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Weekend newsletter

Weekend newsletter

Sculpting a stunning showing of Bernini

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay

Feb. 3-April 14

Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth


817-332-8451; www.kimbellart.org

Posted 2:21pm on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

At 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16, 2009, C.D. Dickerson III entered the director's office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the most important 20 minutes of his career.

Thomas Campbell, the director of the largest and most powerful art institution in the United States, sat behind an ornate Louis XV desk backed by an expansive view of Central Park.

With sweaty palms and a racing heart, Dickerson started his pitch: He needed the Met to partner with him for an international exhibition that he was planning on Gian Lorenzo Bernini's terra cottas at Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. It would cost millions, but it would identify all of the existing terra-cotta models by the 17th-century master sculptor and architect, and it would bring as many as could travel to the United States from around the world. The Met's participation would provide financial resources and curatorial assistance -- the only way an exhibition of this magnitude could happen in Fort Worth, or just about anywhere else in the world.

Dickerson, the Kimbell's curator of European art, was just 34 years old and had never before organized an international exhibition. But he was an expert on Bernini and already had done years of meticulous research and international schmoozing to bring his dream exhibit closer to fruition.

He had made this same pitch to museums in Rome. They said no.

He had thought about the famous J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They were a no.

The Met was his best hope.

Dickerson, with the help of an enthusiastic ally named Ian Wardropper, the Met's chairman of European sculpture and decorative arts, finished his plea with minutes to spare.

Campbell said yes.

And the project that had consumed Dickerson's thoughts for five years would consume his life for the next three.

The culmination of his efforts opens to the public Sunday at the Kimbell.

How an international exhibit blossoms from a curator's casual musing to a multi-institutional exhibition that involves scores of lenders, dozens of objects and millions of dollars is a convoluted exercise that often fails to reach full flower.

To conceive and execute "Bernini: Sculpting in Clay," Dickerson visited every known Bernini terra cotta in the world. He eliminated a full third of the 60 works -- and faced potential outrage from museums and collectors -- after his team's extensive testing proved they were not by Bernini. He was beset by political intrigue, natural disasters and a museum curator who wanted to mount his own Bernini exhibition.

Few exhibits involve such detailed explorations, but no one had ever taken an exacting interest in Bernini's models. The undertaking has established a catalogue raisonné of Bernini's terra cottas, provided a rare opportunity to see a trove of the master's works without having to travel to Rome and, most important, articulated the thought processes that culminated in the sculptures.

It is a groundbreaking endeavor.

First thoughts of an exhibition

Dickerson was an intern at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., when in 2004 he was invited by the Kimbell to deliver a lecture on the sculptor in conjunction with the museum's recent purchase of a Bernini terra cotta, Model for the Fountain of the Moor.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the son of successful sculptor Pietro Bernini, who taught his son the art of marble carving. The younger Bernini showed great talent and, by his early 20s, had his own workshop and commissions from powerful Roman families.

Terra cottas are Bernini's three-dimensional sketches, and they illustrate how he worked and changed his mind. The finished sculptures are solidly embedded into the fabric of Rome, as altarpieces, tombs and fountains -- and as such, they will never travel.

In the 1600s, the terra cottas were considered inconsequential, no more important than scribbles on a cocktail napkin. They weren't even listed in the inventory of his studio after his death in 1680 at age 81. Family members, assistants and other sculptors saved some, and a few were hoarded by clients, and these dribbled into the open market as Bernini's fame increased.

Dickerson was studying Rome's 17th-century sculptors, and Fort Worth was his hometown. To be invited to speak as the guest scholar was a heady opportunity and he, of course, agreed.

"The plum job of talking about Bernini went to him because among all the Bernini researchers, he was the only one doing work on Bernini's terra cottas," says Malcolm Warner, who at the time was deputy director of the Kimbell.

In 2006, Dickerson had completed his doctorate at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, and Bernini had headlined his dissertation: "Bernini and Before: Modeled Sculpture in Rome, ca. 1600-25." He was working at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, but his wife, Elyse, was living in Fort Worth and working as director of marketing at Alcon. Tiring of the weekend commutes to see his wife, he asked Warner, who had become the interim director at the Kimbell, for a job.

"We weren't looking for someone at the time, but I had felt, since arriving at the Kimbell, that a collection of this importance should have more curators. That feeling, combined with C.D. putting himself forward, made it happen," Warner says.

