A general has to know when to retreat tactically in order to win the campaign, and Alan Borg, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, should now give up on his £50 million bid for the Arts Council Lottery money to build the £70 million Libeskind extension. All the political signs point towards a defeat there, and far more important to the future of the V&A is the rebuilding and redisplay of the British Galleries (for which he needs £23 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund), which contribute vastly—and at present deleteriously—to the impression the museum makes on its visitors.
Since the Lottery money began to flow three years ago, huge grants have been made: to the Tate at Millbank, the British Museum Court, the Opera House, the Millennium Dome itself. Now, after £1 billion has been distributed, the wind has changed: the grands projets spirit is over; the Lottery funds are now more for the ordinary people all over the country. The government’s aim is to redeem the needy and under-educated. Eric Anderson, the new chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, last month said that only £70 million will be set aside this year for projects over £5 million, and while the Arts Council has not pronounced in this regard yet, its management is just as in tune with this government’s aims to democratise the Lottery proceeds.
It was a bold idea to commission Libeskind for the V&A, and it showed a sophisticated appreciation of the stimulating contribution modern architects have been making to established museums, but unfortunately this project is not so overwhelmingly necessary (a vital scheme, for example, is the British Museum Court after the British Library moved out) as to overwhelm the conjoncture against it. The longer the V&A goes on planning this project, the more energy it will waste and the greater the danger of planning blight. With only 1.04 million visitors in 1997 to this wonderful treasure house, that energy can certainly be better spent. And the Victoria & Albert Museum should not delude itself that the Libeskind building would solve the attendance problem for them.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘No go V&A Libeskind'