Friday, 28 March 2008

Auspicious Comments from Dr. Penny

In a confidence-inspiring interview with the Art Newspaper, the London National Gallery's new director, Dr. Nicholas Penny, has shown his awareness of two problems that have plagued not only the NGA but many other British museums as well: weak holdings of American 19th century pictures and an emphasis on special exhibitions to the detriment of curatorial work on the permanent collection.

It appears that his time at the National Gallery has helped him see the value of painters like Thomas Eakins, and he's absolutely right that "Bellows is a great artist whose work can stand comparison with Goya and Monet." (His The Lone Tenement from the National Gallery in Washington is above.) The British public deserves to see more of these and others; the Gallery feels woefully incomplete with only Sargent to represent the cultural production of an entire country.

Though it's not clear that this is what Penny is suggesting when he bemoans the move towards blockbuster exhibitions with little scholarly relevance, a more vital relationship with the permament collection would serve the NGA well. Directing curatorial efforts to fleeting, work-sapping loan exhibitions leaves the permanent collection galleries to become "a tomb where the past and its taste remain preserved", to quote Adam Gopnik. "Idea installations" should be made in the galleries and pictures should be cycled in and out of storage. The opportunities for new comparisons and conversations would be welcomed by scholarly staff, as well as by visitors- temporary permanent collection exhibitions could be promoted just like loan shows to get visitors in off the street. Urgency need not come from loans alone.

It looks like Dr. Penny is aware of the problems. Let's hope that he has what it takes to fixthem.

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