation at the Met. “Even through there are specific people dedicated to that program, it’s kind of a museum-wide responsibility to think about this.”

Though the museum has one IPM program administrant and research scientists focused on preventive conservation issues including identifying pests and working on mitigation, “we sort of fan out from there, where every curatorial and conservation department has at least one person who’s assigned to the moth monitoring process.”

This includes maintaining moth traps throughout the building, “especially in areas we think might be problematic. These assigned staff members check them on a regular basis and we keep a museum-wide record of where we’re finding moths. So it’s a matter of where is it ticking up.”

Adult Clothes Moth (Tineola bisselliella). ©Historyonics.

Adult Clothes Moth (Tineola bisselliella). ©Historyonics.

In addition, Pilosi says, “Our guards are super observant and they are always looking at the collection and what’s going on.”

A few days after the shutdown in March 2020, a group including the leaders of the collections emergency team met and came up with a list of about 30 staff who have collections responsibility, who were either in walking distance of the museum or who were close enough to come in with their car. They identified everywhere there was art or an important archive, whether on display, in storage, or in libraries. “We made a roster so that every two or three days a team of three from this larger group would walk through some of those spaces… so we had eyes on everything.”


Experimenting With Micro-Wasps

Some U.K. institutions are pushing the practice even further with the use of scientific experimentation. The National Trust, which is a heritage charity that looks after more than 500 historic properties—including castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves around the U.K.—is trialing an inventive way to crack down on its uptick in pests. 

“There’s no doubt lockdown suited our resident bugs,” assistant national conservator Hilary Jarvis said. The problem was compounded by mild winter conditions followed by a particularly warm spring, and the result was that 173 of National Trust properties reported record numbers of insects, representing an 11 percent total increase in pests from the 2019 report. 

Blickling Hall in Norfolk, a historic property believed to have been where Anne Boleyn was born, was particularly affected by clothes moths, which caused damage to some of its collections, including a tapestry of Peter the Great that was gifted to the property owner by Catherine the Great in the 1760s.

A card dispenser, containing c. 2,400 parasitoid wasps, in an oak drawer. ©Historyonics.

A card dispenser, containing c. 2,400 parasitoid wasps, in an oak drawer. ©Historyonics.

Following scientific research, it decided to experiment with a natural pest-control method by releasing microscopic wasps that are clothes moths’ “natural enemy.” 

Called Trichogramma evanescens, these tiny parasitic wasps are just 0.5 mm in length and nearly invisible to the human eye. They are supplied in small card dispensers containing up to 2,400 wasps that can be discreetly hung or placed around the property. Without being harmful to humans or other animals, the wasp parasites seek out moth eggs and lay their own eggs inside them to hatch new wasps. After laying eggs, they die naturally and disappear “inconspicuously into house dust.” 

The trial also includes the deployment of specially prepared female moth pheromones, which could disrupt adult mating by confusing the male moths.

The National Trust began the trial in February 2021, and Jarvis reported limited early results at the most recent Pest Odyssey conference earlier this month, joining organizations like the U.K. Pest Odyssey Network for support and advice from specialists in heritage pest control. Early data after six months suggest a greater drop in moths when the wasps were used in combination with the pheromone disruption, compared with just using pheromone disruption on its own. But Jarvis said these numbers should be looked at with caution: the warmer weather and lockdown surge in pests in 2020 boosted comparable figures, which could give a false impression of the extent of the drop. 

The trial continues, and given the stakes, museums around the world are watching.

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In Milan, Miart Returns, With Its New Director Doing Everything—Including Sending Poetry—to Lure Galleries. Here’s How It’s Going

For Milan’s art scene, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Miart is an important event. In a city that was hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the return of the fair has reignited the Italian and specifically Milanese art market with a palpable sense of excitement. Still, Miart’s timing just one week before Art Basel brings its own problems, with several dealers scrambling to do both fairs. Some galleries including Hauser & Wirth, Thaddaeus Ropac, Massimo De Carlo, and Marian Goodman have withdrawn.

In addition to being the first art fair taking place in Milan since Miart’s last edition back in April 2019, this is also the first under new artistic director Nicola Ricciardi, former director of Turin’s art-and-innovation hub Officine Grandi Riparazioni. Held September 17-19 at Milano Convention Centre, it assembles 142 exhibitors, mostly Italian, down from 179 pre-pandemic.

