Walking the tightrope between curatorial excellence and popular appeal, the NGV’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series is yet to fall short in delivering a blockbuster exhibition. First came the Impressionists showcase from the Musee d’Orsay, followed by the Dutch Masters and then the illuminating focus on Picasso, a perennial favourite. And when we thought it couldn’t get better, we were presented with the mesmerising Art Deco exhibition in 2008 followed by the stunning Salvador Dali: Liquid Desire in 2009. Building on this momentum, the NGV has announced that the series’ seventh year will see the release of one of the world’s finest collections of 19th and 20th century art from the Städel Museum, one of the oldest and most respected museums in Europe. Exclusive to Melbourne, the exhibition, European Masters Städel Museum 19th-20th Century, will provide a superb survey of the key artistic movements of the time, including Realism, Impressionism and Post Impressionism, German Romanticism, Expressionism and Modernism, and French Symbolism.

“The great appeal of this exhibition is to introduce Melbourne audiences to many fantastic German artists whose work in particular may not be that familiar,” says coordinating curator Tedd Gott. “For many reasons Australian galleries did not acquire a lot of German art, so seeing these in the context of the more familiar French works should be a real eye-opener to our audiences.”

Though most of the general public will be grateful for the opportunity to view an exhibition of this calibre, few would be aware of how it turned into a public reality. “An exhibition of this scale can take up to four to five years of forward planning before an artwork even leaves the wall of its museum,” says Gott.

Negotiations began when the NGV learned that the Städel Musem of Frankfurt was going to close in 2010 for a major expansion and rebuild. “Never have the Städel’s works left Frankfurt en masse like this,” explains Gott, “and this will be the last occasion they will ever leave Germany in such rich and impressive numbers.”

Knowing this, and bearing in mind the enormous geographic distance that separates the two countries, Dr Felix Kramer, head of 19th century and modern art at the Städel, worked towards releasing the most extraordinary number of great masterworks for tour to Australia. Says Gott, “He [Kramer] has made a surprising and engaging selection of works that at once gives us an overview of the broad range of the Städel’s 19th and 20th century collections and also focuses in great depth upon certain strengths of their collection.”

From the moment the artwork was selected, a great deal of preparation, planning and logistics were needed to ensure its smooth transition. The number of staff that work behind the scenes to achieve the end result is vast and includes carpenters, painters, designers, registrars, art handlers, exhibition managers, curators, security staff, cleaners – the list goes on. As NGV’s Senior Exhibition Designer Mark Patullo explains, “People would be surprised to find the diverse range of tasks, people and consultation involved [in] the project process and how that is all managed to deliver an exhibition experience that the public will enjoy by an opening date.”

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A part of this behind-the-scenes team is Registrar Janine Bofill, who played a crucial role in bringing this exhibition safely to Melbourne. Bofill describes this process as a mix of both stress and excitement. “It’s stressful until each crate has been opened and you know it has travelled safely on its long journey from Europe,” she says, “and then it’s like Christmas when you can relax a little and enjoy looking at the wonderful artwork that has been unveiled and you are among the first people to see it in Melbourne.”

The process for bringing the exhibition to Melbourne is involved: couriers from the Städel Museum travel with each of the shipments on trucks to the airport; they supervise the packed crates being offloaded from the trucks and safely palletised for airfreight; they travel on the aircraft in transit with the shipment stowed safely in the cargo hold; upon arrival in Melbourne each courier and shipment will be met by experienced Registration Department staff; the precious cargo will be transferred onto trucks and delivered safely under the watchful eye of the courier and NGV staff, then offloaded and secured in the exhibition galleries at the National Gallery of Victoria, International.

After such a long journey, the crates will be left to acclimatise to the temperature and humidity in the gallery for 24 hours before unpacking and condition checking. Following the acclimatisation period, each crate will be carefully unpacked by NGV staff again under the close supervision of the visiting courier. A condition report will have been prepared for each artwork before departure from the previous venue and the condition of each will be carefully examined again in Melbourne after unpacking. After it’s all unpacked, the NGV staff will then work very closely with the couriers and curatorial staff to safely install each artwork. Finally, security arrangements will be in place during the show, according to the conditions required by the Städel Museum.

Ted Gott says the pubic would be surprised to find out “just how much care is taken during the installation, especially in the checking and reporting of the condition of theses masterpieces. It is the major priority of the NGV to ensure they are returned to the Städel in exactly the same state as they were when they left that museum.”

While the logistics team work out the nuts and bolts, the rest of the NGV team are busy bringing the curator’s vision to life. Mark Patullo has the daunting design role of presenting the Städel Museum’s incredibly varied collection in a way that will enhance the visitor’s appreciation of it. From concept design and development, documentation and project management, Patullo’s job is to integrate several factors – including the nature of the art to be presented and its context, display space and other spatial issues, colour treatments, lighting, audience expectations and, of course, budget and production time.

As the exhibition’s coordinating curator, Gott’s role was to oversee many aspects of the show’s installation and interpretation in Melbourne – the preparation of extended labels, wall texts and background articles covering the themes of the show; consultation with education and multimedia departments on the preparation of an associated exhibition website; and working with exhibition installations and design crews to define the sequence and ordering of the 99 paintings and sculptures that comprise this extraordinary exhibition. Gott is also involved in briefing gallery staff about the exhibition’s art-historical content; preparing public lectures for delivery during the run of the exhibition and to make it publically engaging. This last task, of “trying to make the complex stories of the show absorbable and engaging for gallery staff and visitors alike” proves most challenging for Gott.

And the final result? “European Masters provides an unprecedented opportunity to see a spectacular group of masterpieces spanning the dynamic and transformative years of the 19th and 20th century,” says Gerard Vaughan, NGV Director. “There is something in this exhibition for everyone, from the beauty and immediacy of French Impressionism to the raw power of German Expressionism.”

He’s not kidding: the Städel’s holdings of this period are so strong that pretty much all the major artistic themes of the late 19th and early 20th are represented here. The collection is “exhaustive without being exhaustive,” Gott notes.

Open in June and concluding in October, visitors will have an opportunity to experience this exclusive art exhibition to the highest international standards, all thanks to the NGV and their behind-the-scenes team.

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces:
European Masters Städel Museum 19th-20th Century
NGV International
June 19–October 10, 2010