Postcards from the Collection: Degas at the Opera

Author: Arkansas Arts CenterFiled under: Collection, Museum

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By Katie Hall
Collections Manager and Head Registrar

Edgar Degas’s Trois danseuses nues from the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection is currently on view in Degas at the Opera, an exploration of the French impressionist’s fondness for the Paris Opera to celebrate its 350th anniversary. Katie traveled with the drawing as a courier on its way to Paris this fall. Here, she shares insights from her international adventure.

Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, French (Paris, France, 1834 – 1917, Paris, France), Trois danseuses nues (Three Nude Dancers), circa 1903, charcoal on paper, 30 3/4 x 25 9/16 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Purchase, Fred W. Allsopp Memorial Acquisition Fund. 1983.010.002

The Arkansas Arts Center has a world-renowned collection of international art – and museums around the world are often interested in borrowing works from our collection for exhibitions exploring various artists, themes and movements. A few years ago, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris reached out to us about Degas at the Opera, which they were developing in partnership with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to mark the 350th anniversary of the Opéra national de Paris. The curators of the exhibition
were interested in borrowing Degas’ Trois danseuses nues (Three Nude Dancers) from our collection. The charcoal drawing, made by Degas in the first few years of the 20th century, shows three dancers pausing for a moment as one leans down to adjust the ribbon on her shoe.

As one of the people at the Arts Center tasked with keeping the collection safe, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the work is fit to travel and that the museum it’s traveling to will maintain safe environmental conditions during the exhibition. For some loans, that even means a member of the Arts Center’s exhibitions team will accompany the work to oversee the transportation, unpacking, and installation of the artwork. With Trois danseuses nues traveling to Paris for Degas at the Opera earlier this fall, I served as the courier.

Our journey began in Dallas, where we caught a plane to Paris along with several other artworks and couriers from American museums bound for the same exhibition.

Because all cargo going on a passenger jet must be screened before departure, I accompanied the crate to a TSA screening facility where it was checked and cleared for shipment. Next, it was on to the cargo warehouse for flight preparation.
While at the cargo warehouse, it was consolidated onto a pallet with three other crates from regional lending institutions. The three other couriers and I watched as the crates were placed on large metal pallet, wrapped in plastic, and then secured by a cargo net. With the pallet registration number in hand, I turned responsibility over to an armed police officer who guarded the pallet until it was loaded onto the plane.
At the gate, I watched the pallet as it was loaded onto the plane. After confirming with the police officer that the cargo door was closed and secured, I boarded the plane. In Paris, the process was repeated, but in reverse. We were met at the gate by our customs broker who waited with us while we watched the pallet offload from the plane. We then traveled to the customs warehouse where the pallet is delivered and unpacked. The crates go through customs, where paperwork is reviewed and details confirmed. Finally the crates are loaded onto a secure, climatized truck.

Arriving in Paris, the work was delivered to the Musée d’Orsay, where it stayed in its crate to acclimate to the environment in the space.

More than 48 hours after leaving Little Rock, the crate was delivered to the Musée d’Orsay and stored onsite until it was ready to be installed.

The next day, I returned to the museum to help unpack and install the artwork among works from the Musée d’Orsay, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and others.

After a day in storage to acclimate to the environment in Paris, we uncrated the drawing, and I examined its condition with a conservator.

The curators of Degas at the Opera were particularly interested in the Arts Center’s drawing because of its relationship to another Degas drawing in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection. The two drawings, presented side-by-side in the exhibition, depict the same group of dancers with one figure reaching down to adjust her ballet shoe.

Trois danseuses nues from the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection (center) is on display between a work from collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (left) and a work from the Musée d’Orsay’s collection (right).

They’re both charcoal sketches – the artist was clearly working out a composition before adding costumes color and other details. Seeing these works together, it became clear to me that the Arts Center’s drawing is really a highlight of the exhibition.

While every loan does not require a courier, I travel a lot for my job and I’ve met a lot of museum professionals along the way. People I meet are sometimes surprised to realize the depth and breadth of our collection. I often hear some version of an incredulous “this is in Arkansas? I had no idea!” Seeing it installed at the Musée d’Orsay alongside works from some of the world’s most influential collections, I was excited to see that the Arkansas Arts Center’s collection is making an impact on an international audience.

Degas at the Opera was organized by the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, where it will be presented from 1 March to 5 July 2020 on the occasion of the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Opera.

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