Feigning a Relish

Nicholas Penny

  • The Tate: A History by Frances Spalding
    Tate Gallery, 308 pp, £25.00, April 1998, ISBN 1 85437 231 9

This useful, well-balanced and at times enthralling history of the Tate Gallery was commissioned for its centenary. It more or less coincides with the obsequies for the Gallery as we have known it and with the baptism – by marketing experts, one supposes – of TGBA and TGMA, twin offspring of the deceased, dedicated to British art and modern art respectively, and already known as Millbank and Bankside. The institution has in fact often changed identity. It began by being British but took on a North American look. The dust-jacket shows the austere lonic Portland stone sculpture hall. Spalding observes, justly, that by insisting on the intervention of the American architect John Russell Pope in 1929 the sponsor, Lord Duveen of Millbank, was promoting, against the inclinations of British curators and civil servants, the ‘latest American style’, the style of the new sculpture gallery in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Pope was subsequently chosen as the architect of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and was also responsible for the design of the Duveen Gallery for the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (not, as Spalding claims, destroyed in the Second World War but damaged and re-opened in 1962). The hushed temple in the heart of the Tate was for sculpture which had to be lent by the V & A.

Following the example of his father, Sir Joseph Joel Duveen, who commissioned W.H. Romaine-Walker to create the Turner Wing (the first Turner Wing, opened in 1910), Joseph Duveen had already paid for the new modern foreign galleries and the Sargent Gallery, which were inaugurated in 1927 (also partly the work of Romaine-Walker). Spalding records this munificence fully and illustrates the splendid rooms, but we are not encouraged to step back and reflect that in the first hundred years of the National Gallery, parent of the Tate (which was only granted full independence in 1955), none of a whole series of new galleries had been sponsored. We think of such benefactions as typically American, but were the Duveens inspired by the example of their transatlantic clients or did they favour the Tate because it had been founded at the initiative of another merchant prince, Sir Henry Tate? And why were the gestures of the Duveens so rarely imitated before the new Turner Wing of the Tate, the Clore Gallery, opened in 1987?

Spalding is remarkably candid, if often crisp, in her survey of recent developments. These include the attempt made in the mid-Eighties by the millionaire property developer and art collector Peter Palumbo to extend his power as chairman of the trustees and to reduce the role of the director, Alan Bowness, to that of a manager. The political circumstances in which this coup nearly succeeded are not neglected, but more context and commentary are required if they are to be understood. Palumbo may have been inspired in his conduct by American museum trustees, who often, and not always unreasonably, behave as if they own the institution they represent.

It was under Thatcher that the traditional role of the museum trustee in this country began to be ignored or misunderstood. Indeed the idea of an inconspicuous but vigilant custodian of the achievements of the past and an independent assessor of the needs of posterity has no place in the model of government that she espoused – and has bequeathed to her successors.

Today the Tate is no longer run by a director with assistance from curators, but by a director with a ‘management team’, which inevitably includes senior administrators with no special knowledge of art. One finds in the Civil Service and in the business world, and of course in universities and hospitals, ‘team’ members addicted to acronyms and bullet points, and dedicated to market strategies, consumer surveys and retail opportunities. A new ‘management culture’ is being absorbed by museums and galleries. It wins Lottery funding and government approval, but it tends to stifle unorthodox intelligence and has little of the sympathy for the past which is the best protector of future needs. We must hope this does not happen at the Tate.

The Gallery’s imminent division may be an appropriate moment to review the prehistory of the type of institution, or rather types of institution, which it embodies. This means looking back, not a hundred years but two hundred, and not to London or New York so much as to Paris. That city, long the chief supplier in Europe of luxury crafts, and the centre of modern fashion, was enabled by Napoleon’s conquests to appropriate much of the status previously enjoyed by Rome and other Italian cities as the repository of the masterpieces of the past. Yet after Waterloo, when British diplomats insisted on the restitution of most of the greatest cultural trophies in the Louvre, Paris somehow regained its dominance.

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[*] The British School by Judy Egerton (National Gallery, 464 pp., £50, 7 April, 185709 170 1).