'Show us what you've got' - the scandal of great art in store
October 31 2014
My latest piece for the Financial Times, which you can listen to as a podcast here and read here, looks at the sometimes staggering amount of good paintings our leading museums keep in storage. Would you believe that out of Tate's 50 oil paintings by John Constable, just three are on show at Tate?
And by chance Jonathan Jones has also touched on the same question over in The Guardian. He went to Tate Britain recently to see some of their William Hogarths:
So I got to Tate Britain and headed for its 18th-century gallery. But where was Hogarth’s self-portrait? Where were Tate’s other terrific examples of his art? Nowhere. I hate to moan (no really, I do) but I have to ask why the man who invented British art is so glaringly absent from Tate Britain’s “Walk Through British Art”.
Actually, I think this is a subject well worth moaning about.
Finally, over on Tribune de l'Art, Didier Ryckner reports that the Louvre's plans to build a new €60m storage depot 200km outside Paris have caused uproar amongst the Louvre's curators. They fear, quite rightly I'd have thought, that once so many pictures are so far away, there won't be much rotation of art works at the Louvre itself. That said, at the moment, even with the storage in the Louvre's basements (where there is a risk of flooding of course, being next to the Seine), one regularly sees long-standing gaps on the walls when pictures are taken off on loan or for conservation.
Update - a reader writes to point out that Jones just missed out on a cache of Hogarths because of Tate's new 'spotlight' exhibition on Hogarth portraits, which opened on 27th October. In my experience, such a turn of events is, however, very much the exception. And it still seems to me a shame that as great an artist as Hogarth has to wait for his turn in the spotlight. He should be permanently in the limelight.
I remember looking at the number of Hogarths Tate's website said was on display some months ago (I've had this article in mind for some time), and I recall it was something very low like two or three.
Update II - another reader writes:
The National Gallery used to boast that all its paintings were on display, but this was in the halcyon days of Neil MacGregor's directorship (before you were born); and meant that the zweite garnitur was hung hugger-mugger, cheek by jowl, in the lower ground floor. Successive trustees and directors of the National Gallery have steadily weakened their commitment to ensuring that everything is on display, to the extent that the reopening of the lower ground floor this (?last) year, with only a small percentage of the lesser pictures, was hailed as a major advance. The Tate, on the other hand, has never been embarrassed about the huge extent of the iceberg below display. What is needed is a clear commitment to the permanent collections, even if this comes at the (literal) expense of exhibitions; but it would need trustees much more courageous than any appointed in recent years to acknowledge that the public has a right to see what it owns, immediately, and not by appointment or in an exhibition several years hence.
Which is why I should immediately be made a trustee of everything.
Update III - another reader writes, from the US, with this sad note:
Some storage items are never seen as they may be stored from the day they are donated to the day they are sold, as happened to my mother's gift.
Update IV - another US reader writes:
Hang paintings in the nineteenth century manner as at the Barnes Foundatoin [below] and you can show the entire collection.
Indeed. The Wallace Collection is another example of this hanging style, and I've always thought it works well.
Update V - a reader writes:
Worth adding that four of the Tate's Constables are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in their Constable exhibition?
Even if all four of these go back on display at Tate, that still leaves 43 in storage...
Update VI - a reader who has held senior curatorial positions in both regional and London galleries writes:
Many, perhaps most regional galleries, have large numbers of pictures in store (as BBC Your Paintings shows). There are wonderful exceptions but, sadly, many can't cope with their existing collections. It's a matter of staffing and resources. There is no point in redistributing art unless the resources go with the redistribution. But I agree about being more relaxed about lending and moving.
Which is true, though I would add that to resources we might, in some cases need to add gumption. Some regional curators and directors are much more active and enthusiastic than others when it comes to acquiring, displaying and borrowing. The late Brian Stewart, for example, ran Falmouth Art Gallery on a shoestring, but managed to put on the most extraordinary displays.
Also, it's undeniably the case that many of the pictures in regional museum's stores are hardly top line. My main point is that some London galleries have pictures which they might not feel are quite good enough for permanent display in a limited hanging space; but for smaller galleries they would be handsome additions to any hang.
Update VII - a reader makes this perceptive point:
With regards to Tate Britain, I wish the director or curators could have the imagination to stage a grand rehang in classical style for the vast Duveen Halls, along the lines of the Koch gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. That would be splendid way to showcase some of the grand 18th and 19th Century paintings, and maximize the wallspace of this much under-used central space.
I've mentioned this before, in relation to the fine hang in a similar space at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Update VIII - a reader recently tried to borrow one of the stored Constables; 'we're too busy', was Tate's response. Tate also require, I'm told, nine months notice for a loan request. Most galleries are happy with six, though since museum world bureacracy moves at a famously glacial pace, it's obviously better to get your request in long before that.