During his second week at the Kimbell, Dickerson traveled to Boston to check out the newly restored Moor. The Kimbell's terra cotta had been sent to Harvard University for repairs by conservator Tony Sigel, an expert on Bernini.

The Fogg Museum, one of the art institutions at Harvard, had 15 of Bernini's terra cottas -- the largest group in the world. They have been under Sigel's watchful eye since 1993.

Dickerson knew they were worth close examination; he was already dreaming, in fact, of a full exhibition of Bernini's terra cottas in Fort Worth.

That would have to include this collection from the Fogg. But ever since the Fogg obtained them in 1937, they had never been loaned for exhibition.

Hopeful but doubtful, Dickerson broached the subject with Stephan Wolohojian, curator and department head for the Harvard Art Museums. His response was an ambivalent "Sure, let's think about something." It wasn't an out-and-out rejection, as had been the usual reply. The door wasn't closed.

Making a plan

Dickerson began to think about what it would take to create his dream exhibition.

All of Bernini's terra cottas need a great deal of care, as they were quickly made and fired, and are now more than 300 years old. Often the terra cottas were damaged in firing, or were knocked about in the studio, as Bernini would pass off these models to an assistant who would work on the finished marble.

The terra cottas' delicate nature is the reason the Fogg always gave for not letting theirs travel. Many of them are missing hands, feet and even heads.

Dickerson would be gathering sculptures from all over Europe and the United States. It would take a great deal of diplomacy and assurances that the terra cottas could be packed, shipped and displayed without damage to persuade the owners to lend them.

He made a checklist of the terra cottas and where they were:

The Fogg had 15.

There were seven or eight in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the State Hermitage Museum.

Some were at the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia in Rome, and those he felt were obtainable because of the Venezia's good working relationship with American museums.

The Vatican museum had a number of Berninis, but working with that institution was always an exercise in patience. Layers of bureaucracy had to be negotiated, and multiple approvals were needed to borrow from the Vatican.

Three were already at the Kimbell

There were also three in Venice, and single examples were found in museums scattered across the United States and Europe.

A few, in private Italian collections, might be more problematic. The Kimbell is well known in museum circles, but Dickerson didn't know how Italian art collectors might respond to a loan request from a curator from far-off Fort Worth.

He thought about what else would be needed. Some of Bernini's drawings would be helpful, especially the ones that related to the sculptures. The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle had some, and was friendly with American institutions. The Getty in Los Angeles also had drawings. The largest collection was in a museum in Leipzig, Germany.

Dickerson thought it might be possible to put all of this together. He began making discreet inquiries. He held his cards so close to his vest that a year later, while attending a Bernini conference in Los Angeles, he didn't mention his project to the other curators.

It was still too early in the game.

Rejection in Rome

In spring 2008, Dickerson made a courier trip to Rome for the Kimbell and talked to the director at the Plaza Venezia. He needed a second venue for a Bernini exhibition, a partner museum willing to share the costs, and he figured one of the museums in Rome would be a likely candidate. Surely, they would like to see Bernini's terra cottas all together again.

But the 2008 worldwide financial crisis was hitting Rome hard. The Venezia could not afford to participate.

He moved on to the Galleria Borghese in Rome to examine a large equestrian terra cotta by Bernini.

Dickerson asked. The Borghese could not afford the show either.

He and the Fogg Museum's Sigel, who had signed on to the project, concluded that although the important European loans were going to be possible, none of the Italian museums would be able to partner with the Kimbell.

"That was all right, as I thought it unlikely the Fogg would want to send their pieces to Europe," Dickerson says.

He needed an American partner -- the most prestigious venue he could find to help secure loans and share costs -- "a big player," he says. "On the short list I had the Getty, the Met and the National Gallery."

The Getty, though, was doing a Bernini portrait exhibition in August, so he knew it wouldn't be interested.

On to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In September 2008, Dickerson and Warner traveled to New York to work on separate exhibits they were mounting in Fort Worth. They jointly approached the Met's Wardropper, a friend of Warner's, about a Bernini show. Wardropper said he was interested, and he took his thoughts to Tom Campbell, the Met's new director.

Campbell wanted to hear more, so Dickerson got his shot at a meeting of a lifetime.

