Down by the river; EXHIBITIONS

The Hayward used to be one of London's finest public galleries. Without a permanent director, or any clear direction, it's now a shadow of its former self. What is to be done?

We should all be concerned about the plight of the Hayward Gallery. It's a fine place for showing art. The building hasn't had much of a press since it opened in 1968, but people who have enjoyed exhibitions there know that the interior galleries are flexible enough to accommodate work of all sorts and to enhance the qualities of the art on display. The record of Hayward exhibitions includes retrospectives of such modern masters as Rodin, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, etc, as well as shows devoted to the classic art of "Frescoes from Florence", Leonardo and Claude. The gallery has put on surveys of art from all over the world, and for years encouraged living British artists who might not otherwise have had the chance to exhibit on a grand scale.

All this is in danger. There is even talk that the Hayward might close. It has certainly been run down. Budgets are cut and the staff are in fear of redundancies. Above all, the exhibitions - without which the Hayward is nothing - are all disappointing. The fact is that the shows were better when organised by the old Arts Council, and that the decline of the Hayward began when control passed to the South Bank board in 1987. For a while, the same team (headed by ACGB veteran Joanna Drew) ran the gallery as before. Then, in 1992, Nicholas Snowman, chief executive of the South Bank, appointed Henry Meyric Hughes as director of the Hayward. Meyric Hughes (previously of the British Council) has many talents but no instinct for exhibitions. He should never have taken the job. Snowman accepted his resignation two months ago.

Both Snowman and Meyric Hughes have been silent about the debacle. The reticence is objectionable. For the Hayward of old felt for its public and responded to the art community. Ideas for shows came from good, imprecisely constituted, maybe over-large and certainly quarrelsome committees that included artists, critics, regional museum people and so on; and these committees were good precisely because they were so quarrelsome. They crackled with debate. And with proposals. For every 50 ideas put forward perhaps 10 were feasible as exhibitions. And then one or two materialised. But they were winners.

Today there's no such consultation. The people who chaired the committees - Lawrence Gowing, Bryan Robertson, David Sylvester - have no successors. No one associated with today's Hayward has their high distinction or international contacts. No wonder the gallery no longer brings in great exhibitions from abroad. As for the commitment to present-day British art - it has simply gone. The "Hayward Annuals", tremendously controversial and interesting, used to tell everyone what was going on. They were discontinued, with the weak excuse that they had done their work, and nothing has replaced them.

What is to be done? I expect they will bring in yet more management consultants. The crisis at the Hayward affects more than the visual arts because the gallery is part of the whole South Bank strategy. Would that it were "free- standing" and had its own trustees! But now the Hayward depends on the success of Richard Rogers' ambitious schemes for the South Bank, which would give the gallery the new service areas it badly requires. And the Rogers scheme depends on Lottery money. But would not the bid for Lottery funding be more effective if the South Bank showed more determination about the Hayward's future? The post of director won't even be advertised until the summer.

Last week the front runners for the job began to emerge, though no one yet has made a declaration. They include Susan Brades, the present acting director, known for her managerial capacities; Catherine Lampert of the Whitechapel Gallery, who has capably organised many Hayward shows; and David Elliott, who has spent 20 successful years building up the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. But Elliott was pipped by Meyric Hughes last time round and may not apply again. Present favourite is Julia Peyton- Jones, renowned as a fund-raiser who has made the Serpentine Gallery into a showbusiness venue. Watch out for Teresa Gleadowe, who runs a trendy art-curating course at the RCA and lives with Tate director Nicholas Serota. Richard Cork, the establishment-minded critic of the Times, is also mentioned.

Such people are in their late forties or fifties. Younger curators are not attracted by the Hayward. Cannier by far, they think, to wait for the opportunities when the Tate expands to Bankside. This career-making among curators is a legacy of the Thatcher years and is not an attractive sight. Possibly a change of government might be helpful to the Hayward and art administration in general. Mark Fisher, shadow spokesman on the arts, says, "The Labour Party wants to see London as a centre of innovative contemporary art and the Hayward is central to that strategy." Then he adds, "but it does depend on the success of Richard Rogers' redesign". And so we're back to Lottery hopes. Meanwhile, the specific and immediate needs of the Hayward are not addressed.

Hayward Gallery, South Bank, SE1 (0171 960 4208).

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