A Palestinian art academy is preparing to spruce itself up for a famous guest: a $7 million Pablo Picasso masterpiece that would be the first displayed in the West Bank. But simply arranging the painting’s journey remains a far more difficult work in progress over complications such as finding reliable transport and clearing Israeli checkpoints.
The more than yearlong negotiations and planning — drawing in the Israeli military, Palestinian curators and Dutch museum officials — highlight the obstacles for even ordinary commerce or movement within the West Bank or through the few openings in the separation barrier with Israel.
"Of course, at the beginning, we saw these complications but didn’t know to what extent this would reach," said Remco de Blaaij, the curator at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, who is overseeing the proposed loan of Picasso’s 1943 "Buste de Femme."
If the painting makes it to the International Academy of Art, Palestine, by the summer — and that remains an open question — it will become the most valuable and prestigious artwork ever shown in the West Bank.
The small art school in Ramallah put in the loan request in early 2010. Normally, such inter-museum exchanges are routine and take about six months to coordinate. But de Blaaij said the logistics are still being addressed for the 52-mile (88-kilometer) trip from Israel’s international airport near Tel Aviv to Ramallah.
"The main concern is with getting into the West Bank and even more with getting out of there," de Blaaij said. "You never know what’s going to happen at checkpoints."
Beyond that, Israelis aren’t allowed to drive to certain parts of the West Bank because of safety concerns. Palestinians’ freedom of movement is limited within the West Bank. Those seeking to enter Israel require a permit and often wait for hours in line at security checkpoints.
So curators are still hunting for a reliable transport company that can drive in both Israel and the West Bank. De Blaaij said they have found an insurer but didn’t want to go into details.
The 39-by-31 inch (100-by-80 centimeter) oil-on-canvas work — a cubist deconstruction of a woman’s face, dominated by gray hues — is the Dutch museum’s most valuable piece of art and has traveled before to Sao Paolo, Brazil. For the Palestinian academy, however, it’s more than just a chance to host a renowned painting.
The Academy hopes the loan will encourage other institutions to send artworks to the West Bank. Tina Sherwell, the director of the Ramallah art school, said it will give Palestinians a chance to view world-class pieces without facing the daunting journey to Israel’s museums that are filled with famous works by artists including Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Rene Magritte.
"The arrival of the painting is a historic event for us," Sherwell said. "It is important to be able to put on for public view a historic work of art, for the first time."
The five-year-old art academy plans to begin work this month for temperature and humidity controls needed to protect the Picasso. When the "Buste de Femme" was sent to Brazil, it was accidentally left in the sun and damaged, said de Blaaij.
Elizabeth Merritt of the Washington, DC-based American Association of Museums said lending paintings to institutions in conflict zones requires the lender to perform a different kind of risk assessment, weighing whether displaying the painting is worth any harm it may face.
For years, the West Bank was the scene of violence between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military. Today, the territory — governed from Ramallah by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority but under Israeli security control — is largely quiet, but attacks occur on occasion.
The other Palestinian area, the Gaza Strip, is held by Hamas.
For the Van Abbemuseum, the reward of giving Palestinians a rare glimpse at a masterpiece outweighs the many challenges.
"We see it as spreading knowledge," de Blaaij said. "It would be lovely if we could do it and make it not only an idea."