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Tate Britain Director defends curatorial changes

Constable and Turner experts may go

Tate Britain is overhauling its curatorial department, leading to the departure of several highly experienced specialists. A spokeswoman says that it is “not a cost-cutting exercise”, but an attempt to get “more even curatorial coverage across the collection”.

A leading Constable specialist, Anne Lyles, who organised “The Great Landscapes” exhibition in 2006 is expected to leave. Karen Hearn, arguably the top expert in 16th- and 17th-century British art, may also depart. She played a key role in the 2008 acquisition of Rubens’s sketch for the Banqueting House ceiling in Whitehall and organised the early section of the gallery’s “Migrations” exhibition (until 12 August). Ian Warrell, a foremost Turner specialist, has also been considering his position. All have worked at the gallery since the 1990s. Some may continue to work as consultants on Tate projects.

A Tate spokeswoman was unwilling to discuss individuals, as negotiations are under way. “While certain periods within the 500-year range of the collection are well covered, others are under-represented. A small number of posts will be lost as a result of this process, while new ones at different levels will be created,” says the spokeswoman, adding that the total number of pre-1900 curators will stay at ten.

Tate Britain is taking on five pre-1900 curatorial staff to replace those who have left in the past few months or are due to shortly. Two new posts have just been advertised, covering the periods 1750 to 1830 and 1850 to 1915. The Tate sees the move as bringing “new blood” into the organisation and wants to make greater efforts to train younger curators.

Critics claim the departure of experienced staff signals the fact that Tate Britain is shifting its resources from historic art to the 20th and 21st centuries. This reflects the interests of younger visitors and the perceived need to compete with the attractions of Tate Modern.

Penelope Curtis, who became the director of Tate Britain in 2010, strongly rebuts this charge, insisting that she is “not downgrading the historic collection”. Space is limited because of the refurbishment of galleries in the south-east quadrant. This means that pre-1900 art is mainly confined to one very large room, which has 67 works, along with a large display of romantic paintings in the Clore Gallery and some historic pictures in several other small displays. Of the works on show in the permanent galleries, 279 are pre-1900 and 270 post-1900. Next spring, when the building work is finished, there will be a full chronological sequence of rooms, with half of the historic collection on display.

The Tate faces a 15% cut in its government budget over the four years up to 2014/15. However, Curtis stresses that the curatorial review is about “the best use of resources, not about cuts”.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Director defends curatorial changes'