Collections: Exhibit, Display or Preserve?

There is a reason why in any major city – London or New York, you head out of the mania of the streets and into the museum. Some of us are tourists; some are heading to see a particular work of art. But what you may have noticed on these visits is that curated exhibitions in museums are becoming more and more rare. They no longer fill the main gallery spaces, but smaller rooms located further away from the entrance (and shop). They are also, increasingly, charging in. To offset this, large institutions now have their collections housed in a large wing (or wings); open and free to view by the general public, permanently.

MOMA’s main focus is their collection and whether we agree with this imagining of the history of art is incidental. MOMA created the story of art based on the art created, or recently arrived, in New York during the period when the museum itself was coming into being. By pivoting collection displays around 1920s Surrealism and 1930s Abstract Expressionism, these works, and MOMA itself, became necessary elements in the “History of Art”.

Tate also retains a strong focus on collection. Tate Modern’s collection wing had remained predominately static until 2006, until, with the sponsorship of UBS, they arranged the collection around core classifications such as Cubism and Surrealism and how they affect later works. This was not as seismic as work done in Tate Britain in 2013 where Director Penelope Curtis created a didactic shift in how the collection was read when she over-saw a re-hang of the permanent display that changed focus from genre to the calendar year. Genres are (for now) déclassé in collections – and for that matter – art speak.

Such initiatives can dramatically alter the scope of art and the way in which we historicise it. Furthermore such all-encompassing displays allow one to notice instances in style that were not apparent when works were taken out of storage and chosen with a readymade theme in mind. In Tate, this process coincided with the beginnings of a digitisation initiative that sought to promote the interaction between a collection based predominantly in the 20thC and a public dealing with 21stC media.

One criticism levelled at museums is that at any one time a large percentage of the collection is in storage. Storage that requires a strenuous management system of air quality controls and heat regulation that costs plenty. And though preserving a treasured state asset for future generations requires this investment, it’s hard to overlook the fact that no one is getting to see it. Art students reading up on Patrick Scott or Cecil King are finding it very difficult to see these paintings in anything other than a book (or now online). But it’s not really the same is it? Furthermore the sustainability of most works are finite; the requisitioning of such works in storage does little to amplify their longevity but more serves to take away the opportunity for the public to see them before it’s too late. Some institutions opt for collection exhibitions, which to me seems like a terrible waste of time. Expensive and agonised, most of the concepts behind these shows are tenuous at best; the curator bravely attempting to fit what they have into a cogent theme. You also tend to see the same works time and again. A permanent collection wing where one can see the majority of the collection should in theory, mean audience satisfaction and saving money to boot.

Getting a community to know their collection is a very important thing. A society that takes pride and ownership of their art can begin to appreciate how necessary art is. Philanthropic donors in the US and UK place art giving at the top of their priorities because there is an understanding in their economic culture that art is of value. They know this because they are very acquainted with the art that they own; they see it everyday.

It’s time to hang collections on the walls, and keep them there.

Images: Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture. Photo: Jason Mandella at MOMA New York; Storage facilities at the Victoria and Albert Museum London.

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