V&A Director Alan Borg says, “The idea of keeping museums separate from the trade needs to disappear, particularly for the contemporary world”

V&A edges toward the cutting edge—and commerce



What’s on this month? “Art of the Sikh Kingdoms” open at the end of March. We’re doing it to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Sikh Khalsa or “Order of the Pure”, which laid out the rules for the Sikh religion, and because we have a superb collection of Sikh art. The exhibition travels to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and in National Museum in Delhi in India. In March we’ll also have a lithography exhibition called “Perceptions of Byzantium”; the Cartier-Bresson photography show and a show about the new design company called Inflate, which makes inflatable accessories.

We have “A Stage for Dionysos”, from the National Museum in Athens, at the Theatre Museum in London, an annex of the V&A.

Will the centenary of the naming of the V&A on 17 May launch any new fund-raising campaigns or approaches at the V&A? We shall use it to remind people—in connection with our proposed spiral building by Daniel Libeskind—about the role which the V&A has to play in the contemporary world of art and design. Because of our huge, rambling building, you could walk around for ages and fail to realise that we are involved in contemporary art. But the contemporary is at the centre of what we do and that should radiate out into the historical collections, not just be an add-on.

How does the proposed Libeskind building fit in with this? Vast as it is, the V&A is full up. Assuming humanity has a future, we can’t go on collecting in the traditional way—there just isn’t room. You’ve got to think of ways of doing things quickly, changing displays. We won’t actually keep the things, we won’t be collecting and displaying in so many rows of glass cases, and that’s why the spaces in the new building will be different. They’ll be much more active: there will be artists making things, and traditional galleries, as well as selling galleries. The idea of keeping museums separate from the trade needs to disappear, particularly for the contemporary world.

So will the museum become a dealer, a gallery in which one can buy things? I don’t think museums should be afraid of attempting to lead taste. If we’re not going to do it, who is?

Here we are, supposed to be the national museum of art and design, and we think something is good so we put a special focus on a certain designer or artist. It’s my intention to come out of 1999 with a change of approach which will allow us to be seen as an important space for contemporary British design.

Forthcoming exhibitions “Design and the Digital Age” is coming in the summer. At the end of 1999-2000 there will be a series of millennium exhibitions, starting with one of the biggest Art Nouveau surveys ever mounted. It will travel to National Gallery in Washington afterwards. We are looking at how the Art Nouveau movement evolved city by city. The number of cities we present will depend upon the number of sponsors. The second major show in 2000 is “brand.new”, which will be about branding new products, giving them a visual image.

In 2001 we will put on a Victorians show to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria. Even further ahead in 2002, we shall hold the last of the series of great medieval shows, which started with Anglo-Saxons show at the British Museum, went through the Romanesque at the Hayward, the Gothic at the Royal Academy and ends here with the late Middle Ages and the early Reformation.

Winning combinations We are just finishing one which has come as a surprise: Aubrey Beardsley alongside “Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving”. There is a link because they are both great virtuosi, interested in the use of line and pattern, in quite different ways. Both have been enormously popular.

Who chooses? We have an exhibition committee of about half a dozen people to discuss what comes in. Decisions are made by myself in cooperation with the heads of research, development, exhibitions and several curators. But we can’t do any show now unless we get sponsorship; therefore it’s essential to have a good development section. Grinling Gibbons was sponsored by Glaxo—there’s no obvious connection between wood carving and pharmaceuticals, but Glaxo saw that although Gibbons was not a very well-known artist, he made material of the highest quality. Also, you have to try to keep some sort of balance. I’m conscious of the fact that it’s been a long time since we did anything Chinese and I’ve asked the Far Eastern department to think about it.

Loan policy? We try to be as generous as we can but loans are very time-consuming. At the moment we are involved in a major renewal of the British Galleries so we are restricting loans more than we have in the past until 2001, when they reopen. We require at least a nine-month lead time for loans, which is reasonable.

Anywhere with a serious exhibitions programme knows what they need well before then, so if they can’t get round to asking then it’s their fault.

Nonetheless, we always try to help in areas where there’s nowhere else to go for the material.

Are exhibitions developed by V&A curators or by people from the outside? It’s fifty-fifty. Beardsley was done inside, Gibbons outside. We’re always keen to look at the exhibitions market. If there are good exhibitions elsewhere we like to know about them.

Average lead time? Varies, but the really big exhibitions will be talked about five years in advance.

How many exhibitions do you put on per year?

Two or three major ones, but at least half a dozen smaller shows around the collections.

What amount of space at the V&A is devoted to the permanent collections versus temporary exhibitions? The entire site is some twelve acres and there are three temporary exhibition spaces of around 400 square metres each. Libeskind’s Boilerhouse annex would add about 7000 square metres of useable public space.

Attendance figures Total visitor figures for 1997 were 1,040,750 and for 1998 they were 1,101,881, a growth of six percent. Our top exhibition attendances recently have been 230,836 for “Cutting Edge Fashion” in 1997, 129,593 for “Carl Larsson design” and 186,961 for “The Power of the Poster” in 1998.

Ideal catalogue Over the last few years the V&A has moved away from the traditional catalogue and begun publishing books which accompany the exhibition, which have a longer life.

Approach to interpretation and labelling It’s important to remember that people come to museums for different reasons. If you come just to glimpse the highlights, you should be able to do that quickly. Equally, if you come as a serious scholar you should be able to obtain a detailed level of information. I’ve just commissioned a study of audio guides—we’ve never used them here—and we are likely to introduce them over the next couple of years.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Edging toward the cutting edge—and commerce'