“It’s been extremely challenging to take on the fair in this context, given the earthquake and breakdown of communication between fairs and galleries,” Ricciardi tells Midnight Publishing Group News. “My job was to rebuild the trust of the galleries and dismantle the silence, so in my first two months I called 200 blue-chip and emerging galleries. We decided not to give them a discount but do a smaller fair whilst keeping the same quality before reverting back to April next year.”

While most visitors are Italian, Ricciardi says that “20 American visitors are coming this weekend.”

To “break the silence,” Ricciardi started emailing poems to cultural players. The level of reciprocity inspired him to launch the project “Starry Worlds,” inviting artists having exhibitions in Milan to send verses of their favorite poems that are displayed on screens in the fair’s lounges. “Maurizio Cattelan sent me verses from a Kurdish poet and Simon Fujiwara sent me verses from Shakespeare,” he says.

Opening of Miart 2021. Photo by Paolo Valentini.

Opening of Miart 2021. Photo by Paolo Valentini.

A Packed Calendar

Returning to the newly intense September calendar is a wake-up call for galleries doing Miart and Art Basel back-to-back. “Last year we slowed down a lot but now we’re back in the rhythm of fairs,” says Paola Potena at Lia Rumma, which sold a sculpture by William Kentridge, $250,000-350,000, and a painting by Ettore Spalletti, €120,000, at the opening.

Several dealers echoed this sentiment. “It’s hard for our team and half of us have to leave at the weekend to set up the booth at Art Basel,” laments Astrid Welter, director of Kaufmann Repetto. The gallery is presenting a solo show on Adrian Paci, including paintings (one of which has sold for €20,000) and photography, to coincide with the unveiling of his public sculpture commissioned by ArtLine Milano in the city’s sculpture park on Saturday.

William Kentridge, <em>Processione di Riparazionisti</em> (2019). Photo © Roberto Marossi, Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma, Milan/Naples.

William Kentridge, Processione di Riparazionisti (2019). Photo © Roberto Marossi, Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma, Milan/Naples.

Nonetheless, exhibitors are pleased to be back in the swing of things. “It’s not easy, but we have the enthusiasm and adrenaline to do the fairs, and a physical presence is an essential element of our job,” says Michele Casamonti, director of Tornabuoni, which has sold works by Emilio Isgrò, €300,000-400,000, Alighiero Boetti, €100,000, and Mimmo Paladino, €200,000-300,000. “It’s courageous that Miart is doing two fairs in six months.”

The September calendar’s change of pace suggests the adaptability required by galleries during the pandemic. “For the last 18 months, we’ve had to adapt and readapt constantly and nobody knows when this situation will really end,” muses Patrice Cotensin, director of Galerie Lelong (Paris/New York), which has sold a 1970s photograph by David Hockney for €15,000. “We have a lot of Italian clients and everybody is pleased to see each other again,” Cortensin adds.

After a year of online viewing rooms, some galleries are racing around to exhibit in numerous fairs this fall. Miart is one of six in which Galleria Continua is participating, along with Art Paris, Art Shenzhen, Frieze, FIAC, and Artissima. “Our strength is that we are also local galleries, although we have international artists, as we have physical spaces in several cities,” says director Mario Cristiani, who has sold works by Loris Cecchini (€40,000) and Osvaldo González (€6,000). “Now it’s easier to do national rather than international fairs as the local [market] is becoming more important than before.”

Mary Ellen, <em>Because. (DIRTIER THAN STRONG) </em>(1999). © 1999 Mary Ellen Carroll/ MEC studios.Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hubert Winter. Miart 2021, installation view, photo by Paolo Valentini.

Mary Ellen, Because. (DIRTIER THAN STRONG) (1999). © 1999 Mary Ellen Carroll/ MEC studios.Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hubert Winter. Miart 2021, installation view, photo by Paolo Valentini.

The Allure of Milan

Certainly, Milanese collectors attended the buzzy preview in droves. Comparing Miart to more international fairs, Franco Calarota, director of Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, remarks, “There’s a fundamental difference between this and other fairs: Milanese collectors take taxis to come here. They don’t need to catch a plane.”

While Miart is missing some of the mega galleries, this edition marks the return of Franco Noero, which has devoted its booth to Lara Favaretto. “Normally Miart clashes with SP-Arte in Brazil in April so we were unable to come for the last few previous editions,” the gallery’s Pierpaolo Falone explains.

