“Gloriously, satisfyingly reactionary,” is the assessment of the Torygraph’s art critic, Richard Dorment, on the renovations to Tate Britain, the London museum dedicated to British art from the 16th-21st centuries. The museum’s Director, Penelope Curtis, has presided not only over the renovation of the galleries themselves, but in re-hanging the paintings contained within it in chronological order. In so doing she is bucking an unfortunate trend which hit public museums like the Tate, and the Hirshhorn here in Washington among others, in which their sense of purpose was forgotten in the fight to re-brand themselves as beacons of hipster nonsense.
Beginning around a decade ago a number of public art institutions, inspired by the example of Sir Nicholas Serota at the Tate conglomerate began to rearrange the collections of painting and sculpture in their care. The exercise lead to the works being displayed, not chronologically or in “schools”, as one would study them in art history, but in whatever bizarre arrangement the management felt would draw in the curiosity-seeking public, and get them more press. Curators would decide that a group of completely unrelated works evoked thoughts – for them, anyway – about sex, the environment, a cause du jour, and so on, and group them together, often in a highly discordant fashion.
At the time, the art press went into raptures over the idea that this idea was something bold, new, and fresh – which of course it wasn’t. If you have ever been to a private museum, such as The Wallace Collection in London, you know that oftentimes private collectors and their families hung pictures of different centuries and styles together in their homes. They did so because they liked the way the pieces looked together, as well as matching the colors of the drapes, furniture, or carpets. Some pieces then occupied the space they did because they were thematically suited to the purpose of a room, or conversely were banned from a particular room because they were ill-suited to it. One would not like to see a painting of the beheading of St. John the Baptist hanging over the sideboard in the dining room, for example, even if it was by Sassetta.
However when more public institutions began to make similar idiosyncratic arrangements of their collections copying Serota’s lead, there was quite correctly a vociferously negative reaction from those of us who love good art, but who thought that museums were losing their way. There is a time and a place for creating what are popularly called “mash-ups” of seemingly conflicting elements in exhibition spaces: it has always been the purview of the temporary exhibition to juxtapose works which might not otherwise be displayed nearby each other, so as to encourage the visitor see the connections between them. Artists always influence each other, sometimes centuries apart, and so for these traveling shows the mixture of styles and centuries can work rather well. The highly-regarded Manet/Velázquez show at The Metropolitan in 2003 was a good example of this.
The point of the public museum is not to indulge the personal whims, bad taste, and general ignorance of its leadership. Serota for example once argued that the great High Renaissance master Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks” should be allowed to be sold and leave the country, since British public institutions needed to collect more “foreign” art – apparently forgetting the fact that Raphael was from Urbino in present-dy Italy, and never set foot in Britain in his lifetime. Unfortunately this is the sort of person leading most major public art collections these days, and we all suffer as a result.
Rather museums are meant to be institutions which both preserve art for future generations, and educate us as to its history and meaning. Having been established for the public good, they are provided with certain legal protections and exemptions, as well as taxpayer funding. As a result, they are not meant to be a rich man’s plaything, nor a venue for proving to others in your field that you are a bigger hipster than they are. Thus it is a very good thing indeed to see that Director Curtis has taken the time to examine the role of the art museum in public life, and to try to recapture a sense of purpose from which all may benefit.