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Tate Gallery perseveres with rotating the collections in face of mounting criticism

New antagonism for New Displays as visitor figures drop in London

When the Tate Gallery embarked upon its programme of annual reorganisation of the permanent collection in autumn 1989, it was hailed as a bold and novel decision through which the works of neglected artists buried in the museum’s extensive storage facilities might be brought to the surface. That part of the collection’s rotation has worked surprisingly well but it has necessitated the temporary removal to storage, or to its branch in Liverpool, of masterpieces which visitors expect to find on permanent view. A growing disenchantment with this policy, and with other developments at the museum, including the Turner Prize, reached a climax in an unsigned profile of director Nicholas Serota which was published in The Independent on 28 November 1992. Titled “The Tate’s continual revolutionary”, this unflattering portrait has been widely accepted as a fair criticism and is accompanied by a declining audience for the museum’s collection and exhibitions. Although attendance rose handsomely in Liverpool (from 550,734 visitors in 1991 to 597,258 in 1992) and at the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives (from 16,457 to 22,691), there was a disappointingly sharp drop at the museum’s Millbank headquarters last year (from 1,816,421 to 1,575,637), in spite of special exhibitions such as “Otto Dix” and “The Swagger Portrait”.

Against this rather uneasy background of changing critical perceptions, the museum opens “New Displays 1993” on 3 February, although the new arrangement of several galleries, including an exhibition of nine works of contemporary British art given by Charles Saatchi, was completed in mid-December. Those works include sculpture by Richard Deacon, Julian Opie, Grenville Davey and Richard Wentworth and a painting by Lisa Milroy and have been hung with recent purchases of contemporary art by Ashley Bickerton, Damien Hirst and other younger artists.

The most striking feature of “New Displays 1993” is the replacement of Richard Serra’s two iron sculptures with a new exhibition of sculpture in the Duveen Galleries. In the front, or south, gallery, Rodin’s popular marble sculpture, “The Kiss”, is retrieved from storage for the first time in four years and shown among nine bronze statues or studies loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, including casts of “The Age of Bronze” and “St John the Baptist”. Their foil in the north gallery is a selection of eight important Minimalist sculptures by Barnett Newman, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, represented by a magnesium floor sculpture and “Equivalent VIII”, the brick sculpture so much discussed by London’s taxi drivers. Epstein’s powerful alabaster group of “Jacob and the Angel”, loaned by Granada Television, is moved to the centre of the Rotunda where it will be surrounded by the four bronze relief casts of “The Back” by Matisse. There are special rooms illustrating the activities of the New English Art Club, with paintings by Stanhope Forbes and other Newlyn artists, Sickert, Philip Wilson Steer and William Orpen; of Cubism, in which loans from the Berggruen Collection and another private collections are added to works already owned by the museum; and of recent or new works by the masters of The School of London, including Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff, Hodgkin and Kitaj. Beckmann’s “Carnival” is juxtaposed with Picasso’s masterpiece of “The Three Dancers”, sharing a gallery with family or marriage portraits by Derain, Stanley Spencer and Cecil Collins. Carel Weight, a surprising choice, Ivon Hitchens, in the centenary of his birth, Adrian Stokes and Barbara Hepworth are given their own rooms. Two major contemporary art installations, gifts from The Patrons of New Art and the Cartier Foundation respectively, are “A Wartime Garden”, a stone sculpture by Ian Hamilton Finlay and “La Réserve des Suisses Morts” by Christian Boltanski.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'New antagonism for New Displays?'