Served

The Medici Were History’s Greatest Patrons—and Also Tyrants. The Met’s New Show Tackles How Art Served Power


Portrait paintings are sometimes described as windows into the soul. The Renaissance likenesses presented in the Metropolitan Museum’s “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” have other purposes. Their cold, opulent beauty is more akin to the calculated image curation typical of modern day influencers than to the revelation of character that permeates the paintings of the Met’s nearby Alice Neel exhibition. And that, it seems, is the point of this fascinating exhibition.

This is not the High Renaissance of the celebrated Lorenzo de Medici whose patronage brought us masterpieces by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. The exhibition focuses on the later 16th century rule of Florence by Cosimo I de’ Medici and introduces the cast of Mannerist painters who helped him craft his image as the city-state’s benevolent dictator.

Organized by the Met’s Keith Christiansen and Florentine professor Carlo Falciani, the exhibition is laid out in thematic sections that tell the rollicking tale of Cosimo’s rise to power and consolidation of authority through the artworks that helped make it possible.

Installation view of "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Ruthless Medici

The story begins with the machinations that brought the Medicis back to power in Florence after the reestablishment of Republican rule following their expulsion in 1494.

For forty years, Florentine Republicans had mostly held off the onslaught of the Medician autocrats through periods of civil war, plague, and siege. A potent symbol of this struggle was Michelangelo’s David. Installed in 1504 outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florence’s civic government, the figure’s stern resolve and youthful vitality provided inspiration for the city’s anti-Medici partisans.

The second coming of the Medici was aided by a pair of Medici Popes: Leo X, a hedonistic pontiff who bankrupted the Vatican with dynastic wars and personal luxuries, and the inept Clement VII who brought on the Sack of Rome and lost half the Church to the Reformation. However otherwise disastrous their reigns, they secured the return of the Medicis to Florence.

Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (probably Francesco Guardi) (ca. 1528–30) with a display of arms in "The Medici" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (probably Francesco Guardi) (ca. 1528–30) with a display of arms in “The Medici” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

A series of skirmishes between Republicans and Medici supporters culminated in the 1529 siege of Florence which was led by Clement’s ally the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Following the city’s capitulation, Clement installed Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke. The licentious Alessandro, who may have been Clement’s illegitimate son, did not last long. He riled the city’s Republican families and was assassinated by a distant cousin in 1537 in what was celebrated as an act of tyrannicide.

Thanks to wars, murders, and early deaths of designated heirs, Florence was now running out of direct descendants of the original Medici family. As a result, the Dukedom passed to seventeen-year-old Cosimo de Medici, a descendent of a lesser branch of the family. Expected to be a weak leader destined for exile, assassination, or domination by stronger factions, he ruled Florence for over thirty years, established a Medici dynasty that lasted for two centuries and transformed Florence with art patronage and massive public works into the city we know today.

 

The Bronzino Touch

Although “The Medici: Portraits and Politics” includes works by such luminaries as Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Benvenuto Cellini, Giorgio Vasari, and Francesco Salviati, the real stars of this exhibition are Cosimo and his favored artist Agnolo Bronzino.

Bronzino was perfectly in tune with his patron. In numerous portraits he depicts Cosimo in a variety of guises: a young warrior in full armor whose hands caress his helmet; an older man of forty, now bearded and dressed in somber black as befitting the statesman he has become; and in an allegorical painting as Orpheus, naked from the back as he turns toward the viewer.

Bronzino, <em>Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus </em>(1537–39). Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1950. Image: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bronzino, Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (1537–39). Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1950. Image: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In all these depictions, Cosimo offers the same gaze, mask-like in its impenetrability, presenting a picture of steadfast purpose and icy control. This essential message became part of Cosimo’s cultural diplomacy. The non-allegorical portrayals were repainted multiple times and distributed as gifts to friends and potential allies.

Bronzino’s portraits offer a similar treatment of Cosimo’s family. His impressive wife Eleonora di Toledo was a granddaughter of Lorenzo de Medici and served as his frequent political advisor while bearing him eleven children. She is seen here as a gravely modest young wife and as an equally serene mother subtly pregnant as she pushes forward her equally composed young son Francesco.