Francesca Gabbiani, <em>Surfette 18 (Kassia)</em> (2021). Courtesy Monica De Cardenas, Milan/Zuoz/Lugano.

Francesca Gabbiani, Surfette 18 (Kassia) (2021). Courtesy Monica De Cardenas, Milan/Zuoz/Lugano.

The calendar saturation has led some galleries to opt for Miart over Art Basel. “We prefer to support our city and not travel at the moment,” says Monica de Cardenas, whose gallery has sold works by Francesca Gabbiani (for €5,000), Gideon Rubin, and Zilla Leutenegger.

“Normally we participate in Liste but we’re not doing it this year as we’re waiting to enter the main fair,” says Lodovico Corsini, director of Clearing (Brussels/New York). At Miart, the gallery has a solo presentation on Marguerite Humeau (including sculptures, €28,000-48,000, and paintings, €25,000, inspired by the vegetal world), ahead of her sculpture commission for Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Art Park in Guarene, which will be inaugurated next month.

Marguerite Humeau, <em>Lunaria, the feeling that you might be witnessing the birth of new universes as you are staring at the starry skies on a very dark summer night</em> (2021). Photo © Benjamin Baltus. Courtesy of the artist and Clearing, New York/ Brussels.

Marguerite Humeau, Lunaria, the feeling that you might be witnessing the birth of new universes as you are staring at the starry skies on a very dark summer night (2021). Photo © Benjamin Baltus. Courtesy of the artist and Clearing, New York/ Brussels.

Some exhibitors see an advantage in Miart and Art Basel taking place one week apart. “It’s good that they’re very close because clients that do both can travel from one to the other,” says Pietro Sforza, London sales director of Robilant + Voena, which has sold works by Arnaldo Pomodoro, €30,000, and by Gilberto Zorio, €150,000. The gallery, however, is not participating in Art Basel.

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Here’s the Real-Life Story Behind ‘Reefa,’ a New HBO Max Film About the Life and Death of a Miami Street Artist

This weekend, a new biopic of sorts will arrive on HBO Max, telling the story of Israel Hernandez-Llach, a real-life Miami street artist who was killed by police in August 2013.

Hernandez-Llach, 18 at the time, was spray-painting an abandoned McDonald’s when a local police unit approached. The artist fled; the officers chased and ultimately stopped the high-schooler with a taser. Hernandez-Llach later died in their custody. 

After dropping their target, the officers exchanged high-fives, according to the young artist’s friends who witnessed the incident. 

Dramatized versions of those moments form the climax of Reefa, the film written and directed by Miami-based filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch and named after Hernandez-Llach’s graffiti name.  

The rest of the movie, meanwhile, lays out the stakes for the titular subject in the summer leading up to that fateful night, often with a heavy dose of creative license.

Hernandez-Llach is depicted as a voraciously creative, constantly skateboarding, and skirting choleric cops through neon-lit streets, or butting heads with his father, a Colombian immigrant anxiously awaiting the arrival of green cards for his family. He wants to move to New York for art school.

The film opens with the street artist plotting his “magnum opus”: a statement mural on a derelict Miami hotel (a stand-in for the McDonald’s) that will introduce him to the city’s art world.

“I wanted to focus on Israel’s life in the last couple of weeks before he passed away,” Dornbusch told CBSMiami in April. “He had just gotten an art scholarship. He was about to go to New York. He had found love for the first time. He was spending time painting and time with his family and friends, and then the tragic ending.”

Originally meant for the 2020 Miami Film Festival (which was canceled because of the pandemic), Reefa debuted this spring on video-on-demand and in a few theaters. The movie will likely command its biggest audience yet when it hits HBO this weekend.

“Sadly, we could not plan a more timely moment in history to release this film,” Dornbusch said. “I think it will resonate. It puts a name and a face to the statistics.” 

Dornbusch worked on Reefa for more than six years, she explained in a recent blog post. Getting the project off the ground was a grind involved multiple fundraising efforts and a run-in with the Miami Beach police that resulted in the production temporarily being shut down. 

Tyler Dean Flores, the Harlem-born, Puerto Rican actor who plays Hernandez-Llach in the film, told CBS that he hopes “it raises a ton of awareness on his case and plenty of other cases that involve police brutality.” 

“I also hope that people feel very inspired by Israel’s family’s creativity and pursuit of whatever their passions are,” Flores added. “No matter what situations you’re in, if you want to create, create. If you want to express yourself, express yourself.”

