After a short tenure, Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, will leave her position this summer to become the director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Although this has been presented by Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, as an opportunity for ‘a British scholar to advance her career abroad’, the truth is that her departure is the result of the pressure that a group of newspaper art critics, led by Waldemar Janusczak, had exerted since he published an article in The Sunday Times entitled “Tate Britain is in a Right Old Mess,” which concluded that, “Curtis has to go. She really does.”
To everybody surprise in a country averse to conflict like England, confrontative art critics such as Jonathan Jones (The Guardian) and Janusczak (The Sunday Times) made the executive decision that they did not like what Curtis was doing. The question, however, that this clash raises is whether museum directors have enough time and leeway to do what they have to do in these hectic times.
Tate Britain had only two substandard exhibitions compared to more than ten, during the same period at the Serpentine Gallery or at MoMA PS1. Their directors are, strangely, still in place mainly due to their celebrity oriented programs. It is true that Curtis had two faux pas during her Tate Britain years. I am referring to the rather inadequate Art Under Attack and Ruin Lust. She, however, succeeded in organising great exhibitions such as the Richard Deacon’s retrospective, Schwitters in Britain and the latest Phyllida Barlow installation, to give just a few examples.
Exhibitions such as ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ and the Pre-Raphaelites’ one drew in the crowds and of course let’s not forget the magnificent rehang that Curtis led which has changed the way visitors circulate inside the Pimlico building. True visitor numbers may have declined, but as many in the press pointed out, this is due to the large scale refurbishments that took place over most of 2013. Art critics may well have a powerful voice but ultimately it’s the true visitor numbers that should make this decision and this has not been the case.
I think that Tate boss, Nicholas Serota has to truly think about what kind of direction should Tate Britain take now. Curtis’ collection rehang was an excellent start for her but she did not excel at putting more than two 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 too and there is a limited market– witness the marvellous Turner and the Sea at National Maritime Museum.
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 and Hamilton 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.
Regarding Jonathan Jones (The Guardian) and Janusczak (The Sunday Times), their attitude is far from constructive. An art critic should not comment on appointments but give valid reasons for supporting or criticising particular shows. As I showed a few posts ago, this is not Jonathan Jones’s (see my post on Rubens at the Royal Academy) and I am starting to believe that neither is Janusczak’s. Just a thought.