On that October day in 2009, they talked about logistics, budgets and a timeline. The Met had several calendar openings; the Kimbell could be flexible. The New Yorkers wanted the show to open at the Met and then move to Fort Worth. Dickerson agreed, as the New York press would attend the preview and the subsequent reviews would generate publicity.

But one question remained: How sure was Dickerson that the Fogg would lend?

The meeting ended with an agreement that hinged on the Fogg's willingness to release its terra cottas.

No Fogg, no exhibit.

Dickerson began an email campaign with the Fogg, bluntly asking, "Will you lend?"

He didn't get a direct answer.

Instead, he got an invitation. He was to bring all interested parties to Boston.

Final pieces in place

On Jan. 25, 2010, the team of Dickerson, Sigel and Wardropper, along with Eric Lee, the Kimbell's new director, traveled to Boston to meet with the leaders of the Fogg and wrestle a deal to the ground.

They got a lucky break they didn't bargain for: The Fogg's Bernini galleries would be undergoing renovations.

Thomas Lentz, the director of the Fogg, told them the museum would lend all 15 Bernini terra cottas, on one condition: It would want the Berninis back for the galleries' reopening in fall 2013. It would need a six-month envelope for returns, which meant the Kimbell's Bernini exhibit would have to close in April 2013. The Met would have to open the exhibit in fall 2012.

Everyone agreed the time frame would work.

The exhibit was finally a go.

Now, "Ian, Tony and I had to figure out how we were going to do this," Dickerson says.

The three divided the duties.

Wardropper would be the deal maker. With the muscle of the Met behind him, he would be the front man handling the loan requests. Favors and friendships come to bear in negotiating loans, so Wardropper, with his years of experience, was the natural one for the role. However, Dickerson had already laid much of the groundwork.

"C.D. had a huge role as the advance man," Wardropper says. "He was going out years in advance, doing the research, meeting people over lunch or drinks, talking up the exhibition. He was the spark plug on this. His energy and enthusiasm really drove this home."

Sigel would be the investigator. He would conduct exacting examinations of the various Bernini terra cottas, provide an essay on the artist's tools and working methods, and write a precise physical evaluation of each terra cotta included in the catalog. This would be a monumental effort -- one never before undertaken.

"It takes a long time to look at each piece," Sigel says. "Each examination results in two to three hours of audio notes and two- to three-hundred photographs, annotated, sifted and corrected."

Dickerson would be the project manager. He would keep the exhibit on track and provide aesthetic evaluations and an essay on the works. He would hire Bernini scholars to write additional essays for the catalog and a photographer to create heroic shots of each piece.

There were 60 possible contenders for inclusion in the show. The three men mapped their plan of attack.

They would visit every museum that had purported Bernini terra cottas.

"You have to see the works," says Dickerson. "It's a fundamental rule. It's one thing to see them in photographs, quite another to see their aesthetic appeal in a gallery."

Plus, because Sigel would need to do his thorough examinations, and Wardropper would need to chat up the curators and add his evaluations, they had to call on all of the institutions.

They circled April on their calendars. This is when they would all go to Rome to make the big pitch at the Vatican -- the most important one, and potentially the most difficult.

Natural disaster brings fears

In April 2010, Sigel and Dickerson waited in Rome for Wardropper to fly in from New York.

But a volcano erupted in Iceland, stranding Wardropper in London. All air travel was canceled, and if he took the train, he would miss the meeting with the Vatican. He sat and fretted in London.

Dickerson and Sigel worried about approaching the Vatican without the charming and persuasive Wardropper. But with them was Paola D'Agostino, a senior research associate at the Met, who was fluent in Italian. The three of them would have to wing it.

Sigel explains how the meeting happened: "I had a PowerPoint on my laptop that showed the kind of work I had been doing at the different venues we'd been visiting. I had examined some of their pieces previously, so I came in as an old acquaintance. C.D. laid out the aims, scope and scale of the exhibit. I showed a bit of the technical information we hoped to produce and present."

It worked. The Vatican agreed to participate.

Wardropper eventually made it to Rome, and on their last day, Sigel took them to see a little-known Bernini terra cotta in a museum in Florence. He had discovered it several years earlier in a huge glass case stuffed with tchotchkes in a remote gallery on the second floor. A little scrap of paper was propped against it with the typewritten notation, " Angels in Gloria, Bernini."

