The strange and illogical development of England's national art museums

As the Tate and National Gallery consider the limits of their collections, Giles Waterfield on the latest in a 200-year wrangle between institutions <br>


The news that Tate Modern’s new displays will include substantial representation of work beyond the Western canon, with artists from 57 countries, and will include more work by women, reflects a further episode in the strange, apparently illogical, development of national art collections in England (though not Scotland or Wales). It is a development that results from the steady expansion over generations of what was considered worth acquiring for the nation.

The British Museum, the first institution of its kind in the world, was originally intended to contain classical sculpture as well as prints and drawings and paintings. The latter escaped in the 1820s with the foundation of the National Gallery, intended for paintings and nothing else. When the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) was established in the 1850s, it was an internationally innovative museum that set about acquiring sculpture from the Renaissance onwards—a novel approach at the time in world museum terms. Further complexity was added by the creation of the Tate Gallery, officially a branch of the National Gallery until the 1950s, which largely relieved the nuisance of showing British art (as successive directors had seen it) at the latter, and in an unadventurous way—missing more artistic boats than in retrospect seems possible—embarked on creating a modern collection. The situation was compounded by the existence of two national print rooms, in Bloomsbury and in South Kensington, as well as a significant group of pictures at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  

Efforts have been made to sort out this untidy spread.  The most energetic attempt was made in the 1860s with the proposed move of the British Museum’s print room to join the national collection of paintings, but it failed. A more modest initiative was made with the reopening of Tate Britain in 2000 when historic sculptures were borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum and elsewhere, though this illuminating experiment soon ended. Predictably, museums are always loath to part with major elements of their collections. Now Gabriele Finaldi has proposed to bring the National Gallery’s collections closer to the present. There is a sense of lively ferment in our national art collections.

Tate’s current proposals are not exactly radical: it has been showing international art in its temporary exhibition programme for some years. Equally, at the Centre Pompidou, a 2015 rehang of the permanent collection focused on introducing a global survey of 20th century art—an interesting exercise but one that caused consternation in some circles, as one of the two great collections of modern art in the world put away many of its Picassos and Matisses in order to educate its public in work by Asian, African and Latin American artists it had never heard of. Tate will not be faced with a similar problem, since its holdings of modern masters (and mistresses) remain patchy. Ever since Tate Modern opened, it has ingeniously masked the weaknesses of its collections by arranging them in thematic displays. The energetic proposed expansion into international art will allow the permanent collection to become even more exploratory, and alleviate its 20th-century shortcomings in comparison with the Pompidou or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

As for the National Gallery/Tate dilemma, the question is whether Tate can supply what Finaldi wants. Tate can hardly be expected to transfer permanently or even lend very many works other than in the field of British art (and this writer hopes the National Gallery will give 19th century and early 20th century British art more attention).  Nor can the National Gallery easily compete for the very small number of major works in this area coming up for sale. Finaldi’s proposals may have to be realised through long-term loans from museums overseas. Given that the Berlin museums are strangely reluctant to show their early 20th-century German art collections, and that the Pompidou is tending to show less of its classic modern collection, such loans may well be feasible.  

What would be truly revolutionary would be if Finaldi suggested breaking out from the National Gallery’s restriction of its permanent displays to Europe, in order to embrace the world in the way that the Tate is doing. A bold start was made in this direction by the former director Nicholas Penny’s acquisition of George Bellow’s Men of the Docks in 2014, the National Gallery’s first-ever modern US painting. Could the National Gallery go much further than crossing its chronological frontiers, and leap beyond Europe too?