Bronzino, <em>Eleonora di Toledo and Francesco de’ Medici</em> (ca. 1550). Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa. Image © Haltadefinizione® Image Bank by permission of the Ministry of Cultural Activities and Heritage—Polo Museale della Toscana.

Bronzino, Eleonora di Toledo and Francesco de’ Medici (ca. 1550).
Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa. Image © Haltadefinizione® Image Bank by permission of the Ministry of Cultural Activities and Heritage—Polo Museale della Toscana.

Francesco reappears elsewhere as a slightly older boy, holding a letter, and, in a 1570 painting by Bronzino’s protégé Alessandro Allori as a young man suited for battle. Francesco would succeed Cosimo as Duke of Florence in 1571, when his father went on to the more august position as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

 

Art as PR Push

None of Bronzino’s depictions of Cosimo or his family match the fierceness of Cellini’s bust of the Duke. Two versions, one in bronze and one in marble, introduce the exhibition. They present Cosimo as a supremely confident military man swathed in armor ornamented with classical motifs.

Two portrait busts by Cellini in "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Two portrait busts by Cellini in “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

This representation was meant to underscore the association of Florence’s 16th century ruler with Rome’s imperious Caesar Augustus. All these official portraits seem designed to smooth over the messy trajectory of Cosimo’s rise to power, his suppression of civil liberties, the political intrigues that marked his reign, and his brutal campaigns against other city-states.

The exhibition includes portraits of other notable figures, both by Bronzino and by other artists. Among these are Francesco Salviati’s probing portrait of Bindo Altoviti, a leading banker and Republican sympathizer; Bronzino’s subtly sexualized depiction of naval commander Andrea Doria as a powerful, nearly naked Neptune; and his tribute to poet Laura Battiferri. The homosexual Bronzino carried on a long platonic relationship with this formidable woman and here depicts her in profile with features that deliberately echo those of a more allegorical painting of Dante he had created thirty years before.

Francesco Salviati, <em>Bindo Altoviti</em> (ca. 1545). Private Collection. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2020.

Francesco Salviati, Bindo Altoviti (ca. 1545). Private Collection.
Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2020.

There are as well portraits of some of the more dubious characters in this drama: The ill fated Alessandro de Medici appears in Pontormo’s portrait as a sober, cultured young man captured in the act of sketching the bust of a woman on a piece of paper. Pope Clement VII, painted by Sebastiano del Piombo just before the disastrous Sack of Rome, is a regal figure blissfully unaware of the debacle to come.

The exhibition is dotted with various artifacts. These include rapiers, halberds, and ornamented axes of the sort used by both sides in the siege of Florence, original manuscripts, a red velvet dress that may have been worn by Eleonora di Toledo, and coins that celebrate Cosimo’s architectural projects. These public works were an equally important part of his cultural legacy, dedicated to cementing Florence’s place at the epicenter of Italian Renaissance.

 

The Problem of Michelangelo

So as to underscore the cool sobriety of Bronzino’s approach, the show ends with a face-off between him and painter Francesco Salviati, a fellow Florentine with more cosmopolitan tastes who had lived in Rome and traveled throughout Italy. Salviati’s portraits, many of them dotted with now obscure mythological motifs, exhibit a warmth and naturalistic approach that make a striking contrast to the chilly perfection of Bronzino’s figures.

Installation view of "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Installation view of the “Florence and Rome: Bronzino and Salviati” gallery in “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But perhaps a more telling comparison would have been the works of Bronzino and Michelangelo, then and now Florence’s most famous artist. Michelangelo casts a long shadow over the exhibition even though he appears here only in a portrait by Daniele da Volterra. Even unfinished, the work captures its subject’s life force and craggy vitality in a way that seems a rebuke to the flattering elegance of Bronzino’s representations.

Michelangelo posed a problem for Cosimo. Towering above other Florentine artists, he sided with the Republicans in Florence’s civil wars and fled the city forever when Cosimo came to power. Cosimo attempted unsuccessfully to lure him back and only succeeded after Michelangelo’s death, when the old master’s body was returned to Florence and given an extravagant state funeral. With this gesture, Cosimo hoped to tie himself to the revered artist and to obscure Michelangelo’s Republican sympathies. Cosimo had already brought artists of Florence under his patronage through the founding of Florence’s Accademia del Disegno. His embrace of the dead Michelangelo reveals his efforts to control the narrative of history as well.

