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Vatican exhibits enhance museums' prestige, hosts say
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY LubbockOnline.com

"The world is coming to the doors of Lubbock," said the Rev. Malcolm Neyland.

The two most recent Vatican Museums art exhibits in the United States occurred in 1998, one in Cleveland, and a second that toured five cities, including St. Louis. The Cleveland exhibition, like the Lubbock show, was a one-time-only exhibit.

Bringing a Vatican exhibit to the Hub City is a benchmark for the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, the Museum of Texas Tech and the community, Neyland said.

As director of the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation, a group of regional residents charged with arranging the Vatican exhibit, Neyland works hand-in-glove with Tech and the Museum of Texas Tech to prepare for the event, which is scheduled to open June 2. The show will consist of 31 ancient frescoes never-before displayed as a group. Some have never been publicly displayed in a museum exhibit, Neyland said.

"I think what's fabulous about having the Vatican frescos is that it certainly has drawn very beautiful, positive recognition to the Tech Museum," Neyland said. "It gives the museum a certain amount of prestige for the future, and it is really going to be an international exhibit. So, I think this really draws worldwide attention to the museum and its very fine staff.

During the touring exhibit, titled "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican," the St. Louis Art Museum was the second stop.

The show ran from May 9 through Aug. 2, 1998, said Rick Simoncelli, the St. Louis museum's assistant director for administration and operations.

"The fact that the objects were from the Vatican was an important draw for the show," Simoncelli said. "Even if you could afford to go to Rome, if you wanted to see them you would be traipsing all over the Vatican and the metropolitan area, whereas we had all these wonderful works, some never before publicly displayed, in one place."

St. Louis, with a population of about 2 million, has a large contingent of Catholics, he said. But the art works were important for everyone, not just Christians or Catholics, Simoncelli said.

"The exhibit included more than 100 paintings, sculptures, ceramics and liturgical vestments portraying angels," he said. "Our director decided that the art works were important enough for us to make a very big effort to help the community understand their importance. And we really pulled out all the stops, in terms of the installation."

The museum dedicated twice the floor space it commonly uses for special exhibits to the Vatican Museums exhibition, Simoncelli said.

Unlike the Lubbock show, the St. Louis Art Museum charged a fee of $10 for adults, he said.

Nonetheless, "It was the second largest show we've ever had since our founding in 1879," he said. "We had 205,000 people who saw the show in a 13-week period."

The display included works by Raphael, Salvador Dali, Reni and other renowned artists, and the art works ranged in age from the 9th century B.C. to the 20th century, and included examples of Assyrian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Christian traditions, Simoncelli said.

The "Angels from the Vatican" exhibition demonstrated the human fascination with spiritual intermediaries, stated the Rev. Allen Duston, Vatican director of the exhibit.

At the time, the United States and other countries were experiencing a renewed interest in angels, as reflected in popular television programs and movies.

The exhibit opened in Los Angeles, then traveled to St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore and West Palm Beach, Fla., before returning to the Vatican Museums, Simoncelli said.

The prestige that accompanies a Vatican exhibition was important for the museum, he said.

"I think, putting aside the experience of the individual artworks, which was what the show was truly about, the long term residual effect of the show is very, very positive," he said. "I've heard many people say 'Oh, you're with the museum. I saw the angels show.' Or better yet, 'Oh, I missed the angels show and I really wish I hadn't.'

"That helps our image in general, and helps people understand that we do provide important opportunities for education and art experiences in the community."

The show, he said, was a financial success.

Simoncelli offered a few suggestions to the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation. The most important thing to remember is to not take for granted that people will come just because the exhibit originates from the Vatican, he said.

"For the Vatican show we were very aggressive in terms of regional marketing," he said. "And since we had this show May through the end of August, we had a lot of bus tours. We did a lot of things to make those tours enjoyable, like a package ticket that included lunch and a tour of the museum, and we had special rates with hotel rooms for exhibition visitors."

He continued, "You can't just assume people will come, you have to do a lot of strong, clear marketing so they know what the benefit is."

Emphasizing the artworks as opposed to the religious implications took precedent in the St. Louis marketing campaign, he said.

"I think that we certainly reached out to all the right niche groups in town and we didn't advertise it in a blatantly religious way," Simoncelli said. "(Religion) was never an issue even though it was called 'The Invisible Made Visible,' and we emphasized the fact that the pieces were from the Vatican.

"We felt that anyone with a history of travel or a sense of the role the Vatican played in history would understand the significance of the art, and that's what we emphasized as important, as opposed to the fact it happened to be from a particular religious group."

The one-time exhibit, titled "Vatican Treasures," was held at The Cleveland Museum of Art from Feb. 8 through April 12, 1998.

The 39 pieces exhibited included manuscripts, sculptures, paintings, reliquaries, vestments and liturgical objects from the 6th through the 18th centuries, and the exhibit focused on examples of art whose spiritual dimension "had enormous power," said Karen Ferguson, associate director of marketing for the museum.

The centerpieces of the Cleveland exhibition included the Cross of Justin II, a 1,400-year-old, gem-encrusted crucifix of gilt silver commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justin II (565-78), a gift, most likely, to Pope John III, according to Vatican documents.

And a nearly 10-foot-high oil painting titled, "The Entombment of Christ," by the baroque master Caravaggio was the second most important piece of the exhibit, Ferguson said.

The show was part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Cleveland's Catholic diocese, she said.

"The public welcomed the exhibit with open arms," she said. "It was almost like an exodus to the Vatican for many people.

"People came out actually having had religious experiences. The show evoked such heartfelt emotions that we had people in the galleries with tears rolling down their eyes, these were such beautiful works."

The museum charged $7 to $10 per ticket, depending on the date and time of day people chose to visit, and an 111-page catalog for the exhibition, which included color illustrations and descriptions of every object in the show, was sold for $19.95, Ferguson said.

As with St. Louis, the Cleveland Museum exhibit was a financial success.

The show was here for nine weeks and the attendance was 150,000," Ferguson said.

The Cleveland Museum has a permanent collection on display free of charge, so most special exhibits usually account only for part of the visiting crowd, especially when the exhibit has an admission charge, she said.

"We actually had 179,000 come through the door during the exhibition, but 84 percent of the people who came to the museum went into that show, which was unprecedented," Ferguson said.

Visitors were given limitless viewing time and were provided headsets and tape recorders that had a 45-minute audio tour of the exhibition, she said.

"It was fabulous," Ferguson said. "There were long lines of people waiting to get in, and people were so emotionally involved with the works that they really stayed quite a while ... and had powerful experiences with these works of art."

"The works were just so moving, and I'm sure they're going to have the same experience in Lubbock," she added. "It's fabulous to have something from the Vatican collection, to have an opportunity to show something people won't get to see unless they travel to Rome and visit the Vatican Museums."

The exhibit has ended
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