The Met’s Pablo Picasso: An Overnight Blockbuster

Pablo Picasso liked to work fast. When no new canvases were handy, he painted over what he already had. He reportedly completed his masterpiece of the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, in six weeks. And, living in the south of France in his 80s, he had a pair of master print makers relocated from Paris to work at his convenience, having them zip up and down the narrow country road by motor scooter, so that if he cut a plate in the morning, he could inspect the proofs over lunch.

The Met’s massive spring exhibition, “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” featuring 300 works by the Spanish master, was assembled with comparable speed. “It was actually a bit of a last-minute show,” said Samantha Rippner, the Met’s curator of prints and drawings, which make up about half of the exhibition. “In terms of the prints coming on board, I’ve been working on it about a year,” she said. Though many museum exhibitions are in the works for three to five years—the Met’s internal calendar is sketched out past 2013—this one came about, in museum terms, overnight. Forgoing the complexities of bringing in art on loan, head curator Gary Tinterow, working with a team from across the museum’s departments, built the show entirely from the Met’s own holdings, featuring every Picasso they own in the exhibition, be it on the walls or in the catalog. There’s a risk to the strategy, though: It’s a money saver, and likely a money maker, but a move that could backfire if audiences and critics find the show patchy (where’s Cubism?), or rushed.

So. Why so quick?

Money is part, but only part, of the answer. When new director Tom Campbell took over the Metropolitan in January 2009, he inherited some problems. With the institution’s endowment dented by a recession, he almost immediately had to launch cutbacks as minor as bunching opening receptions together and as major as firings and hiring freezes. Shows were reshuffled and one, on cabinet marker Duncan Phyfe, was postponed. A handful of the exhibitions at the museum this summer and fall focused chiefly on one masterpiece (a Vermeer Milkmaid, and a disputed Michelangelo). But as of about 18 months ago, they still had no traditional spring 2010 blockbuster, and that was a problem.

“After the financial crisis, we’re having somewhat fewer exhibitions, a little further spaced out,” Mr. Tinterow said Monday. “So Tom simply said, ‘Can we do this for April?’ And I said we could try.” (The show opens to the public April 27.) Former—and legendary—director Philippe de Montebello, who stepped down in December 2008 and is now a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, said (on his way to the United Arab Emirates), “In my day, we spoke a lot of some time showing all or large parts of the Met’s surprisingly large and strong Picasso holdings but it never came about. This show,” he wrote in an email, “was conceived and born post-Montebello.”

As the title suggests, the show is about the Met as much as it is about the 5-foot-4 Andalusian. In an introduction Monday. Mr. Campbell pointed out that all but 36 of the museum’s Picassos were gifts or bequests, making the entire exhibition a bit like watching a rich child show off his spectacular birthday presents. Indeed, to be certain the hint was not lost on potential donors, Mr. Campbell added that Gertrude Stein donated the Picasso portrait of her to the Metropolitan because “she thought it would have a measure of immortality, and she was right.”

Mr. Tinterow bristles a bit at the idea that an exhibition that hangs what’s already in the Met’s collection is just a money saver. Some critics “have suggested it was a cynical move, [that] we would exploit our own collection” to do a show cheaply. That’s not how it worked out, however, he said. While an internal show avoids the costs and time of negotiating, arranging, shipping and insuring loans, his team ended up doing unprecedented research, high-tech and otherwise, on the Picassos in the collection, he said, revealing new scholarship and, in one instance, revealing a painting under another that had been believed to be lost. Meanwhile, said Ms. Rippner, recent advances in lighting technology allowed her to display her part of the show, the master’s paintings and drawings, in full light. (and at a convenient time, when rival Museum of Modern Art, across town, is doing a Picasso print show of its own).

Adrian Ellis, a museum consultant currently working as executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, sees such scholarly, in-depth shows as a public museum’s duty. He said, “If a museum has the courage and conviction to present their holdings in a way that draws attention to them, it’s a win for both parties.”

Any exhibition sporting Picasso’s name will bring in tourists by the Big Apple busload. The Met’s staff probably didn’t need to work this hard. It is a testament to the curators’ enthusiasm that the pieces are arranged as thoughtfully as they are. Famous paintings, like the portrait of Stein and the (mildly) scandalous Erotic Scene, plus a strong selection of Blue Period works, sit among some 250 gorgeous prints and drawings, gracefully interspersed with the more famous work in a way that gives new depth to the famous and the obscure alike.

Ultimately, Mr. Tinterow and his team coordinated the research and physical labor necessary to fill eight rooms with 300 pieces, large and small, in an impressively abbreviated time frame. It’s been “quite hectic,” said Ms. Rippner with a smile. And though Mr. Tinterow insisted on Monday that he and his team were exhausted—saying: “We’re tired, yeah. We’re tired”—he nonetheless seemed giddy at the results of their work.

The Met’s Pablo Picasso: An Overnight Blockbuster