Museum Exhibitions Years in the Making Are Felled by the Virus

The Ghent Altarpiece was never supposed to leave St. Bavo’s Cathedral again. Not after the 15th-century masterpiece was nearly destroyed by rioting Calvinists in 1566. Not after its panels had been stolen at least six times: once by Napoleon, later by the Nazis (who took the whole thing). Church leaders in Ghent, its Belgian home, were overjoyed in 1945, when the altar by Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert was returned.

“The cathedral decided it would not leave anymore,” said Maximiliaan Martens, an expert in early Netherlandish painting, who would have a hand in changing this. Dr. Martens, 59, first saw the altarpiece when he was 3, has studied the work of Jan van Eyck for 35 years and helped oversee the restoration of the panels at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent beginning in 2012. As the work continued, Dr. Martens and museum employees persuaded cathedral authorities, just this once, to lend out some of the recently restored panels.

“It felt terrible,” Dr. Martens, who was a co-curator of the exhibition, said. “My work was done, the selection, making the catalog, you name it, but I feel very sorry for all those people who haven’t been able to see it.”

Museum exhibitions in much of the world were put on pause in early or mid-March, postponed indefinitely as many countries issued strict stay-at-home orders. But as shutdowns continue, it has become clear that some shuttered shows will not reopen. Others will never open their doors. Many more are in limbo.

The behind-the-scenes work on a major museum exhibition usually takes years, involving fund-raising, difficult loan negotiations with other museums and collectors, scholarship and catalog production, events planning, complicated transport and sometimes major restoration. A cancellation can be heartbreaking for those who have spent years planning an exhibition. For museums that have sunk money into them and depend on the ticket revenues, it can be a grim financial reality. But it might be the only option, as it was for the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent when the Belgian government extended lockdown measures into May.

“It was clear that it would be impossible for us to reopen the exhibition,” Cathérine Verleysen, the acting general director of the museum, said. “We had to take everything into account: renegotiations of loans, new insurance policies, security assignments, et cetera. So we decided not to reopen and not to extend.”

With more than 70 lent objects, all with individual contracts, a postponement would have meant each one would have needed an extension. And, pressingly, the museum sold 144,000 tickets in advance that cannot be used and are being refunded.

“It’s like a big puzzle that was put together in a very careful way,” Dr. Verleysen said, and it’s a puzzle to take it apart, too.

Postponing or extending a show can be a logistical nightmare involving loan extensions, costly insurance and issues with overlapping exhibitions in the future. And even under the best museum conditions, there is only so long that fragile objects can be on display.

The museum has indefinitely postponed a Jean-Michel Basquiat show that was to open in October, in part because of worries about loans. Also, Dr. Steward said, “The idea of mounting a million-dollar Basquiat exhibition when our students might not be here to benefit from it and be taught from it felt like the wrong priority.” Because of a long-planned renovation of the museum in 2021, he estimated that the postponement would be for four years or more.

With conditions like this in mind, the organizers of the van Eyck show said they felt fortunate that the exhibition was able to open for as long as it did: 129,000 visitors came in the first weeks, which Dr. Verleysen said were large numbers for the museum. At least “we had the opportunity to share this beautiful exhibition,” she said. And, too, the crisis puts things in perspective. “It is very sad for our exhibition, but for so many other things it’s even more sad,” she said.

Dr. Martens will always have the memory of standing in a room filled with van Eyck’s portraits right after they were hung, an experience he said was “indescribable.” Never before had these portraits been in the same room, even in van Eyck’s lifetime. “It was like talking to his patrons, to his wife, to his friends, to his colleagues,” he said.

When they can travel again, the portraits will scatter around the world once more. The Ghent altarpiece will eventually return to the cathedral for good. These works will almost certainly never be reassembled. Dr. Martens said: “This wasn’t just once in a lifetime. It was only once.”

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