Open Letter to the Tate

“This letter was sent to Dr Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, on 6 December 2014. Although addressing what I see as problems with that particular gallery display, I believe the issues raised have a much wider application, not only in the visual arts but in a wider cultural setting. And I believe they are of profound importance”. Garry Kennard

Dear Dr. Curtis,

‘Should we not say that we make a house by the art of building, and by the art of painting we make another house, a sort of man-made dream produced for those who are awake.’

Plato, The Sophist

Recently I made two visits to Tate Britain. The first was to see the ‘Late Turner’ exhibition and the second to view the gallery as a whole. I know the gallery well, having worked in the publications department in the late sixties and visited many times since. I had not until recently seen the new hang of the exhibits.

In spite of your efforts towards clarifying the collection I think that the hang of the galleries is a failure. This is why.

I believe that works of art must, at some level, offer the possibility of transforming our psychological states from the aloof, analytic, everyday to the emotional, engaged and even ecstatic. To do this the viewer must be allowed to give attention to particular works. Many contemporary exhibitions of visual art, in my experience, neglect this.

It seems to me that contemporary curators feel that to justify their existence they must first and foremost be educators. Each exhibition must hang on a narrative so as to explain the work put before the visitors. The narrative, not the work itself, becomes the subject of the show. To my mind all of these narratives, the value of which I do not deny, can be much better told in books or videos. To make them the subject of an exhibition is to deny the fundamental reason we go to art – for its potentially transforming and emotional impact. To visit an exhibition these days is like going to a concert and having someone, during, for example, the performance of a Beethoven symphony, telling you when, why and how he changed key at that moment, perhaps playing a bit of Haydn in the middle to illustrate the influences. The transcendent experience of the music would be totally lost. Curators seem to lack the courage to give works the room they need to speak for themselves. In other words they seem afraid to exercise their essential aesthetic judgement. In your arrangement (and this is very common, if not universal these days) the narrative swamps the work. It is impossible to sit in front of any single work and give it proper attention; the surrounding visual noise totally prevents this. Giving attention to works of art is an absolute essential to the experiencing of their qualities.

The one gallery which almost gets there is the second Henry Moore room, but even this is overcrowded with work – and people. When I visited, the room was swamped by a large and noisy group of students sitting on the floor and drawing the sculptures. These galleries should not be mistaken for classrooms. Education in art, essential though it is, should take place elsewhere. Some of the works in our galleries, if we truly value them, should be given due reverence and be there to be experienced, not learned about. The rooms would then become like secular chapels wherein the work can be viewed with utmost attention. If this sounds elitist, then so it is. The rewards of great art do not come easy and one can only experience their true significance if one is allowed to see and contemplate the work in an appropriate setting.

In short, I believe you have turned what could be a gallery of aestheitc objects into a museum of historic artefacts.

What is the solution? You obviously can’t place each painting in its own room! Nor do very many merit it. But I suggest that some rooms – several indeed – be put aside for the display of one artist’s work – either one work, or three at most – in rooms where the public can sit and give proper attention to them. It would be up to the curators to choose this selection and be brave enough to back it up. And leave out the labels – or put them nearby, but not adjacent. All the ‘education’ can be achieved by other more effective means.

My rule would be – separate the experience of the work from the analysis of it. They just do not mix. Perhaps Plato’s house of dreams would then be rebuilt.

I believe these issues to be of great importance to the nature of contemporary cultural experience and have implications beyond the visual arts. It is a symptom of an age where information takes precedence over a lived experience and thus produces a deadening weight rather than enlivening spring at the heart of our society.

An essay from my book ‘Essays and Images’ – The ends of art (click here to read) deals with all these matters in a slightly more expanded manner.

Yours sincerely,

Garry Kennard

Director

Art and Mind

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Tate Britain director’s reply. Garry Kennard’s response

16 December 2014

Dear Mr Kennard,

Having read your full and personal response to Tate Britain as it looks at the preset time, I am not sure if I quite know how to answer. Everyone obviously has a different view and different feelings about how art is displayed. What we tried to do in the chronological circuit was to take away a primary narrative based on interpretation and instead use a more neutral underlying chronology, which allowed works to be seen individually and not as part of a story. I’m sorry that this was not so apparent to you as in many ways from reading your letter it seems we have similar aspirations. To my mind the walkthrough no longer has any one narrative, but rather a cross section of works made at any one date. We have substantially reduced the amount of interpretation on the walls in the chronological circuit, so as to allow space for individual looking. I do appreciate that there may be more works in any one room than you would ideally like, but we get many more complaints about not showing enough of the collection, and we need to find a middle way. What we have tried to do however in the Spotlight series, is to focus on individual artists or topics in a more detailed way and on occasion, this can mean showing fewer worked with more space around them. I don’t know to what extent you have been able to see other Spotlights, but this is very much their intention.

