​So Long, Serota: Another Art Museum Returns To Reason

With the stepping down of Sir Nicholas Serota, after a thirty-year effort to turn the Tate Gallery from a dull if respectable art museum into a schizophrenic, self-congratulatory fashion brand, the art world has been relieved of one of the most overrated talents to strut upon the world stage since Herodias persuaded her daughter to commit murder through striptease.

Although he was not the first person to implement it, one of Serota’s most influential legacies was the thematic “re-hang”, which was adopted by many collections around the world. This involves the rearranging of works in a museum’s permanent collection to more resemble temporary, thematic exhibitions. The resulting juxtapositions are based not on the chronological and stylistic developments which provide a logical framework for the study of art history, but rather on an attempt to explore idiosyncratic subjects or even personal feelings, often as selected by a particular curator.

To be fair, there are merits in not always sticking to a strictly linear timeline in the display of art, at least in certain circumstances. Historic homes are one instance; temporary exhibitions exploring particular subjects are another. For the most part however, at least before Serota et al, public institutions usually stuck with logically-assembled displays for the works in their permanent collections. Thus, if you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Egyptian art collection is – surprise – displayed in the Egyptian galleries, while the French Impressionists are not.

Like all fads however, the a-historical display of art seems to be headed to the clearance racks. Regular readers will recall that a couple of years back, I reported on how Tate Britain, which was the original nucleus of Serota’s powerbase, rejected his policies and went back to its role as a preserver and educator on the subject of British art history. About a year later, I applauded the new chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, who rejected the idea of turning the public art museum into something “mushy”.  

Now the Art Newspaper is reporting that, a little more than a decade after The Getty “Serota-ized” itself, the powerhouse Los Angeles museum is going back to an historically-grounded display of its permanent collection:

The Australian director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, proposed the rehang when he was first recruited to lead the Los Angeles institution in 2012. Themed galleries are “fine as a social history of art”, says Potts, who is a specialist in ancient art. But chronology, he says, is “the only way you can understand the direction of stylistic change”.

The Getty’s return to chronology is part of a wider trend in US museums. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reopened its East Building last September with a clear historical narrative of Modern art. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently closed a year-long presentation of works from the 1960s, installed by year across nine galleries.

Hopefully even more institutions will be following suit, now that Serota is gone, and the teachings of his disciples have been anathematized by more traditional cultural institutions. I could care less what happens in museums of contemporary art, of course. But it would be nice if the leadership of traditional art institutions such as The Prado, a museum whose re-hang becomes a more painful experience every time I visit, would realize that it is time to abandon the faddish, and return to the serious study and presentation of the works entrusted to their care.

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