Benvenuto Cellini, Cosimo I de' Medici (1545). Museo Nazionale del Bargello. By permission of Ministero della Cultura. Photo: Antonio Quattrone

Benvenuto Cellini, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1545). Museo Nazionale del Bargello. By permission of Ministero della Cultura. Photo by Antonio Quattrone.

But in the end, Michelangelo escaped Cosimo’s grasp. His David, now installed in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, is one of the world’s most famous works of art. The generic blandness of Bronzino’s court portraits pale next to the giant slayer’s steely gaze and taut determination. David remains Michelangelo’s compelling monument to the resistance to tyranny.

Is there a lesson here for our so-called Modern Medicis? The art world is currently engaged in an unprecedented inquiry into the political and economic entanglements of museum board members and the ethics of museum patronage. As history reveals, art often finds itself in service to power. But the saga of Cosimo de Medici also suggests there are limits to the control patrons have over the power of art.

“The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through October 11, 2021.

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The Back Room: Billions and Billions Served


Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

 

This week in the Back Room: Billionaires give and take, Banksy prints go berserk, bidders chase youth, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,913 words).

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Top of the Market

The Billionaire Dilemma

MacKenzie Bezos attends the SEAN PENN J/P HRO GALA: A Gala Dinner to Benefit J/P Haitian Relief Organization and a Coalition of Disaster Relief Organizations at Milk Studios on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

MacKenzie Bezos attends the SEAN PENN J/P HRO GALA: A Gala Dinner to Benefit J/P Haitian Relief Organization and a Coalition of Disaster Relief Organizations at Milk Studios on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Today, most people tend to view every fortune of a billion dollars or more like telepathy or the ability to fly: whether its owner is a superhero or supervillain all depends on how they use it.

This is especially true in the U.S. (and increasingly, U.K. and E.U.)  art industries, where a steady decline in public funding has handed mega-philanthropy a vital role in sustaining nonprofit institutions.

This principle was reinforced on Wednesday, when MacKenzie Scott, the novelist and philanthropist formerly known as Ms. Jeff Bezosannounced she was doling out $2.7 billion in unrestricted donations to 286 organizations across the country—including many affiliated with the arts, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and United States Artists.

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But is the promise of “Good Billionaires” like Scott actually hurting art and culture?

That’s the question I worked through thanks to journalist and author Anand Giridharadas’s incineration of beloved plutocrat Warren Buffett last weekend. And I think the answer is yes, on both the nonprofit and for-profit sides.

What provoked Giridharadas was a bombshell ProPublica investigation showing that America’s very wealthiest—even mega-philanthropists like Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates—have been legally exploiting the tax code in a unique way to pay next to (and sometimes literally!) nothing to Uncle Sam.

Mega-philanthropy has been the best camouflage for the damage, Giridharadas argues. What makes donations from “supposed Good Billionaires” more insidious than donations made by “the crooks and the scoundrels and the people manifestly looking for quick P.R. highs” is that they give so much more—and their public images are so much cleaner.

For instance, the late mega-collector/mega-donor Eli Broad wasn’t always the philanthropic angel he was often portrayed as. Carolina Miranda of the L.A. Times noted that he may have stuck LACMA with $5.5 million in additional construction costs on a building he otherwise financed on its campus (a Broad spox denied it), refused to endow that building for upkeep, and of course ultimately kept his collection to open his own museum.

The grand irony is that mega-donations from the Broads and Scotts of the world have become so important to art institutions partly because the U.S. is sacrificing trillions of dollars in tax revenue (see: potential public funding) to enrich the billionaires signing those fat philanthropic checks.

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The Good Billionaire myth is hurting the art market, too. Why have the middle-class collectors who once sustained a more equitable version of the industry become an endangered species? Partly because the costs of simply getting by, let alone getting far enough ahead to acquire artwork, have risen so much.

According to Bloomberg, the cost of college and the median home price in the U.S. are each about 50 percent higher for millennials than they were for boomers, yet millennial wages are up only 20 percent. Full-time employment and robust benefits (pensions, healthcare, paid family leave) have become vanishingly rare too. Public programs are not well funded enough to pick up the slack.