A still from "Reefa" (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

A still from Reefa (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Following their son’s death, Hernandez-Llach’s parents held a press conference in which they called for an independent investigation. Roughly two years later, in 2015, a Miami-Dade attorney announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers involved in the incident, saying that medical examiners had determined the death to be accidental.

In 2017, the City of Miami Beach reportedly paid $100,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the victim’s family. They admitted no wrongdoing. 

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Running a Famous Artist’s Estate Is a Maze of Infighting and Deal-Making. Here’s How the Rothkos and Other Families Did it

When artist Robert Indiana was on his deathbed, lawyers for the Morgan Art Foundation, which holds the copyright to some of Indiana’s most famous works, were busy filing a lawsuit against the foundation Indiana had named as the sole beneficiary of his estate. Three years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, the dispute between the two parties was finally settled this June, but not before the confusion over who had authority over the work had a chance to upset Indiana’s market, as well as cast shadows on his artistic legacy.

The debacle wasn’t the first, nor the last time, the transfer of an artist’s estate has been embroiled in controversy. Artists rarely leave a crystal clear path for the direction of their legacy after their deaths, such as a framework for authenticating their work or clear instructions on who should have authority over their market.

And when money is involved, there is little way of knowing who really has the artist’s best interests at heart. As a result, the responsibility for interpreting these complex questions often falls to whomever inherits the estate, regardless of how well-equipped they are to deal with it.

“I never expected to do this work, and it wasn’t required that I do it either,” said Christopher Rothko. When his father, Mark Rothko, died in 1970, shortly followed by his wife Mary, V was just six years old. The value of Rothko’s work skyrocketed nearly overnight—prices more than doubled after 1971—and his heirs were left with questions over who to trust to manage their father’s artistic legacy when interested market parties were involved. After all, the business of contemporary art is sizeable, but the business of artists’ estates—when a finite supply of artwork meets the demand of the market—can be even bigger.

Christopher Rothko with Mark Rothko, No.64 (1960). Christopher Rothko in 2019. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern.

Christopher Rothko with Mark Rothko, No.64 (1960). Christopher Rothko in 2019. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern.

“I was young and didn’t have much knowledge of how galleries operated,” said Kate Prizel, Christopher’s older sister, who was 19 at the time of her father’s death. “That came with the lawsuit.” A year after her father’s death, Prizel sued the artist’s longtime gallery, Marlborough, to secure the return of a large body of work, despite an agreement that had granted the gallery exclusive rights to sell them.

The children accused the estate’s executors and the gallery of conspiring to defraud them out of their share of the estate by undervaluing work while Rothko was alive and stockpiling paintings. A court eventually concluded in 1975 that there was a conflict of interest, and ordered Marlborough to pay more than $9 million in damages and costs, and return the 658 Rothko paintings still in its possession.

The experience was a valuable lesson for the Rothko children, who have both embraced the challenges of being closely involved in the management of their father’s estate. “We really wanted to limit the role of the gallery after Marlborough,” said Prizel. “We needed to develop a level of trust and didn’t want to work exclusively with anyone anyway,” she added.

Pace Gallery has been the primary venue for selling Rothko’s work since 1978, and will show a retrospective this fall. Despite the arrangement, Rothko’s children have always kept a tight grip on their father’s market. “While we do not control the secondary market, we set the price for our own works,” said Prizel.

“Sometimes we would bring an unusual work for sale, or something that had not been sold before, and we would create a market for it,” Christopher Rothko added. “For the rest, we keep track of prices and auction results from afar. I never set foot in an auction house.”

Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), during his MoMA exhibition, New York City, March 1961. Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images.

Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), during his MoMA exhibition, New York City, March 1961. Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images.

The Importance of Trust

Other heirs have not found it so easy to control the direction of their parent’s legacy. Sometimes, this has been because the artist implemented more rigid structures before their death. Henry Moore, for example, established a charitable foundation to which he conferred ownership of all of the works he produced in exchange for an annual salary. After Moore’s death, his daughter Mary took the Henry Moore Foundation to court over ownership rights to some of the work when she disagreed with the foundation’s plans to expand the artist’s family home, which she felt was not in line with what her father would have wanted. She lost.

