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Wednesday 27 February 2008

Galleries, banks and blockbusters

A long overdue discussion has broken / is breaking / is about to break. Nicholas Penny, the newly-installed director of the National Gallery has stuck his head above the parapet to say that in his opinion: The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they have not seen before. Also, he has gone on record as saying: I have a lot of thinking to do about our exhibitions and the direction they are taking. The direction they have increasingly taken over the past thirty to forty years has been for more and more and bigger and bigger blockbusters of artists of popular appeal, the (mostly) dead celebs of the art world, in fact. We have seen Velasque, Titian, Monet (more than once) and their like; we have seen long queues at the box offices and no doubt the galleries have seen welcome improvements to their bank balances. All to the good, of course. Nothing wrong with any of that. It is what is, or might be, sacrificed that is the cause for concern. Dr Penny has now shown us the kind of thing he thinks has been sidelined: his new exhibition is of the work of Giovanni Segantini, Luigi Russolo and Guiseppe Pellizza.

Rohan Maitzen at Maitzen Reads pulls from Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep an interesting quote on the purpose of literary criticism and the critic's responsibility, which, it seems to me, could as easily have been directed towards the point and purpose of a major art gallery and the curator's responsibility. It is not, Booth suggests to pack.... only the best that has been.... but to find those forms of critical talk, that will improve the range or depth or precision of our appreciations. Take out the phrase critical talk and substitute some other that has to do with the display of visual art, and we are just about where I think we should be. And what then of the blockbuster? I see no reason why the two forms of exhibition should not thrive in each other's company, indeed, why they should not support each other. Why not link one of each, not necessarily at the same gallery but have two galleries co-operating maybe, and have each promote the other. Sell joint tickets, for example, or have each selling discounted tickets for the other? I seem to recall that the exhibition of Mexican Art that bowled me over in my student days was the blockbuster of its time. It is now too far back for my memory - or the web, it seems - to date, though I will say the fifties, and was way earlier than any suggestions I have seen for the first blockbuster. It may not have drawn crowds to equal those that went to Tutankhamun, nor put as much away in the bank for its organisers, I just don't know, but the reason I raise it at all is to point out that it fulfilled both requirements: it drew people, including those who did not frequent galleries, and it introduced them to an art they had not seen before.

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