It was still there, a diamond among paste.

The three spent the summer of 2010 crisscrossing Europe, visiting museums on the Bernini hunt and determining whether the works were in shape to travel to the U.S. Three of the largest impressive modelli were deemed too fragile to move.

They would ask -- and ask again.

Fragile sculptures, canvases with peeling paint, old paintings on warped wood panels and in deteriorating frames are commonly not loaned.

"If a conservator says a work has 'X' problem, how much of a problem is that?" Wardropper says. "You can go on pestering people. Sometimes that works. I've learned over time, though, that if you ask again, gently, and they say 'No,' it's better to give up and not bother them any longer."

More stumbling blocks

In August, the team was dealt another unexpected hand.

The Russian government announced an embargo on all art loans, due to its dispute with an Orthodox Jewish community in the United States over manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik Revolution; a U.S. court had ordered Russia to surrender them. It refused, and then, fearing any art sent to the U.S. might be seized to force its hand, issued the embargo.

This concerned Dickerson, but he kept his appointment in November in St. Petersburg to look at the Bernini terra cotta at the Hermitage.

Little did he know he would face bigger stumbling blocks in Germany.

In November, the team traveled to Leipzig to look at the world's largest stash of Bernini drawings, in the Museum der Bildenden Künste, even though Wardropper's initial inquiry had been met with a flat-out "no."

"[The curator] said, 'We are doing a Bernini exhibition. I need to reserve all these drawings,'" Wardropper says. "It was a black day. He had the most important collection. I tried to find other people who might speak on our behalf, but that wasn't going anywhere."

No one they had talked to had heard anything about a Bernini show in Leipzig.

"We decided to play nice and turn up the pressure later," Dickerson says.

They moved on to Berlin and then to St. Petersburg, in a four-day trip that would entail not just work, but major wheeling and dealing.

At the Hermitage, they found dozens of 17th-century Italian terra cottas lined up in glass display cases, seven or eight of them thought to be by Bernini. Sigel wanted to examine every one.

While he scrutinized the works, Dickerson and Wardropper took turns dining with curators and scouting future loan possibilities in the galleries.

Exhibition takes shape

In January 2011, the heat was on. Dickerson, Sigel and Wardropper had to meet with multiple department heads at the Met for planning sessions on things like the catalog (it would be 416 pages) and Web design for the show, which was still more than a year and a half from opening. Loan letters, official correspondence to the lending museums outlining the scope of the endeavor and the insight their works would provide to the project, had to be written individually to each institution.

"Germany and England [were] not an issue," says Wardropper. The institutions in those countries will reply quickly. "We sent a loan letter to Berlin, and three days later it was approved."

The Italian museums were another matter. "We can't send letters to Rome out too soon," he says. "If they are too far out from the opening date, they get lost."

Russia was still under embargo, so no loan letters would be sent there, not yet. Attorneys from the Met had been working with the U.S. Department of State, and Dickerson had been assured that based on the election cycles in Russia, they could still count on pieces from the Hermitage.

Dickerson called Leipzig again. The recalcitrant curator had departed, and the new one was delighted to loan the Bernini drawings. Combined with examples from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, some from London's Victoria & Albert Museum and a few from the Getty, the team felt it had enough drawings.

It was time to start writing the entries for the catalog, but there were still museums to visit and works to examine.

Sigel visited a little town outside of Paris that was supposed to have a Bernini. Although the work was lovely, he determined it to be an 18th-century copy by a French sculptor.

Sigel and Dickerson later went to Detroit to look at the Detroit Institute of Art's three terra cottas and then to St. Louis to look at another. They decided that the one in St. Louis was not a Bernini.

By the time the evaluations and examinations were complete, the field of 60 contenders had been winnowed to 40 that they felt could be attributed to Bernini or to Bernini aided by his studio assistants.

"Attributions come and go," Wardropper says. "One has to realize it's difficult to have complete certainty."

Adds Sigel, "C.D., Ian and I are just the latest to weigh in. In another decade or two, other scholars will voice their opinions. Art scholarship is an ongoing process."

In May 2011, Wardropper dropped a bombshell. He announced that he was leaving the Met and taking a job as director of the Frick Collection, in New York City. He wouldn't begin his new job until October, but that was one year before the Bernini exhibit would open at the Met.