Elsewhere, family in-fighting has done more harm to the legacy than good. In Germany, the descendants of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer fought each other so often in court it prevented pretty much all publications, exhibitions, and comprehensive academic research. “It ultimately reduced access to the work,” said Loretta Würtenberger, co-founder of the Institute for Artists’ Estates and author of The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs. According to Würtenberger, a successful estate must involve new generations of collectors, academics, and curators who will have fresh views of the work. “That can only work with a certain freedom, like opening the archives and letting people publish their own findings,” she added. 

Students dance to the opening of the Bauhaus Museum Dessau with stage masks, which go back to Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus. Photo by Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Students dance to the opening of the Bauhaus Museum Dessau with stage masks, which go back to Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus. Photo by Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images.

As one end of the gallery market has swelled to mega proportions, many galleries have developed machines that are well-equipped to deal with the sophisticated questions faced by those entrusted with an artist’s estate. These big businesses know exactly how to encourage new scholarship, secure museum placements, and manage the flow of works to the primary market that will ultimately benefit an artist’s historical legacy. Meanwhile, securing the trust of the heirs to gain representation of an artist’s estate and its inventory can pay off big time.

That’s exactly what Galerie Perrotin has been banking on. After abstract artist couple Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman died childless, a foundation was set up to manage their estate. Through his work and research, French scholar and curator Matthieu Poirier got acquainted with the Foundation Hartung Bergman, and in 2012, when it was looking for a new gallery, Poirier introduced them to Emmanuel Perrotin, for whom he had previously curated a show of Jesus Rafael Soto’s work. 

“Emmanuel immediately offered to put on a museum-like show in his space. He also asked MoMA for loans, simply because I told him it was needed,” Poirier said. “Very few places have the will and manpower to care for estates the way he does.” The gallery was eventually rewarded by signing contracts to represent both estates. Between 2012 and 2016, three Hartung paintings sold at auction for at least $300,000. Between 2017, the date of the Hartung exhibition at Perrotin, and 2021, the record grew five fold, according to Midnight Publishing Group’s Price Database. 

Hauser and Wirth is another European mega-gallery that has been rapidly expanding its roster of artist estates, which today weigh in at 37. Last November, it announced that it would start working with the estate of François Morellet.

The French artist had signed over sole ownership of his estate to his wife Danielle before he died in 2016, which his son, Frédéric Morellet, said was to ensure there were no arguments over the inheritance rights. “My mother was the sole owner of the estate,” Morellet said, adding that for this to work, he and his two brothers had to give up their own inheritance rights. Danielle and Frédéric have been managing the legacy since then.

The Morellets were introduced to Hauser and Wirth by a mutual friend at a time when the family wanted to simplify the organization of the estate, paving the way for the next generation to eventually take over. Frédéric Morellet said the opportunity was too good to pass up: “We were convinced that amongst the mega-galleries, they were one of the most respectable and prestigious ones, and that they would be able to secure Morellet’s legacy in art history.”

Carlos Cruz-Diez Jr. Director of the Atelier Cruz-Diez, Paris @ Atelier Cruz-Diez Paris / Photo: ECL © Carlos Cruz-Diez / Bridgeman Images 2021.

Carlos Cruz-Diez Jr. Director of the Atelier Cruz-Diez, Paris @ Atelier Cruz-Diez Paris / Photo: ECL © Carlos Cruz-Diez / Bridgeman Images 2021.

Legacy Planning

While facing-up one’s own death can be daunting, the historical record has shown that investing time in estate planning will ultimately support the market and in turn an artist’s place in art history. And contemporary artists working today seem to be taking their own legacies more seriously than ever. The British Abstract painter Frank Bowling has had one eye on his legacy for several decades. Among his preparations for the future were a late-career switch in galleries to Hauser and Wirth, and sending his sons to take a crash course in estate management.

Before he died, the Venezuelan Op artist Carlos Cruz-Diez was also keen to secure his artistic future. “My father was very articulate about his wishes for his legacy,” said Carlos Cruz-Diez Jr., who is one of several artist’s children taking part in a talks series on the topic at Newlands House Gallery in Sussex, U.K. He added that the discussion started after his mother died, when his father was 81 years old. They established the Cruz-Diez Foundation in 2005 to preserve a collection of works selected by the artist, with the clear mission of preserving and promoting his life and work. “My father was involved in the foundation’s projects just as much as he was in his studio,” Cruz-Diez Jr. noted.

By the time the artist died in 2019, the family had been working together for several decades. The estate and the foundation are still run by family members working together with a select few galleries to promote the estate around the globe.