And part of this has been enabled by the narrative that the superrich will take care of the rest of us, including when it comes to art and cultural spending. Even though some deserving folks occasionally win the Good Billionaire lottery, it’s a losing trade most of the time.

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The Bottom Line

I sincerely think MacKenzie Scott is trying to help nonprofits with her wealth. But her would-be remedy is only treating a symptom, not the illness—namely, the tax system that enabled her ex and his billionaire peers to build their fortunes. Until or unless that system is reformed, prepare for the institutional sector and the art market to become even more grossly polarized than they already are.

[Read More]

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Market Moment

Banksy Prints Are Printing Money

Banksy, White Idiots, or maybe it’s called Idiots (White), who can really say these days. Courtesy Burnt Banksy’s Twitter account.

You can get the god’s eye view of Banksy’s prints market in three annual auction-sales totals:

  • 2011: $1.7 million
  • 2020: $10.3 million
  • 2021 (to date): $33.6 million.

Whether that growth qualifies as robust or cancerous depends on your perspective. What’s undeniable from Eileen Kinsella’s deep dive is that the street-art legend’s editions market has transformed in multiple ways over the past 10 years.

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How It Started

Around 2002, Banksy released his first commercial prints through multiple print galleries: primarily Tom Tom (which later became Art Republic) and Pictures on Walls, run by Banksy’s longtime right-hand man Steve Lazarides. (The two have since split. Sources say it wasn’t pretty.)

Prices were around £200 to £300 each. Editions rarely came with certificates of authenticity (COA). Sometimes buyers didn’t even get a receipt!

Fun Fact: “Some dealers would pay 50 students £50 each to be in the queue with a bonus if they got something.” —Brian Balfour-Oatts of London dealership Archeus/Post-Modern.

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The Turning Point

In 2007, total auction sales of Banksy prints leaped 10x year-over-year, from about $127,000 in 2006 to $1.3 million.

The next year Banksy launched Pest Control to authenticate his works and police fakes. After 2009, every genuine Banksy came with a Pest Control COA. The outfit can retroactively issue certificates for works made before its founding too.

The artist also took more control of his primary-market sales, sometimes offering works through random lotteries. Fun Fact: In 2010, Banksy directly offered a now-popular print, Choose Your Weapon, showing a figure in a hooded sweatshirt walking a Keith Haring-style dog. After the hours-long line got hooligan-ish, he released a supplemental “queue jumping” edition for the fans who were boxed out.

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How It’s Going

It’s wild! Mainly for three reasons:

  • Speculation
  • Major auction houses’ influence
  • Overseas buyers piling in (particularly in Japan and Korea)

Since Banksy has not run a random lottery for some time, demand can only be fulfilled through auctions and resale dealers. Christie’s and Sotheby’s now each hold two dedicated Banksy print sales per year, “many of which have been 100 percent sold,” Eileen writes.  

Balfour-Oatts relays that “some of the mega-galleries handle Banksy works quite often, but are very coy about saying so.”

No wonder Pest Control is inundated with requests—and sometimes slow-walks COA issuance for recent prints to combat flippers. This has led some Banksy collectors (and even smaller auction houses) to trade prints with the promise of a COA to follow—which is not normal! (Other evidence of authenticity, such as emails trails, are often substituted, but still…)

Fun Fact: This March, one of the queue jumping editions of Choose Your Weapon sold at Sotheby’s for £201,600. So don’t expect this rocket ship to run out of fuel anytime soon.

[Read More]

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Data Dip

Follow the Money to Youth

© Artnet Analytics 2021.

© Midnight Publishing Group Analytics 2021.

If you’ve ever laid awake at night wondering how genre-by-genre auction sales in May fared before, during, and after COVID, today is your lucky day. (Also, may I recommend considering a spa vacation, or at least switching to herbal tea after lunch?)

With the return of the traditional slate of premier May auctions in New York, it’s no surprise this year’s biggest resurgences were in the Impressionist-Modern and postwar-contemporary categories. (We define these by artist’s birthdates: Imp-Mod covers artists born from 1821 through 1910, and P.W.C. covers artists born from 1911 through 1974.)

