MUSEUMS and galleries have announced their programmes for 1994, and as usual we have a mixed menu. Some shows will be of historical importance, others won't matter much except to the artists who contribute to them. There will be exhibitions that display new talent - not enough of them - and retrospectives by painters and sculptors who have done a lifetime's work. All in all, though, it strikes me that the dead will be more celebrated than the living. And that won't be because of piety. Big museums need big attendances and old household names attract crowds.
A good year, therefore, for people who like to study the Old Masters. From the end of this month the National Gallery hosts an exhibition by Claude. Nobody needs telling that it will be beautiful and will commemorate an artist of great significance. This 17th-century master made landscape an important genre, and did so with incomparable delicacy. But nobody ever says how repetitious he was; or how Claude's invention of safe and fastidious taste had a tyrannical influence over landscapists for a century after his death. Personally I relish Claude's all-too-infrequent excursions into bad taste, but I don't suppose that such paintings will be to the fore in the National Gallery.
Many artists find landscape frustrating because it is inherently anti-sculptural. Picasso was one: he hardly ever painted a landscape. A show at the Tate next month aims to establish him as the foremost sculptor of the century. Not an outrageous view but not common either, probably because he kept practically all of his three- dimensional work hidden in his own collection. Two decades after Picasso's death it's good to reassess his achievement as a sculptor. The Tate does this with about 90 works backed up with paintings, drawings and prints. I doubt we'll see anything as illuminating and exciting this year.
This is also the year of the Spanish Festival, which again has an emphasis on the Old Masters. At the National Gallery in March there is the revelation of a series of paintings by Zurbaran, Jacob and His Twelve Sons, loaned from the obscurity of Auckland Castle in Co Durham. Only Goya could beat such magnificent art, and the Royal Academy's leading show this year, also in March, is of 100 of his small-scale pictures. They take us from local Spanish concerns to the universal. Perhaps no other artist, not even Rembrandt, has ever suggested so much in so little space.
By contrast, there is that most factitious of Spanish artists, Salvador Dali, whose early years will be surveyed in March at the Hayward. Eroticism, insanity, the terrible course of contemporary history: these matters inspired Goya to tragic art, but Dali made them superficial entertainments. The exhibition will show how the young Catalan artist married violent and controversial subjects to an academic technique, becoming a leading figure in Surrealism. Later he was probably the most popular modern artist in the world. Dali is so dramatic that it's hard to see his real attributes. I think that, like many rebellious sons of the bourgeoisie, he wanted to preserve the status quo that indulged his rebellion. An exhibition that needs careful attention.
It is accompanied by a more adventurous show, 'The Possibility of Painting', selected by the painter and Time Out writer Adrian Searle. His brief is to present the latest trends in work on canvas around the world and to justify his choices. Exactly the kind of exhibition that we want from the Hayward, and now too seldom seen: fresh, international, controversial, and the selection of one committed individual.
Contemporary British art will continue to struggle to find its audience. The old commercial galleries, battered by recession, are cautious about new work. New galleries spring up, but they lack expertise and one doubts their staying power. Good new artists remain relatively new for a decade, and no dealers seem prepared to nurture them that long. This year we'll see many talented but unattached young artists at the excellent 'East' exhibition at the Norwich Gallery and in the welcome return of the Whitechapel Open. These are inclusive grassroots shows. Meanwhile, the publicly assisted avant-garde galleries are all faltering through lack of funds or vision. Visual Arts at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith has been closed down. The Serpentine was rescued from a government plan to turn the gallery into a riding school. The Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and Bristol's Arnolfini have lost the desire to originate high-class exhibitions. Birmingham's Ikon Gallery has a new sculpture show this month, 'Clean and Dirty', but its further plans are vitiated by rocky finances.
Ten years ago such galleries were the most exciting on the British art scene. The incoming chairman of the Arts Council, Lord Gowrie, ought to aid their reinvigoration. Otherwise we will have to doze over such shows as 'English Watercolours' at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, in May; or yet another Constable exhibition, this one showing only his drawings (Dulwich Picture Gallery, June); Venetian 18th-century art, yet again (Royal Academy, September); and posh collections borrowed wholesale from elsewhere, such as the pictures from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation in Winterthur (National Gallery, June).
We need challenging and original exhibitions, but our institutions are playing safe. Impoverished as they are, how can regional centres avoid being dominated by touring exhibitions devised by the bureaucrats of the South Bank Centre? Typical of their vision is the show devoted to that minor Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso, at the Whitechapel in February, then travelling to Edinburgh and Leeds in the spring and summer.
How I wish that the expanding exhibition business would produce some brilliant new highbrow impresario. The hope seems forlorn. You might expect such a person to orchestrate visual-arts events at the Edinburgh Festival, but Scottish museum directors would never allow space to a lively colleague. This year's big Scottish show will be 'The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990', at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in August and the Hayward in the autumn.
Some of the most satisfying exhibitions this year will be retrospectives. No fewer than 12 shows at different venues will mark Anthony Caro's 70th birthday. Look out for a very different artist, the introspective but politically conscious painter Rita Donagh, at the Camden Arts Centre in March. She's better than her husband Richard Hamilton, whom she has influenced for years. Veteran Pop artist Ron Kitaj will dominate the Tate with his life's work in June. And an older Anglo-American is also celebrated on Millbank in the autumn. James McNeill Whistler is a familiar name, but we're not properly intimate with his paintings and prints. Even seen together, they have an elusive quality - but I guess that this show will do what all exhibitions should, pin down and elucidate the best aspects of real fine art.
In this column on 9 Jan, there was a reference to the Ikon Gallery's finances. We have been asked to make clear that Ikon receives a substantial Arts Council grant. For the year ending March 1993 the gallery made a modest loss but this was covered by accumulated reserves. We apologise for any embarrassment caused.