Unimpressed by the relentless barrage of blockbusters, Andrew Lambirth singles out some small-scale gems
Although it can’t be easy to run a major museum in this country, and balance the books as well as fulfil a remit to provide the best possible conspectus of past and contemporary art for the general public, our museums are becoming increasingly narrow in what they offer. The range of art on show in London, for instance, has shrunk alarmingly, as the Whitechapel, the Serpentine and the Tate pursue very similar programmes, vying to be the first to put on the same internationally fashionable artists. Big names are required to draw the crowds, but these do not seem to be balanced by smaller shows of lesser-known artists, and the Tate in particular is failing in its role to show the wealth of art currently being produced in Britain, and the considerable achievements of British art over the last century (not to mention the historical collections).
The out-and-out success of Hockney at the RA and Freud at the NPG will only spur museums on to repeat the recipe, and provincial museums are following the pattern. Unbelievably, an exhibition of ‘paintings’ by Rolf Harris opens this week at the once distinguished Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, entitled with the TV entertainer’s popular catchphrase Can You Tell What It Is Yet? Admission is free, so I can only assume getting large audiences into the building is the aim, as if this will encourage people to return and look at something a little more intellectually challenging or aesthetically nourishing than Rolf’s daubs. In the meantime, for many of us, the Walker’s credibility as a serious museum has been disastrously dented.
Down at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol, the attempt to lure the paying public continues (they had a dreadful show of David Shepherd’s animal pictures recently) with a drawing of the American singer Rudy Vallée purported to be a very early work by Andy Warhol, going on show in July; will this draw the punters? The RWA certainly did well with its Ravilious exhibition in March and April, but Eric Ravilious (1903–42) has rapidly become a national treasure, and his superb watercolours are now deservedly famous and widely popular.