But the most interesting story in the data is the pronounced shift toward youth over the past two years. While Imp-Mod sales came in more than $322 million lower (about 25 percent) this May compared to the same month in 2019, postwar and contemporary sales were down a mere $76 million (roughly six percent) in the same face-off.

P.W.C. works also outsold Imp-Mod works by more than $162 million this May, flipping the script from the 2019 May sales. Sales of ultra-contemporary works (made by artists born in 1975 or later) ascended almost 250 percent over this two-year span, from $35.7 million to $86.2 million last month.

Look for the push toward present-day talent to continue as the market keeps gathering strength in the months ahead.

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“What does every rich and famous person want more than anything? Relevancy… You have a Warhol Marilyn? Cool, we know you’re rich. But if you have, say, Christina Quarles, you’re of our time.”
—Anonymous dealer on the allure of the young artists being added by mega-galleries. (For details, check Nate Freeman on Gagosian’s farm team.)

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Express Checkout

Anonymous Online Sales Aren’t Just for Crypto + Three More Market Morsels

 

LiveArt Market, ex-Sotheby’s dealmaker Adam Chinn’s peer-to-peer platform enabling buyers and sellers to transact anonymously, went live by invitation. Anna Brady unpacked how it works. (The Art Newspaper)

  • The platform reported $5 million in sales during the early days of its soft opening.
  • Works by Amoako Boafo and Ed Clark went for six figures each.

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Can Paris unseat London as the top Euro art market? Melanie Gerlis dons a beret to investigate. (ARTnews)

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London Gallery Weekend was a “smashing success” but will it kill off art fairs? (Midnight Publishing Group News Pro)

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The Robert Indiana estate reached a settlement with its biggest backer after three years of legal hell. (Midnight Publishing Group News)

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Paint Drippings

Here’s what made a mark in the latest Wet Paint (and elsewhere).

  • Skarstedt will open a Paris gallery (and poached Maria Cifuentes from Phillips Paris to run it.)

  • Cady Noland secretly installed her first new work in decades at Galerie Buchholz in NYC.

  • The Nasher Museum at Duke University acquired a painting by Korakrit Arunanondchai.

  • Julian Schnabel will be the subject of the Brant Foundation’s September show.

  • McArthur Binion is now represented by Xavier Hufkens, with his first solo exhibition at the gallery set for fall 2022. (Binion will also continue working with Lehmann MaupinMassimo De Carlo, and Richard Gray.)

  • Ashley Bickerton joined the stable of Various Small Fires.

  • Blum & Poe added ceramicist Kazunori Hamana to its roster and will solo-show him in L.A. this September.

  • NYC’s Company Gallery now reps the Women’s History Museum collective founded by Mattie Barringer and Amanda McGowan.

  • Christie’s will open pop-up spaces in Southampton (this month) and Aspen (July 3).

  • König debuts its showroom in Monaco (at the Villa Nuvola) today.

 

[Read More]

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Artwork of the Week

Gio Swaby’s Love Letter 5

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 5 (2021). Photo courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 5 (2021). Photo courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

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Date:                     2021

Seller:                   Claire Oliver Gallery

Price Range:         $25,000 to $50,000

Acquired By:         The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Gio Swaby is on a trajectory unimaginable to the art market a generation ago. A 29 year-old interdisciplinary artist hailing from the Bahamas, she is still in the midst of her M.F.A. studies at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design University. Yet she joined the roster of Harlem’s Claire Oliver Gallery last year without ever meeting the dealer—after curator Danielle Krysa brokered an introduction via Instagram. Her inaugural solo exhibition at Oliver’s space was arranged remotely during the shutdown.

That exhibition, “Gio Swaby: Both Sides of the Sun,” celebrated Black womanhood through threaded-line portraits and silhouettes where textile patterns echoed the models’ natural curves. It also sold out before the end of its run on June 5. Private buyers included author Roxane Gay and actor Hill Harper, and Swaby’s waiting list now swells beyond 100 names.

More impressively, eight institutions acquired work (pending final board approval). A gallery spokesperson confirmed that one of those eight, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, even reworked its upcoming exhibition “Fabric of A Nation” to include Love Letter 5, which it officially acquired this week. Just imagine what Swaby can do now that she can meet people in person again.

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Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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