Milbourne: I am not sure I would go so far as to say collaborations with African National Museums are the norm. At NMAfA, we have been working on a collaboration with the National Museums board of Nigeria on an Owo show, but there is no guarantee that this collaboration will happen given a number of real challenges. And while the bureaucratic complications are lessened when dealing with a gallery rather than a museum, in general, museums in the United States try to avoid exhibiting works from galleries because they are commercial enterprises. It is also our policy not to show private collections without an arrangement that the works on view won’t be placed on the market afterwards with increased values thanks to the exhibition.
Just last year, however, NMAfA did collaborate with ArtSource South Africa to take Paul Emmanuel: Transitions. I would say the main obstacle is not philosophical but financial. Museum for African Art was willing to go to great lengths and costs to show the Ife works (and let me just say the show is absolutely breathtaking) because there was no other way to show them. This is not the case with contemporary art. And let me be clear that it is unbelievably expensive to ship works of art internationally. Most museums right now are moving away from doing any international loans—from Europe, Africa or elsewhere. My Artists in Dialogue series has a shipping budget in the six figures, and this is for exhibitions where much of the art is made on site. With the first exhibition in the series, it took months to negotiate CITES regulations as artist Antonio Ole had included fish bones and a crab claw in some artworks. In the end, both the Angolan Embassy in the US, and the US Embassy in Angola had to become involved. In addition to this, there were times we weren’t sure we could ship the art at all because we could not find a company in Angola working with the treated wood required by US customs for the fabrication of the crates. So we weren’t sure that even if we could get the crates fabricated, we could get them in the country. The logistics for the current Artists in Dialogue 2 were so complicated that we nearly didn’t make the opening, even though we’d had two years in which we made every effort to plan. International collaborations are hard and most museums, at least in the US, are facing tremendous staffing shortages and budget cuts making the collaborations we all desire increasingly difficult.
That being said, not only are we trying to collaborate with our continental counterparts where feasible on exhibitions, we are also seeking to find ways of collaborating professionally by partnering with both scholars and artists on the continent. So maybe the exhibitions aren’t taken from African organizers, but we are working to make sure there is an interactive approach to the development of exhibitions in the US.