“Managing the commercial aspect of my father’s work is a collaborative effort. As owners of the works, the family has the last word on the number of works available and establishing prices,” Cruz-Diez Jr. said. “Our commercial partners enrich our process with their knowledge of the market and help us maintain the delicate balance between supply and demand.”

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As a Belgian Politician, I Feel a Responsibility to Restitute Stolen Artifacts to the Congo. Here’s Why My Fellow Citizens Should, Too

Thomas Dermine is Belgium’s State Secretary for Scientific Policy, Recovery Program, and Strategic Investments. This month, he made a proposal that was accepted by the federal government to create a bilateral accord with the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the aim is to create a collaborative approach on objects acquired illegitimately during the colonial era. The region that is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo was once a colony of Belgium, existing as the Congo Free State and then Belgian Congo, between 1885 and 1960.

Belgium’s King Philippe addressed the two nations during a ceremony last year to mark the 60th anniversary of independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once a colony of Belgium. “Our history is made up of common achievements but has also known painful episodes,” he said. “During the era of the independent state of Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period which followed also caused suffering and humiliation.”

Time does not erase anything. At best, it covers faded memories with a veil, which are rekindled with the first breeze. It was time for these apologies from the highest level of the state. Further on in his speech, the King emphasized that in order to “further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk to each other about our long common history in all truth and in all serenity.”

I am convinced that colonialism was a fundamentally unjust system of territorial occupation, economic exploitation, and physical and mental violence. It is essential to avoid a facelift of colonialism and we therefore have to abolish the historical and structural inequality of knowledge. Concrete actions such as the restitution of illegitimately acquired colonial collections can help us achieve this. They can also influence the attitude and behavior of our population towards racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. That is why I propose that we need a formal accord on restitution—we need practical and concrete action.

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © David Plas.

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © David Plas.


Today, the population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is characterized by the importance of its youth: 60 percent of the inhabitants are under 20 years old. The access of youth to their own culture is of foremost importance, as is access to the creativity and spirituality of eras whose knowledge and recognition cannot be reserved for Western societies or diasporas living in Europe. We cannot enjoy our museums without completely ignoring the hidden side of certain objects. There are objects that were taken, with or without the consent of the country of origin, during scientific missions and military expeditions, and as a result of the movement of territorial agents or evangelizing activities. It is important that visitors of our museums know how certain objects got into these display cases.

Victor Hugo once said that “nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come,” and I think that the time has come for the return of looted objects to the Congo. Objects illegitimately acquired by our ancestors do not belong to us. They are not ours. They belong to the Congolese people. Period.

The objective of our proposition to the government, which we formally made earlier this month, first addresses the holdings of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The approach is based on two principles. First, we need to separate the issue of the legal transfer of property from the issue of physical restitution. Too often in the past, discussions about colonial objects have been stopped by concerns around conservation—to enable the transfer of property, the alienable character of all the objects for which it has not yet been possible to determine that Belgium has acquired them legitimately, must first be legally recognized.

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver.

This allows us to solve the question of ownership and to give ourselves time in a bilateral framework to build the conditions for return and conservation. The second principle of our approach is to create a dialogue between the two countries, which must be the common thread of the entire process—the material transfer of these objects must be part of a bilateral diplomatic framework. This will ideally be done in a cooperation that strengthens conditions for conservation.

This two-pronged approach will be applied to three categories of objects that were acquired during the colonial period in Congo. There are objects for which we know they were acquired illegitimately. These objects must be made alienable for restitution purposes. An agreement between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo would set out the conditions under which the Congo could require—if they so wished—the physical transfer of the objects to its territory.

The second category includes objects for which we know they have been legitimately acquired. These are obviously kept in the public domain of the state, within our collections.

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver.

The third category includes objects where it is not clear if they were acquired illegitimately or not. Regarding these objects, it will be necessary to accelerate the studies of provenance with scientific teams from both nations. Objects awaiting investigation or those whose investigation would not make it possible to determine the legitimate or illegitimate nature of the acquisition would be alienable, which would symbolically distinguish them from legitimately acquired objects.

We cannot change the past, and Belgium will have to live with this troubled colonial history and heritage. However, it is our collective responsibility to act on the present in order to modify our future and that of the coming generations—here in Belgium, but also in Congo. Colonization and certain abuses committed in this context have long deprived generations of Congolese of access to their heritage, history, culture, creativity, and to the spirituality of their ancestors.

Through this work on restitution, we want to engage in this direction—hand in hand with the Congolese people.

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