I’m not sure in your comments whether you are referring primarily to the Late Turner exhibition, or to the collection displays, but even if it were related to the Turner exhibition, it seems to me that one of the strengths of this show is that it is not overtly didactic. We all of us like to see galleries in relative peace and quiet, but we also want tpmake sure that they are visited by new generations and indeed it is one of the requirements of government funding in that we should make sure that we are properly accessible to a large audience.

On the whole, I would say that the response to the new hang in 2013 has been positive and has seen it as more aesthetic and less didactic. I am sorry that it has not seemed that way to you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain

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5 January 2015

Dear Dr Curtis,

Thank you very much for your letter.

Since posting my letter to you on the Art and Mind website, I have received several very interesting and in some cases passionate responses. I have posted them on a separate page on the website which may be accessed from the home page at www.artandmind.org. I have also printed them out and attached them to this letter. At the same time I shall also post this present response. I appreciate that you will not have the time to develop this correspondence, so shall understand if this is where it stops. However, I believe, as I said in my first letter, that this topic is of a wider cultural importance than a straightforward critique of one gallery. You will note from the names of those who have responded that this is an issue that is in the minds of many people deeply involved in contemporary culture.

You say that you were unclear as whether I was referring to the gallery as a whole or just to the ‘Late Turner’ exhibition. I think I made it clear that my comments referred not only to the gallery as a whole but also to the display of art works universally. You did not comment on this wider issue.

You write that you wanted to ‘take away a primarily narrative based interpretation and use a more neutral underlying chronology’. It seems to me that by doing this you have actually imposed a mega-narrative on the collection, a story which demands be followed through. I believe your use of the words ‘walkthrough’ and ‘circuit’ (which sound more appropriate to a sports centre than an art gallery) reveal the idea that this is a story to be followed, and not a collection of images to be experienced and contemplated.

You suggest in your first paragraph that it would seem we have similar aspirations. I get the feeling that at the heart of it this is true. However, in your second paragraph you mention ‘we also want to make sure that (the collections) are visited by new generations and indeed it is one of the requirements of government funding that we are properly accessible to a large audience’. I think this is where we part company.

I would like to see those in charge of our nationally owned art institutions make a stand against this insistence on making the number of visitors (and perhaps revenue creation) and numbers receiving ‘education’ a bench mark for their success. I would like to hear them shout loudly that the ‘experience’ of art trumps all these imperatives. The current experience on offer at large exhibitions and galleries in general is not one of an aesthetic base but of tourism of the worst kind, where people go simply to say they have been. Why would anyone choose to go to some of the recent ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions? The experience is in the main deeply unpleasant and the exhibits almost impossible to see and engage with.

At some point, someone has to call a halt to this, as the application of the government directives you mention, no matter how noble in intent, would seem to be destroying the very reason for their being instigated in the first place. To stuff galleries with not only works but people is more like a ‘stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ philosophy. If it continues, we are in danger of losing the very reason for actually having cultural centres at all.

Perhaps a start might be made, as mentioned in my earlier letter, by creating spaces where single works of art can be viewed in peace – no headsets, no photography, no small children. It has been tried in part before – the Rothko Room is remembered by many as one of their more profound experiences of art in any gallery anywhere. This would not take much effort or finance to instigate as an experiement. Even if it turned out to be of limited taste – why not cater for a passionate minority?

As I have received some strong indications that this is a topic which many people feel needs airing I hope to bring this correspondence and the responses I have received to a wider audience. I believe some kind of public debate is warranted. I would be happy to discuss any such possibilities.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to reply to my letter. With all best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Garry Kennard, Director

Art and Mind

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This correspondence was first published on http://artandmind.org/ and is here re-published courtesy of Garry Kennard

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