Waldemar Januszczak (Sunday Times) expressed his view that the Tate Britain is a mess and its director, Penelope Curtis has to go. This led to a lot of media attention with Brian Sewell (Evening Standard) backing him up, Richard Dorment (Telegraph) disagreeing and Jonathan Jones agreeing with Januszczak’s view on the Tate but sympathetic towards Curtis’ situation. With views flying all over the place, I wanted to add my less emotive views into the debate and break the debate down into three coherent subjects:
Is the Tate Britain failing?
The short answer is no. Yes, there have been some substandard exhibitions with the inadequate Art Under Attack and Ruin Lust – which is actually not that bad in terms of the contemporary additions, it was the historic art that let it down. But there have been some exhibitions that have been generally well received by critics, including Richard Deacon, Schwitters in Britain and the latest Phyllida Barlow installation.
In terms of popular exhibitions in terms of visitor numbers, the Lowry and Pre-Raphaelites exhibitions may not be recent but they definitely drew in the crowds. And of course the magnificent rehang should not be forgotten here. True visitor numbers may have declined, but as many in the press have already pointed out, this is due to the large scale refurbishments that took place over most of last year so until we get a representative year of attendance figures, there’s no way to know if people are genuinely shunning it.
Should Penelope Curtis go?
Not my call. Art critics may well have a powerful voice but ultimately it’s the true visitor numbers (see above for what I mean by ‘true’) that will make this decision first and foremost. The Tate receives Government funding and they would be the first to flag up a concern if they didn’t feel the public purse was being well spent during the austerity times we’re in.
I’ve not heard any visitor of the Tate Britain at any time question how it’s run. They may not like certain works but they all seem content to wander the gallery and never have I heard any member of the general public who considers it a waste of taxpayers money.
What next for Tate Britain?
The Tate Britain is essentially a two headed beast as it’s a custodian for our historic art and also meant to be a champion of contemporary British art; both need to be tackled separately.
The new rehang may be an excellent start but Tate Britain needs to continue to put on world class exhibitions of historic British art. This is trickier than it first appears, sure the Tate Britain may house an immense collection but other galleries are capable of pulling off great shows – witness the marvellous Turner and the Sea at National Maritime Museum.
It’s the older generation who are most protective of our art history and are most likely to kick up a fuss if they don’t consider it’s being paid its dues in the Tate’s exhibition schedule, so it’s important to keep them engaged with solid exhibitions focussing on our heritage in art.
As for the contemporary, it’s already been flagged that all the big British names go to the crown jewel of the Tate empire – note the retrospectives of both Hirst andHamilton were held at the Tate Modern. This is not a sign that Tate Britain should resign itself to featuring the less popular artists, but it offers an opportunity to truly push the boat out.
Tate Britain has already tried this with Painting Now but in my opinion it wasn’t daring enough and the artists selected still hold fast to a traditional style of painting. The Turner Prize shouldn’t be seen as the only opportunity to show ‘edgy’ art, the Tate could have one room dedicated to emerging British talent with a regular exhibition schedule.
This would be a radical step and even more progressive than Tate Modern as it would circumvent the usual route of using the commercial galleries as a filter, but it’s relatively low risk (only one room) and would attract the younger crowds who tend to go for the more ‘exciting’ Tate Modern.
It could also involve a public vote. At the moment, most exhibitions with a ‘public vote’ aren’t truly referring to the general public but rather the art industry – as they’re probably the only ones who know about it. The Tate has a much wider reach and could speak to many more people with a genuine quality output in terms of a gallery exhibition – this would be much more effective than artworks plastered across advertising hoardings.
These are just my thoughts on the matter but I definitely feel it has mileage. Let’s see if Tate is brave enough?