Letters to the editor, May 2017

The V&A remains committed to developing curatorial expertise The March issue featured opinion pieces by Anna Somers Cocks and Mark Jones that addressed the important topic of curatorial expertise in museums (The Art Newspaper, Review, pp13-14). All of us who work in museums applaud your commitment to object-based, hands-on knowledge, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) we take pride in the many positive stories we have to tell about our expertise: it is a big part of what has made, and continues to make, the V&A the world’s greatest museum of art, design and performance. We are also grateful for the opportunity to bring into view the challenges we face—at the V&A and across the sector—as we look after growing collections with shrinking budgets.

I was disappointed, however, by a number of inaccuracies that I feel the need to address. The headline, “Is expertise at risk in the world’s greatest decorative art museum?” gave the misleading impression that we no longer have expertise in ceramics, which is not the case.

We also have the deep expertise needed to serve our extraordinary collections of designs and historic textiles. Like all museums, we have to adapt existing resources to meet new priorities, and have had to find new forms of external support to make the most of new opportunities—such as the custodianship of the Wedgwood Collection and the transfer from the Science Museum Group of the Royal Photographic Society Collection.

We have gained expertise in new areas and secured the funding needed to do justice to these exciting developments, and I want to reaffirm our commitment to supporting and nurturing curatorial talent. Our new director, Dr Tristram Hunt, has been swift to ask for input from keepers to inform and develop our approach to maintaining the highest level of talent and knowledge in our curatorial teams.

As someone who has moved between the university and museum sectors, I was also sorry to see curatorial expertise set in opposition to academic research. The V&A was founded in 1852 on the premise that both make each other stronger, and it has been leading the way ever since by creating the first designated research department in a national museum, by hosting the world’s premiere museum-based postgraduate programme in the history of design and material culture, and by launching (with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) the V&A Research Institute, which brings together museum professionals, university scholars and art and design practitioners.

This work is not just for other experts: the museum still strives to be the “true teacher of a free people” imagined by our founders, providing expert advice to government bodies, peer institutions and the general public. We remain one of the very few museums anywhere to offer an “opinions” service where people can discuss their own collections with our curators, and our in-house sessions have spread to our digital platforms, giving a wider public more ways than ever to research objects.

The genuine challenges that face the museum sector need to be aired and addressed in a way that joins us together rather than divides us. We look forward to working with colleagues, partners and members of the public in preserving both the objects in our collections and the skills needed to make them come to life.

Professor Bill Sherman, director of research and collections, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The growth in private sales is damaging the wider art market One of the virtues of the art market is that it enables us to trace the trade in works and their owners, including the prices paid, by looking at auction documents—records stretch back to at least the 17th century. Amid the many uncertainties in the art business at any time (the value of art being chief among them), auctions provide collectors with a benchmark to help them trade in art, albeit for about half of the market, usually some time after the art was created.

The developments reported in the article "Behind closed doors, private sales prosper" (The Art Newspaper, March p33) is a reflection of the desperate state of the art market, which will have growing consequences for buyers, sellers and trade intermediaries (auctioneers, dealers, etc) if the trend continues. We won’t make progress by pretending that problems don’t exist or by hiding them from sight.

The retreat into private sales—they have grown among the major auctioneers from 5% of their business a decade ago to over a fifth today—is a sign of a failing market. Any of the benefits of mixing sellers with buyers secretly (surely propelled by price transparency brought about by the internet) are likely to be outweighed by reduced confidence in the art being sold. If you don’t know what to pay will you pay as much, particularly in the absence of the competition provided by auctions?

Private sales will lead to diminishing returns for art market companies in a trade overwhelmed by a choice of new art from around the world. Furthermore, this trend is a more sinister development if you consider the ways in which art can be used as an alternative currency beyond the comprehension and reach of tax and legal authorities.

It is a pity that The Art Newspaper did not appear to consider these and other possibilities before asking more of those interviewed. If the trend in private sales continues there will be even less to report about the art market, at least of any substance.

James Goodwin, art market lecturer and author

Picasso's Guernica owes a debt to Raphael's Vatican fresco I enjoyed Gijs van Hensbergen’s article on Guernica at 80 (The Art Newspaper Review, April, pp.19-23), which emphasised the varied formal sources of Picasso’s masterpiece, from Assyrian reliefs to Roman sarcophagi, and from Rubens to Henri Rousseau. However, he does not mention that most traditional paradigm, of whom Picasso exclaimed: “Raphael is sheer heaven: what serenity those lines possess; what power!”

The “remarkable correspondences and contrasts” between Guernica and Raphael’s Vatican fresco of The Fire in the Borgo (1514) were pointed out in a penetrating article by Rudolf Kuhn (On the History and Analysis of Composition as Method and as Topic, Artibus et Historiae, 21, 41, 2000, pp.133-150). Vasari praised Raphael’s depiction of Pope Leo IV miraculously extinguishing a conflagration, and Bellori “could not imagine a more beautiful conception… in the grand style”. In 1855 Jacob Burckhardt thought that scene of “flight, rescue, and helpless lamentation… the most exalted genre picture that exists". It is highly likely that Picasso saw the Vatican Stanze on his first visit to Rome in 1917.

The Fire in the Borgo and Guernica are both dramatically-lit tripartite compositions of similar size, depicting an unstable architectural setting peopled by chaotically intersecting groups of gesticulating figures.

They share the specific motifs of an aperture lit by licking flames, a sharply diagonal and brightly illuminated wall, as well as fearful women—one at half-length leaning outwards in profile, the other with both arms raised skywards in an imploring gesture. Comparison of these works may inform the remark Picasso made “with a good deal of bitterness” to Gertrude Stein, who reported it in 1938: “They say I can draw better than Raphael, and probably they are right… but if I can draw as well as Raphael I have at least the right to choose my way and they should recognise it… but no, they say no.”

senior curator of paintings, Victoria and Albert Museum, London