Friday, 10 February 2012

Blockbuster Exhibitions: Bad for Art

At last its finally over. The latest blockbuster exhibition (containing the grand total of six paintings) at the National Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, has ended. It is with us no more, deceased, kaput, and I, for one, am glad. I am sure that my feelings over this event are not shared by the curators, the critics and many of those who went to see it (are they really 'art lovers' or 'scene' lovers?), people with a vested interest in these things, but I don't care (or, I care negatively) because I felt the disruption to the National Gallery as a whole was too much. I spent a week in London in early January, went to the NG on a Wednesday and was lucky to get my small bag into the cloakroom, what with there being a large queue of dusty and shifty people snaking from outside the Sainsbury's wing entrance to the ticket desk. OK, this is fine, I thought, I'll soon be upstairs enjoying the delights of the Renaissance rooms. Except that not all of the rooms were open and not for the reason of maintaining the collection but because there weren't enough room monitors available to secure every room. The staff who monitor the rooms have been in dispute with the gallery management because their numbers are to be cut leaving each monitor to keep watch over two rooms at a time. They naturally point out the problems this would cause, endangering the collection: they don't have eyes in the back of their heads, after all. Not being able to see the Florence and Netherlandish rooms was upsetting for me so I asked a monitor in another room about this. I was told that the Leonardo exhibition had taken resources away from the main collection. Thankfully I was staying until the Saturday and was able to go back to the NG late on the Friday when the gallery stays open later and has enough staff on hand so all the rooms were open. I could feast my eyes on Piero Della Francesca's Baptism of Christ and Hans Memling's The Donne Triptych. When an exhibition, by a master, I'll admit – but who I don't appreciate, I'm a Michelangelo fan – containing a pitiful amount of paintings, disrupts the overall running of the whole gallery, then something is not right.

The last blockbuster exhibition I went to at the National Gallery was the Velázquez event back in 2007/8, it was great, it was a show with many, many paintings and well worth it. But the space that they were shown in is just not right. The NG show these exhibitions in their basement galleries, they are small, dark and increasingly cramped rooms, and when with a crowd the viewing of paintings becomes ridiculous (for what its worth, what I did in that situation was to move to the later rooms in the exhibition and work backwards, that way I saw much of the art without having to shove aside some old person!). The National Gallery is not up to showing blockbuster exhibitions, that's obvious, but are any places suitable or are such events just bad for art?

Tate Modern is based in an old industrial power generating building, it has large, bright rooms within which to showcase the modernist art of the early 20th Century, a great place for blockbuster exhibitions, surely? As it happens, no. Its perfectly suited to showing its themed gallery artworks based around Flux, Energy, and Poetry and Dreams, but any blockbuster exhibition, like the Gauguin one they did in early 2011, is mobbed out with the hoards making the viewing almost impossible. It was the same with this winter's Gerhard Richter exhibition, though to a lesser extent; just too many people (like me, yes) crowding the place. We all know about the difficulties people had at the Gauguin exhibition, so with that in mind I proclaim that blockbuster exhibitions are not for art lovers but for the 'cool people', those out to show themselves as though they were the exhibition. Art is cool now and Damien Hirst is to blame, its because of him that everyone is interested in the old masters, because of him (and her, though I like her, she is, at least, authentic) that people want to be seen to be seeing traditional oil paintings. Again. End these blockbuster exhibitions, they're bad for art.