They had to get all of their official correspondence and loan letters out while Wardropper was still employed by the Met so as not to confuse the loaning institutions.

By midsummer, they had hunkered down to begin writing their entries for the catalog.

But there was one unresolved situation -- the Russian embargo was still in effect.

"We knew for a long time it was going to be difficult," Wardropper says. "It became a political issue. There were initiatives through the State Department through various committees and art museum directors. We held out hope, but at this point, we had to be realistic."

The Russians were not coming. There would be negotiations up until fall 2012, but then all efforts would be abandoned. The American election would be drawing near and the Russian situation was considered too volatile.

"Our feelings were, of the eight from Russia, only three were from the hand of Bernini," Wardropper says, "but the others would have been useful."

Work continued on the massive exhibit catalog; the bibliography alone would be 30 pages. After the catalog editors wrested all the pages away from Dickerson, Sigel came to Fort Worth to make a short film on Bernini's working methods, and Dickerson narrated a film about Bernini's sculptures. (Both will be shown in a gallery at the Kimbell during the exhibit.)

"Putting up an installation is a lot like a Broadway show," Wardropper says. "You always feel like you are racing to the finish line. Will everything get done in time?"

After years of all-consuming work on his dream Bernini exhibit, by fall 2012, there was nothing left for Dickerson to do until the trumpet fanfare moment of the opening at the Met.

Realization of a dream

Dickerson arrived in New York four days before the press preview, which was scheduled for Oct. 1.

"I was nervous," he says. "There are so many unknowns about how things are going to look. The Lehman wing at the Met is awkward. It's a hexagon- or octagon-shaped room, with tight walls and weird angles. But I felt immediate relief when I walked in. The exhibition looked good. It would have been too crowded if we had gotten the pieces from St. Petersburg."

Dickerson returned to the Met for the press opening.

"The biggest moment for me was walking up the steps that first day and seeing the Bernini banner stretched across the front doors of the Met," he says. "I went to school across the street, and you always imagine your first exhibition at the Met. There it was. It gave me real goose bumps."

The reviews came in; they were good.

If museums blurbed their exhibits (which they don't) as film companies do on their posters, the Met had its choice of these superlatives:

"A revelation" -- The New York Times

"Break[s] entirely new ground" -- International Herald Tribune

"One of the best designed shows of the year"-- New Jersey Star-Ledger

"Profound insight" -- Artdaily.org

There was one last New York hurdle: the scholars' day. This was a time set aside for art historians to convene and discuss the exhibit with Dickerson, Wardropper and Sigel. Their work could be challenged, and this was a real possibility.

There were more Bernini terra cottas in the world before their studies. Some pieces had been determined to be by the artist's assistants or by other sculptors, and some museums and collectors might be very vocal in their disagreement.

"As much as I wanted this exhibit to resonate with the general public, I wanted this [to be] well received in the scholarly community," says Dickerson.

He was amazed when there were no challenges and relieved when the experts said they were impressed.

Bringing Bernini to Fort Worth

Immediately after the scholars' day, Dickerson had to gear up for one last challenge: to make the Kimbell exhibit look better than the Met's.

"I know we can do better," he says. "We have more space, and we have natural light. I want to do something that will be worth the New Yorkers' time to come see it here."

To that end, Dickerson is including huge photo murals of Bernini's marble sculptures behind the terra cottas. There will be 40 terra cottas, most by Bernini but some from his assistants and other sculptors of the time for the sake of comparison, and 30 Bernini drawings on exhibit at the Kimbell.

One of Bernini's final projects was designing 10 angels for the Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome. He made dozens of terra-cotta models for the bridge, even though his assistants had to carve the sculptures. Dickerson is displaying these models in the Kimbell's long center gallery and filling its side walls with photo murals of the bridge and the human-scaled angels.

The final gallery will re-create the intimate chapel that holds Bernini's last sculpture.

"I want this to be as close as you can possibly get to seeing them in Rome," Dickerson says. "That's what I've been working on, getting it right."

The exhibit opens Sunday, and this chapter of Dickerson's résumé is complete.

His next show is in the works, but it is still too early in the process to say what it is or when it might happen.

He is holding his cards close to his vest, again.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113.

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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