Small is beautiful in this age of austerity

The director of the National Gallery tells Arifa Akbar why blockbuster exhibitions are a thing of the past

For the past decade, the nation's biggest museums have relied on blockbuster exhibitions featuring numerous well-loved masterpieces to attract visitors.

But now a leading director is urging galleries to rethink the way in which major shows are staged by offering up a single work of art rather than the usual rooms crammed full of gilt-framed Monets, Turners and Caravaggios.

Dr Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, who has previously criticised the growth of blockbuster exhibitions that offer up major artists, is advocating recession austerity for 2009 with exhibitions consisting of a single work of art.

Entrance prices should fall to as low as £1, he argues. "I think there are a great many works of art that could benefit from isolation," he said, adding that in some cases numerous images shown together, such as in some exhibitions that focused on religious works, could be off-putting.

"There's something comical about having a line-up of the Virgin and Child. It's not a beauty competition. These religious works of art would gain from being shown in isolation, because it re-emphasises their sacred purpose," he said.

This policy could also be a way to bypass the gloom of recession, he said, which will bring with it a reduced ability for gallery directors to buy new works or take out expensive loans from abroad with which to fund shows.

"We have to find new ways of staging exhibitions, especially in this present economic climate, with rising transport and insurance costs in loaning works of art.

"There is increasing competition for the number of exhibitions and the opportunity to have them. I would like to stage one- or two-picture exhibitions in the future, although that is not want I would want to do exclusively."

Visitors, he added, might better appreciate a work of art if it was hung in this singular way.

One example was the special exhibition currently at the gallery that consisted of two works by Titian.

The pieces have been brought down to London from the National Galleries of Scotland as part of a £50m fundraising campaign.

The show, Dr Nicholas said, had not only attracted extraordinary crowds, but public attendance had lasted longer, with visitors standing in front of the paintings for considerable lengths of time, sketching the works or debating their merits.

"It has been one of the most successful things this year. It was a 'two- picture exhibition', just two works in one room, and it was a major event which drew incredible numbers of people.

"It is about learning to look at one picture and that is what people did, they stood for a long time and looked, puzzled over it, drew it, argued about it. Even if we don't acquire the painting – which we are on the brink of doing – we can say that the exhibition has been the most tremendous success."

Dr Nicholas hopes to stage some 19th-century British painting exhibitions consisting of one or two major pieces of work from that era, which he feels was "greatly under-represented" at the gallery.

Major pieces by painters including David Wilkie and William Mulready would be exhibited in isolation.

"It would focus on an original type of landscape that came out of 19th-century painting," he said.

The solo picture shows would be less expensive than usual exhibitions, costing visitors as little as £1 per visit.

Next year, a single, large-scale installation by Kienholz, Hoerengracht, will go on show alongside an exhibition of religious sculptures from Spain, called The Sacred Made Real, which Dr Nicholas said would be "sparsely displayed", as well as works by Picasso in February.

Dr Sir Nicholas said one of the most successful episodes in the history of the gallery had been its "single-picture" shows during and after the Second World War.

"The smaller pictures were coming back from storage to the National and people had been starved of paintings. Only one masterpiece would come back at a time and be shown. This was the most famous episode for the gallery."

Blockbusters: When size was everything

*From Russia: French and Russian Paintings 1870-1925

Royal Academy, 2008

Some 400,000 visitors enjoyed a fabulous collection of 120 mostly pre-revolutionary works.

*The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army

British Museum, 2007

It featured the largest consignment of China's precious terracotta figures ever to leave the country – a dozen warriors plus musicians, acrobats and court officials. Nearly 100,000 tickets were sold before the exhibition had opened.

*Mario Testino: Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, 2002

A display including the last official photographs of the Princess of Wales drew in people who would not normally visit an art gallery.

*Monet in the 20th Century

Royal Academy, 1999

Costing £1.8m and accompanied by massive hype, it drew in 800,000, beating the record set by the previous Monet exhibition in 1990.

*Treasures of Tutankhamun

British Museum, 1972

The most popular exhibition ever held in a British museum, it featured a wealth of artefacts from the tomb of the former boy king andattracted 1.7 million visitors.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam