Thursday, 17 September 2009

Art galleries

Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about plans for Southampton Council to sell two pieces of artwork for £5 million in order to fund a new museum dedicated to the Titanic. These proposals are very controversial, and are provoking a great deal of discussion in the local area.

My question is simple: What is the point of council art galleries? Every council from the Orkneys to Cornwall will have their own art collections, with galleries dedicated to displaying them to the public (although sometimes only a small proportion of the available artwork is displayed). They also employ curators and general staff to care for the artwork - hardly a core business for a council.

Art galleries are undoubtedly necessary, in the same way that museums or parks are. I would say the aim of such galleries is to educate the local population in art and to embrace the imagination of the viewer. Yet one of my abiding memories from going to the Derby City Council art gallery as a child was one of staleness. You would go back six months' later and see exactly the same exhibits. It was, frankly, a turn-off.

My proposal is simple: The central Government slowly buys all artwork held by councils and puts them into the national collection. In return, the national collection produces a large number of coherent exhibitions - for instance exhibitions of paintings by Turner, Lowry or Monet. These can then be 'loaned out' to council galleries who are part of the scheme. These exhibitions could be large or small, or could focus on periods rather than individual painters. They could be tailored to an individual area - for instance, 'East Anglia in the 1800's'. Such an exhibition could display many paintings that are currently held in many different collections.

What local art galleries need is a regular churn of exhibits, where things change every few months, causing both publicity (e.g. 'come and see the exhibition of Joseph Wright paintings; in the art gallery until the end of October!') and interest for the public. This will hopefully cause people to visit them more regularly, as there will often be something new to see.

As they would be part of complete exhibitions, the context and information on each painting could be presented in a much more holistic manner. It also means that councils can stop doing something that is certainly not a core job for them - acquiring and maintaining artworks - and instead concentrate on something that should be their core job - bringing artworks to the people.

If an area has an indelible link with a particular painter - say Suffolk for Constable, Lowry for Liverpool or Wright for Derby - then permanent displays can be made for them, as long as individual paintings within can be re-loaned temporarily to form other exhibitions. For instance, there might be a temporary 'Lowry' travelling exhibition, using items in-store in Liverpool along with some of the gems of his work.

It has an advantage for the national collection as well. At the moment the national collection has far more pieces that it can possibly display. It also loans many pieces out to other galleries around the country. Instead of loaning individual pieces out on demand, it will make entire, contextualised exhibitions that can tour the country. There will still be many pieces in store, but hopefully it will give them many more opportunities to be displayed.

Will this happen? I guess not. There are many practical considerations, with cost possibly being the most pressing. Space would also be a problem - art galleries around the country would differ in size, and an exhibition that was ideally-sized for a larger one would be too small for another. Yet, despite these (and other) problems, anything that gets more people to visit the galleries would be worthwhile.

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